Oct. 9, 2013 at 8:11 AM ET
I can tell that I'm in another "XCOM" game because minutes into the preview level I'm playing for "Enemy Within," the new expansion pack out Nov. 12, half of my squad of elite super-soldiers is dead and the other half is scattered across the map, hopelessly outflanked but still waiting on my orders for some reason. Ananda Gupta, the game's senior designer, is sitting next to me as I struggle to salvage what's left of my team and complete the mission.
The task at hand is to rescue one of my spies from behind enemy lines, but as the situation continues to deteriorate with each passing turn, I'm not sure if I'm going to bring anyone back to the base, let alone the guy carrying all of the enemy intel.
"So after I've hacked into all of the enemy computers, is it OK if my spy dies then?" I asked him, admittedly embarrassed.
"Unfortunately no," Gupta said. "He sort of has VIP status for the rest of the mission."
I look back at the screen, no idea how to proceed.
When it comes to video games about fighting space aliens, you can't get much better than "XCOM: Enemy Unknown." Developer Firaxis and publisher 2K Games took a gamble in 2012 when they decided to make one of their biggest titles of the year a remake of a cult PC gaming hit that was best known for punishing its fans with its brutal difficulty. But in the end, it paid off — winning numerous accolades including "Game of the Year" awards from influential gaming blogs like Kotaku and Giant Bomb. GameSpy credited it with singlehandedly making turn-based strategy games, which had come to be seen as a relic of PC gaming's past, "cool again."
Now just over a year after "Enemy Unknown" was first released, Firaxis is updating "XCOM" with "Enemy Within," a not-quite-sequel that adds a number of standard elements such as new maps, types of soldiers, and different aliens to fight.
If you're a fan of "XCOM," none of these will disappoint. But my personal favorite is a non-alien enemy known as Exalt, which Gupta described as a "paramilitary organization" of humans that met Earth's invasion by alien forces not exactly with open arms, but something of a sideways glance. Rather than joining forces with the rest of humanity in the XCOM mission, Exalt wants to get out of the aliens' way, which they do by undermining the player at every available turn.
This adds a fresh level of strategic and tactical depth to XCOM's gameplay. While previously you had to only keep your eye out for oncoming alien attacks, in "Enemy Within" you have to remain wary of other blips on the world map indicating an Exalt base has been set up somewhere on the globe. These bases slowly undermine XCOM operations by stealing your resources, raising the global panic level about the alien attacks, and generally causing extra mayhem. When you find one (a task unto itself), you have to send a spy in on a "covert ops" mission, which Gupta described as a new kind of level unique to "Enemy Within." While missions in "Enemy Unknown" revolved around an almost identical set of goals — go into an area, destroy all the aliens in that area, repeat — these extraction levels shake things up by requiring you to safely extract a spy while simultaneously being pitted against a group of equally well-armed and clever human opponents.
It's not revolutionary, sure. But for what many gamers considered to be the best game of 2012, it doesn't really need to be.
"The idea for an expansion back is: give people more of what they want," Gupta said. "For a sequel, you want to surprise them."
Which brings me back to the mission at hand, where I'm flanked by a new and ruthlessly efficient type of enemy artificial intelligence that seemed to anticipate my every move. Eventually, I give up on trying to defeat all of the bad guys and send my remaining troops sprinting back to the drop ship, hoping that they'd make it far enough away in each turn to avoid enemy fire.
Somehow, I manage to bring my spy back in one piece. I can't say the same for the rest of my team, however.
Yannick LeJacq is a contributing writer for NBC News who has also covered technology and games for Kill Screen, The Wall Street Journal and The Atlantic. You can follow him on Twitter at @YannickLeJacq and reach him by email at: Yannick.LeJacq@nbcuni.com.