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'XCOM: Enemy Within' — Preview

The "XCOM" series has always excelled at one thing: letting you construct a multinational crew of specialists and pit it against aliens in turn-based strategic combat. "XCOM: Enemy Within," the upcoming expansion for "XCOM: Enemy Unknown," will take the series into new territory by pitting players against human foes.

The "XCOM" series debuted in 1994, but went on a long hiatus from 2001 to 2012. The gameplay fundamentals in the series have not changed much in the last 19 years, though. The Earth is under attack by varied alien forces, and it's up to the player to build a base and conscript soldiers from all around the world to fight back.

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Tom's Guide recently had a chance to preview "XCOM: Enemy Within," and learn the ins and outs of how fighting militant humans differs from — and complements — protecting the Earth from an alien invasion. Like its predecessors, "XCOM: Enemy Within" has two main phases: building and maintaining a base (the strategic component), and directing soldiers on the battlefield (the tactical component).

In "XCOM: Enemy Within," a new faction called EXALT sees the alien invasion not as a threat, but as something to be welcomed. Members of EXALT are willing to sabotage XCOM's efforts every step of the way in order to ensure that the alien attacks on Earth progress unimpeded.

The demo began at the XCOM base, where developer Firaxis walked us through a typical premission setup. As in "Enemy Unknown," you can recruit new soldiers, level up existing forces and research new technology. This time around, you can also give soldiers genetic or cybernetic enhancements, which grant them benefits like faster speed or improved line of sight.

Another small (but welcome) touch is that soldiers will now speak their native languages rather than English. The game has about 30 nationalities, with almost as many language packs. Canadian recruits will have a choice between English and French.

By launching intel scans, you can track down EXALT cells trying to drain XCOM resources. In order to stop them, you'll have to dispatch a soldier for a mission. Here, a lone soldier gets dispatched with only a jacket, jeans and a pistol for a few days. You don't control the mission, but you do control the aftermath.

There are two potential follow-up missions: Covert Data Recovery, where your main squad joins the dispatched operative to defend strategic points, and Extraction, where your main squad must get your operative out of the warzone alive.

For the demo, we took a look at a Covert Data Recovery mission. If you've played "Enemy Unknown," you'll find that the setup is more or less the same: Outfit and assemble a squad, which may include heavy-hitting commandos, long-range snipers and healing medics. Move your squad around the battlefield, picking off enemies and completing mission objectives as you go.

Fighting EXALT members turned out to be somewhat different than fighting aliens. Human opponents have abilities that mirror your own. Just as your commando can run-and-gun and hide behind cover, so can EXALT's. They will use items, exploit the level layout, pursue mission objectives and improve their equipment over time. If you're familiar with the multiplayer mode from "Enemy Unknown," which pits two human teams against each other, then you'll have some idea what to expect.

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Dealing with EXALT is not necessarily more difficult than fighting against aliens, but the experience feels somewhat different, and very fresh. Additionally, while aliens attack at random intervals, you can be proactive and choose when to pursue EXALT missions.

After completing a sufficient number of EXALT missions, you'll discover the location of their secret base and lead a final assault. How this ties into the overall story in "Enemy Within" remains to be seen, but don't think that the aliens will stop their assault just because a new enemy has entered the field.

So far, "Enemy Within" seems like a solid bet for fans of the franchise, but new players might want to start with "Enemy Unknown" before diving into the next chapter of the story. "XCOM: Enemy Within" will be available starting Nov. 12 for PC, Mac, Xbox 360 and PS3, retailing for $30 on computers and $40 on consoles. (The console edition comes with "Enemy Unknown," hence the higher price.)

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