XCOM: Enemy Within isn't just Us vs Them. Firaxis' massive expansion is set to introduce a brand new human enemy faction, Exalt, who wreak havoc around the globe unless you hunt them down and rip their shadowy organisation to pieces.
After successfully managing to defeat one of their cells in our hands-on preview, but taking two losses in the process, I sat down with lead designer Ananda Gupta for a lively chat about what Exalt bring to the XCOM storyline and gameplay experience.
Jonathan Lester (Dealspwn): We've finally met The Enemy Within: Exalt, the new human enemy faction. Can you tell us about them? What's their deal? What's their objective?
Ananda Gupta (Firaxis): Exalt is a paramilitary secret society. Their goal is to subvert, infiltrate and overthrow the council and to seize control of alien technology; to seize this power. In this way, they're opposed completely to XCOM.
Visually, they look kinda dapper. They could be anyone, they could be walking down the street next to you, be at your job, but when they get the call, they go to their secret compartment and - whoosh! Ready to go. They prefer to wage their campaign against XCOM not in the open, but from the shadows. They place covert cells around the globe that XCOM can hunt down using intelligence scans. They'll prepare operations to launch against XCOM; things like propaganda to increase panic, sabotage to go after your credit reserves and research hacks to go after your research.
Dealspwn: If left unchecked, what kind of damage can Exalt do?
Ananda Gupta: They can do a lot of damage unchecked! If you don't keep the number of cells under control, the panic problem in the world can get out of hand very easily. Those propaganda operations can be very dangerous politically, and of course, hidden cells also have a passive effect whereby negative panic events -- things that increase panic -- are made worse by the presence of an Exalt cell. Leaving them unchecked can be a very risky proposition.
Dealspwn: Well, I for one won't be leaving them to their own devices...
Ananda Gupta: Good for you!
Dealspwn: ...thanks? Erm, yes, so fighting against them is a very different experience from fighting against the extraterrestrials.
Ananda Gupta: They definitely are. They have a 'Squadbrain,' well, they have squad behaviour that's different from how the aliens work. Their medics use defensive smoke, snipers look for height advantage, the heavies will call their targets and use rockets -- so the heavies are very dangerous in that respect -- but they all combo together in ways that feel very different.
Dealspwn: I definitely noticed that during the demo - I was locking things down nicely until an Exalt squad blew the wall open, killed my Assault trooper and advanced under smoke cover. That was... annoying, to be quite honest with you!
Ananda Gupta: Haha, glad to hear it!
Dealspwn: What was the thinking behind adding a third faction?
Ananda Gupta: Narrative-wise, story-wise, it made sense to add a human faction to highlight the fact that it's not simply humanity against the aliens, it's not united humanity fighting together against the aliens. There are forces at work that see opportunity.
From a gameplay point of view, it made sense to add a more back-and-forth style strategy gameplay where you're fighting back-and-forth with the Exalt cells. You can go here, go there, use intel scans, how often are you going to use Covert Ops? Covert Ops only happen if you want them to, right? It's not like other missions that pop up, and it's your choice to respond or not, but you don't initiate them. Whereas Covert Ops are initiated by you. So it was an opportunity to bring new gameplay to the strategy layer where the player has more control over the tempo.
Dealspwn: It was also refreshing to play a fully-defensive game mode, too.
Ananda Gupta: Yeah, the covert data recovery is a really fun new gameplay mode, the defence of intel assets from Exalt capture. Exalt takes those objectives seriously, they really try to get guys into those capture zones, tries to knock you out of them and, in general, make an absolute pain of themselves in these missions!
Dealspwn: They really did, but they weren't quite expecting my gas grenades. Thanks for giving us a couple of those!
Ananda Gupta: You're welcome. The Gas grenades are especially fun because you can turn the tables with the poison.
Dealspwn: You can't hack terminals without Oxygen, that's how I see it.
Ananda Gupta: Ah, but that said, Exalt medics are immune to the gas. They have medkits!
Dealspwn: Damn. I'll remember that. Will see Exalt wielding more exotic alien weaponry throughout the campaign? Do they evolve and improve?
