Covert Ops and the alien-loving wackjobs of ‘XCOM: Enemy Within’

the covert ops and alien loving misfits of xcom enemy within ew exalt covertops screen1

XCOM: Enemy Within puts an unfriendly new human face on a familiar conflict. The alien invasion plot that forms the story in 2012’s XCOM: Enemy Unknown is still very much the focus, but an assortment of additional bits and pieces establish a new, complementary threat in EXALT (which doesn’t stand for anything; think “XCOM-Alternative”). This deranged pro-alien faction of humans opposes XCOM’s efforts using its global network of secret cells, so while you’re beating back the alien advance in Enemy Within, you’ll also find yourself struggling to deal with… uh… the enemy within. 

We witnessed this firsthand in a recent look at XCOM: Enemy Within‘s antagonistic EXALT faction and the new Covert Ops gameplay they bring to Firaxis’ refresh of its 2012 series reboot.

Story/Concept

The nutball revolution. Most rational minds might view a global alien invasion as a bad thing, but EXALT is not filled out by rational minds. The wackos of this anti-XCOM organization welcome their potential alien overlords with open arms, convinced that the extraterrestrials offer salvation in the form of genetic modifications. It seems that EXALT has a fairly specific picture of perfection for the human race, and the alien newcomers have the potential to realize that. Sure, their method for engineering the perfect human includes a process that would wipe out most of Earth’s population, but omelettes and eggs, people. Omelettes and eggs.

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That other secret war. EXALT is built on the same foundation that most terrorist networks embrace, with sleeper cells scattered across the world. While XCOM’s front-line forces meet the alien invaders wherever they appear, select troops also head off on covert ops missions that are designed to de-stabilize EXALT’s influence and, eventually, uncover the whole pro-invasion operation’s headquarters. Think of it as a subplot that helps to color the larger story returning from Enemy Unknown. It doesn’t fundamentally change any of the existing story beats, existing instead to justify the new heaps of gameplay.

Gameplay

The hidden enemy. Covert Ops begins in the Situation Room. In addition to monitoring the panic level in each of the game’s Council countries, you can now see when an EXALT cell is active via a new icon that appears next to a nation’s name. Players also have the option of spending a little scratch to scan the globe, in the hopes of ferreting out a hidden cell before it activates.

Once an EXALT cell is active, it will bring a destabilizing influence to bear on the part of the world that it’s operating in. So, for example, an EXALT propaganda effort in Egypt may result in raised panic levels that push the country toward leaving the council completely. Once you’ve got an EXALT cell pinned down – either when it reveals itself or when you track one down via scanning – you get to choose a single troop from your roster to send off on a covert mission. 

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Humans hunting humans. The covert missions themselves are unplayable. It works a little like a research project; you pick a trooper to be your covert operative, outfit him or her with gear (there’s a pistols-only weapons limitation), and then wait while the operation plays out. Once it’s done, you’ll send a proper XCOM fighting force out on one of two different types of new missions that are playable: Covert Extraction or Covert Data Recovery. 

Covert Extraction is all about getting your chosen agent out of enemy territory safely. Your fully armed and armored XCOM squad spawns across the map from your unarmored, pistol-wielding operative. The goal is to secure a pair of communications arrays, get to your soldier, and get everyone to the extraction point, all while fending off EXALT forces. Covert Data Recovery, on the other hand, involves hunkering down in a “king of the hill”-style setting in which you defend a fixed point against waves of enemies.

The human element is what’s neat about both of these mission types. Unlike the other engagements in XCOM: Enemy Within that are carbon-copied from Enemy Unknown, you’re fighting humans rather than extraterrestrials. Usual concerns like capturing specimen, preserving corpses, and gathering valuable equipment don’t apply here. Downed EXALT troops leave behind their weapons, but it’s easier to justify using explosives and other destructive weapons in Covert Ops since growing your supply of resources is a lesser concern.

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Ending the war on terror. There is a singular goal that carries through all Covert Ops outings: find EXALT’s home base and shut it down permanently. Every mission you take on and successfully complete yields new hints about the location of the terror network’s headquarters. There’s a bit of a puzzle to solve in this, with each text-based clue obtained painting a clearer picture of the HQ’s location. You can actually make an accusation once you’ve got at least three clues, though you’ll want to be very sure about your target since an incorrect answer results in the targeted country leaving the Council for good.

Presentation

Nothing to see here. Other than some new assets and character models, there’s really nothing to separate the presentation of Enemy Within from Enemy Unknown. Neither game is built to deliver the sort of searing eye candy that blockbuster franchises like Grand Theft Auto reach for, but the look suits the gameplay. With the exception of some redesigned aspects of the user interface – stuff like the new Covert Ops layer in the Situation Room – and the addition of some new Council nations, Enemy Within is almost identical to 2012’s game. As it should be. 

Takeaway

XCOM: Enemy Within sits in a strange place as a holiday 2013 release. It amounts to a massive makeover of a game released just one year ago; for all of the new content here, the core is still identical to what it was in Enemy Unknown. It’s an approach that has worked for Firaxis before with the Civilization series’ expansion packs, but will it work here with this more linear, story-driven game? That remains to be seen, but we’ll get to find out when XCOM: Enemy Within comes to PC/Mac, PlayStation 3, and Xbox 360 on November 15, 2013. 

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