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Discovering XCOM's Enemy Within With Ananda Gupta

Finding new ways to punch aliens off dams.

XCOM: Enemy Within isn’t a sequel, but rather a huge and game-changing expansion pack. I can only guess that they’re saving Terror from the Deep for another day, but with the amount of fresh content being added on top of last year’s well-received reboot, it might feel like this is a sequel. It is, after all, coming as a stand-alone expansion pack.

It’s something which I asked Ananda Gupta (Lead Designer on the expansion) about at Gamescom, a fortnight ago.

“At Firaxis we like to do expansions, you know? Civilization has had great success with expansions and it made a lot of sense in XCOM as well.” Ananda explained.

“We wanted to add a lot of new stuff to the alien invasion that you face, so XCOM: Enemy Within is not a prequel and it’s not a follow-on; we’ve taken an approach very similar to the Civilization expansions.

“There you start off in the Stone Age, and you head towards the near future, but now with Gods & Kings you have religion, and with Brave New World you have culture and ideology and so forth. Here we have the same alien invasion, but we’ve added Mec Troopers, we’ve added genetically modified soldiers, the new enemy Mectoid and lots of new maps. It’s expanded all elements of the game.”

As the narrated gameplay demonstration — which was publicly released a couple days ago — revealed, these changes are not insignificant at all.

The addition of Mec Troopers alone would have given a sizeable leap in the gameplay possibilities. These hulking suits of armour have not just the ability to carry much heavier weapons, but can also destroy scenery with their Collateral Damage ability, and quite hilariously punch aliens with a rocket powered fist. In the demo, he sent an alien Sectoid off a dam.

But they live alongside the new Gene Mod troops, which allow you to enhance a soldier with a much more powerful jump, let them reverse psionic attacks back on your foes and likely much, much more. They look a lot more gung-ho, on the battlefield, turning up with visibly different and less bulky armour — in the demo they’re basically showing in armoured vests.

The interplay between these two new additions in an intriguing one, but I wondered how much they could be combined, and how they integrate with existing abilities.

“It’s half and half, so mechs are their own thing, and a Mec Trooper cannot be genetically modified, nor can he or she be Psi tested,” Ananda clarified. “Someone who’s already psionically gifted cannot become a mech trooper, but genetic modifications stack with Psi.

“These two paths are qualitatively different in that respect. Mech suits are very expensive, both in terms of resources and in terms of Meld, which is the new resource we’ve added to the game. So you’ll probably only get enough Meld to get one or two Mec Troopers up to full potential, but the Gene Mods are broad, they are something where you could get your whole squad modified for the same amount of Meld [as two fully powered mechs].

“I think players who want to spread out the benefit may feel more inclined towards Gene Mods, and the players who want one or two very powerful units will go for mech troopers, though that has its own risks.”

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Indeed it does, and when I dropped in and played a quick mission, I found out quite quickly that mechs are far from invincible.

I pushed forward quite quickly, with my mechs leading the way, and quickly came into contact with not one, not two but three of the newest addition to the alien invasion: the Mectoid.

Simply, the aliens needed something that could really go toe to toe with a Mec Trooper, and putting a Sectoid into an alien mech suit was the best solution. These guys are really tough, and in tandem with other powerful alien units, will cause you a lot of trouble on the battlefield.

I found myself overexposed, and lost a few too many of my troops, with the two mech troopers going down under some concentrated fire. Was this a concerted effort from the aliens to take out my most valuable troops?

Ananda cleared this one up, saying, “They like to go after enemies that they have a good shot at, and because mechs don’t use cover, they’re easier to hit on the battlefield. They have a built in defence bonus, but they’re generally easier to hit.

“Of course, people who are first using mechs tend to throw their mechs forward, and straight into the front line. Mechs are good at that, but they’re not invulnerable…

“The other thing is that, to have a soldier in a mech, he has to become a mech trooper, and you convert a soldier, who will lose their old class, though they get a bonus ability based on what their old class was, but they have a full training tree, and in that tree, there are options that will improve the survivability of mechs.

“So, they can become even tougher and more damage resistant, and I think players will learn that if you don’t take those abilities or only in the Mech 1, which already has very good armour, they must adapt.”

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The mission itself was on a new map, a farmyard in which a UFO had crashed. This in and of itself was a nice contrast to the limited variations in Enemy Unknown, but on these maps there are now these Meld points to pick up.

This is a new unit of currency, a valuable by perishable resource which can be found in a handful of canisters, spread out on the map. You need to get to them quite quickly after spotting them, as they will only have a small number of turns before they explode. It will force players to make certain choices to rush out into the open to get the Meld and risk taking heavy damage, or play it safe and maybe not take as much back to base.

I asked Ananda about how this will tie in with the various mission types, and if it opens the door to new twists on the objectives.

He responded with the carefully short, “Meld shows up in abduction missions, landed UFOs and crashed UFOs, so the majority of our missions. We are looking forward to making further announcements about other missions.”

There’s a lot of new content which I saw and I feel it opens the game up to a lot of exciting new gameplay opportunities. Where you might have found certain repetition in Enemy Unknown, there is a wealth of new maps set to appear, and with new unit types, weapons and enemies the game will have a lot more to see and do. So much so that they’ve decided the only possible way to deliver it to console owners is as a stand-alone expansion.

But I finished my interview with Ananda by asking him the one burning question which is surely on the tip of everyone’s tongue: will this finally explain how The Bureau is set in the 1960s, but by 2015 everyone has forgotten about the alien threat?

“So, we have definitely updated the database a little! Sharp eyed fans will see in the database backstory call outs and hints to, perhaps, previously destroyed records and so forth that have been recovered. There are some other call outs to The Bureau in our game, that I think, again, sharp eyed players will enjoy.”

When I pushed him about whether we might see something more overt and obvious, he followed a somewhat pensive pause with, “Um… How about, maybe try naming a soldier?”

I might see you in November, Agent Carter.

Thanks to Ananda Gupta for taking the time to talk to us in what was no doubt a very hectic few days at Gamescom!

2 Comments
  1. RocketSOL
    Member
    Since: Oct 2008

    Great read. Looking forward to this expansion. These guys really make you work hard in XCOM to get anything! Just when I thought I could stomp around with several mechs, the chances are I won’t have that many. Bugger!

    Comment posted on 05/09/2013 at 18:07.
  2. pdannysan13
    Member
    Since: Mar 2013

    I cannot wait for this, I am having a thrill playing XCOM on my PS3 thank to PS+.
    Really want to see all the small changes but also those mechs…

    Comment posted on 05/09/2013 at 18:13.

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