Ananda Gupta: Exalt upgrades. Later in the game, Exalt upgrades into Exalt Elites. Exalt Elites have better weapons, better training, better genetic modifications including some genetic modifications that are even a little sketchy for Doctor Vahlen, where even she won't go. So Exalt definitely upgrades in terms of challenge.
Dealspwn: As I understand it, you'll be able to strike against the Exalt's main base once you secure enough intel - and accuse a country of harbouring them. How does that play out?
Ananda Gupta: Every Covert Op you complete, you get an Exalt intel piece. The intel pieces are clues in the form of things like, "the Exalt base is not in North America." "The Exalt base is not in an English speaking country." So in this way, you narrow down the list of countries that could potentially host Exalt. Once you have three clues we start letting you accuse countries. If you are wrong about an accusation, then that country will leave the Council immediately.
If you're right, you can launch a raid against the Exalt headquarters and defeat them. Very conservative players will of course want to get all the clues they can, so that they will be guaranteed to be right. But they may not have that luxury. It's up to the situation and the player.
Dealspwn: Beyond keeping your infrastructure and the world itself secure, are there any other rewards and benefits for fighting Exalt?
Ananda Gupta: Covert Ops also give money. The amount of money, for Covert Data Recovery in particular, is based on whether you save both of the intel assets or just one.
Dealspwn: Will Exalt have their own narrative and storyline tying them together? Will we learn more about them or are they more of a faceless threat?
Ananda Gupta: They're more of a mysterious threat, but you can definitely make some inferences from their base. When you go in their base, you'll definitely notice a few things... it will be interesting to see what players make of that when they scrutinise it.
Another thing is that Exalt plays a role in Operation Progeny, which is a side-plot set of missions that's in Enemy Within. It starts in month two, in April, and continues on later in the game. I think Operation Progeny is a neat story tie-in for Exalt as well.
Dealspwn: The release and pricing is interesting. As I understand it, Enemy Within will launch as DLC on PC, but will only be available on consoles as part of a brand new retail edition. What was the thinking behind that decision?
Ananda Gupta: Well, with the consoles, obviously we don't want our players to have to swap discs. If we're going to give you one disc, it doesn't make sense to say, "we're going to check your entitlement to the previous game," if everything is on the disc. We might as well make everything standalone, especially because the number of improvements, tunings and tweaks that we've made to Enemy Within involve such deep changes to the codebase that the download and the content list would be very large.
That made it fairly impractical as a DLC, we didn't want to say to players, "hey here's this eleven-Gig DLC," you know. So I think that was mostly the driving force. The fact that other games have done console expansion packs that are standalone was also helpful for us. It's not common, of course, but we're still trying to make sure that our console fans have access to the game.
Dealspwn: On a personal note, that damn deployment music has been rattling around in my head for an entire year now. Apparently Enemy Within will include some new and remixed tracks to listen to?
Ananda Gupta: There is some new music, yeah. So Covert Ops have their own tracks -- I don't know if you noticed, but the music in Covert Ops Missions is different -- and obviously the cinematics have music support. We didn't do a full re-imagining of the original soundtrack.
Did you hear the deployment music during the Covert Operative selection? It's a different track. It's a riff; the selection of the Covert Operative has a musical riff that's different, it's more of a spy, a little more understated theme. It's the understated secret version of the big 'let's go' track.
Dealspwn: Now you mention it, there was a bit less of the crazy epic drumming. That's my favourite bit, though.
Ananda Gupta: Excellent!
Dealspwn: You've been hard at work on Enemy Unknown and Enemy Within, but I'm sure a lot of people want to know: would you be interested in taking on the XCOM franchise again, perhaps a full sequel?
Ananda Gupta: I would love to. I would love to work on another XCOM game. What we do and how we continue stuff like that really is a conversation between us and 2K. Depending on how well XCOM: Enemy Within is received, that might have some influence on the direction on the franchise. So yeah, we're definitely looking for that conversation to continue. This is the kind of game I love to make, and I'd love to be working on another one.
XCOM: Enemy Within releases for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 on November 15th in Europe.