"Commander, our intelligence sources indicate that a previously unknown organization is attempting to undermine XCOM field operations. We believe this group harbors some misguided sympathies for the invaders and is intent on acquiring alien technology and artifacts critical to your efforts. Early reports indicate this organization calls itself EXALT. We trust you will isolate the source of this new threat, and eliminate it."
This briefing from the council was all I had to go on before squaring off against XCOM: Enemy Within's newest foe: EXALT. This group of traitors--as central officer Bradford described them--is a paramilitary secret society with aspirations of world domination once the aliens have finished genetically "perfecting" humanity. "They've had their eyes to the stars for many years now," explained senior game designer Ananda Gupta, "and now that the alien invasion is here, EXALT's reaction is 'Bring 'em on!'"
"EXALT is something I feel complements the alien invasion very well," Gupta added. "The invasion is still center stage, but now you have this other opponent that is not necessarily working with the aliens--but is certainly not working with XCOM--and you have to deal with them in a very different way."
If left to its own devices, EXALT will--starting in May--launch operations in various countries to interfere with XCOM's activities. This harassment comes in three flavors: propaganda, which increases panic; sabotage, which drains some of your money; and research hack, which disrupts your current research project. The amount of panic increase, money loss, and time wasted depends on, among other factors, your difficulty level.
Once you've had enough of EXALT's shenanigans, it's time to bring the hammer down. The only problem is figuring out where said hammer falls. EXALT is a shadowy organization that enjoys operating in secret. To locate one of its cells, you can either wait for EXALT to strike, accept the penalty, and retaliate, or spend a little cash to conduct an intel sweep of Earth that will automatically reveal any EXALT cells currently in hiding. Of course, there is a limit to how often these scans can happen, so use them wisely.
In either case, once an EXALT cell is exposed, you have only a few days to react before it goes back into hiding. Removing that cell means volunteering one of your soldiers to infiltrate EXALT's ranks and schmooze with the terrorists for a few days. That part is easy; the hard part comes a few days later when that agent radios home for extraction. Now you have the option to send in your XCOM team, fight the traitors, and bring your soldier home safe--or abandon him and lose the reward. This is also the part of the game I had the chance to play.
The mission I played was a covert data recovery mission, one of the two randomly assigned EXALT mission types. It's a bit like king of the hill in that the bad guys are trying to capture and hold a point on the map, and you're trying to stop them (by shooting them). If the enemies are successful in capturing the first point, a second becomes active, and the process starts anew. Lose that one, and EXALT takes the cake.
And let me tell you something: those EXALT troopers are a group of grade-A jerks. Slacks and suspenders aside, these boys must have just returned from a corporate retreat because synergy is their primary tactic. EXALT troops will heal each other using medikits, cover their own with smoke grenades, and gleefully fire rockets into that one car you decided to stick all of your guys behind because it had really good line of sight and you're also an idiot. They're the worst.
If you're not like me and successfully complete an EXALT mission, you will be awarded a clue as to the whereabouts of the group's headquarters, which is randomly hidden in one of the game's countries. Once you have completed three missions--and collected three clues--you can attempt a raid on the bad guys' evil lair, but you won't be able to pinpoint with 100 percent accuracy which country actually houses EXALT HQ.
Why should you care? Well, let's say you bust into Germany unannounced and don't find a global terrorist organization's secret headquarters, that's going to be pretty awkward. So awkward, in fact, that the country you mistakenly raided will instantly withdraw from the XCOM program. Whoops.
When dealing with the EXALT threat, you control the tempo of these encounters. Do you wait for a cell to strike before smacking it down? Do you take a more proactive (and expensive) approach by using intel scans? Or do you ignore these traitors entirely? According to Gupta, if the alien invasion is like fending off an avalanche, then dealing with EXALT is more akin to a fencing match. Both parties are on equal footing (initially, at least), and how you deal with EXALT, if at all, is entirely up to you.
If you have a question about EXALT, the new MEC trooper class, or any of the other new features in XCOM: Enemy Within, be sure to leave it in the comments section below. Your question could be featured in next Monday's (10/14) episode of Ask GameSpot!