Assault an alien battleship in XCOM Enemy Unknown's 'Slingshot' DLC
You probably remember the day that your best friend died on the field of battle in XCOM: Enemy Unknown. One of the coolest features of the Firaxis-developed remake is the ability to customize the names of individual soldiers that make up your army of alien-stompers, fostering a strong connection that adds weight to a soldier's permanent demise. It's unexpected, then, that for its first downloadable content in the rebooted XCOM universe – dubbed 'Slingshot' – Firaxis has decided to create a completely fictional character as its star.

Zhang is a member of the Chinese Triad who defects over to XCOM when he comes to recognize the magnitude of the threat that the world faces. He's introduced in Slingshot's first mission via cutscene, a heavily scarred, besuited tough guy who stands as motionless as the Foo Dog statues that surround him.

The Triad defector is a civilian in the first mission, a neutered unit that must be escorted by XCOM forces to a nearby evac location situated close to your Chinese cemetery rendezvous point. Alien forces attack from all sides, same as it ever was, and only tactical thinking sees you through. You'll probably think more than once "Why can't I just hand this Triad fellow a gun and tell him to point it at the invaders?"

That opportunity comes later, as Zhang's defector status puts him on the outs with his former bosses. Complete the first Slingshot mission and your Triad buddy joins XCOM as a Heavy. He's just like any other soldier save for the fact that his name and appearance are locked. You don't even need to bring him along on the two Slingshot missions that follow, though his high stats might compel you to do so anyway. Zhang's value as an XCOM soldier points to the principal dangling carrot that Slingshot waves in front of Enemy Unknown fans: greater power at an earlier stage of the game. Slingshot's three sequential missions are delivered as specially marked tasks from The Council. The latter two are saved for a bit later, after you've obtained important upgrades like laser tech, but the first pops up roughly a third of the way into the story. Finish it and you'll net yourself a powerful new Heavy in Zhang and possibly an early Chrysalid autopsy research opportunity as well.

Each of the three new missions presents a tantalizing risk/reward opportunity. You're outclassed and outnumbered in each engagement – especially the final one, which amounts to an assault on an alien battleship – but the potential gains are huge. Nailing the right mix was the biggest challenge that Firaxis face, as marketing manage and XCOM: Enemy Unknown associate producer Pete Murray explains.

"When you encounter a Chrysalid in the [vanilla Enemy Unknown] missions, you've had some time to get some guys in the field, get some experience, get a set of skills, maybe you've got some new weapons and armor," he says. "But when you run into it in the first month or so, that's a real enemy. It has twice as many hit points as a Thin Man does, [which is] at that point the toughest enemy you're up against. If it does kill anybody, you've got troops with low Will and they're more likely to panic. So the cost of running up against a Chrysalid early [is tempered by] the reward of getting access to that tech."

Assaulting an alien battleship as a Triad defector in XCOM Enemy Unknown's 'Slingshot' DLC
The DLC devs played around quite a bit as they worked to get the balance right, measuring the various potential rewards against the challenge involved in obtaining them. Ultimately, it was decided that giving players access to late-game tech a little earlier made sense ... so long as the challenge was steep enough to justify the gains.

Slingshot's three objective-based missions certainly don't skimp on challenge. Zhang's cemetery escape is a familiar nod back to an early Enemy Unknown mission, but several unexpected enemy spawns – including the aforementioned Chrysalid – are designed to trip players up. The mission that follows sees an army of Thin Men blasting poison clouds out freely in the tight confines of a Chinese high-speed rail station as you try to set up a series of beacons on a parked train.

Then there's the final task, an all-out assault aboard an alien battleship that has you taking out power nodes. You can easily use high explosives to take each of the six targets out from a distance, but doing so prevents you from capturing some very powerful tech. The final mission is also notably the longest, with an elaborate chamber and series of enemy spawns devoted to each node the mission targets.

"Balance is the big concern, especially with a game like XCOM," Murray reiterates. "So much of [lead designer Jake Solomon's] emphasis was on having every decision in the game have meaning and consequence. The design that we ended up with is strung pretty tightly and we wanted to make sure we didn't end up with something that started pushing that out.

Assaulting an alien battleship as a Triad defector in XCOM Enemy Unknown's 'Slingshot' DLC
"As soon as you bias one style of play or one set of decisions, that then becomes 'the best way to play the game,' which makes other decisions significantly less meaningful. So we wanted to make sure that the game still supported a variety of approaches in squad compositions, tactical solutions, soldier selection, mission selection, and I think this Slingshot design does a really good job of getting at those."

The mission objectives that Slingshot lays before you are certainly varied, but the environments immediately stand out as well. According to Murray, this was another key goal for Firaxis during the DLC's development. "We wanted to make something that was visually very cool and distinctive too, so we've created these maps that we've done a lot on to make them very engaging."

"On the battleship, when you're seeing the Chinese city scroll below you, you have that sense of flight and movement that you don't necessarily have in the other UFO maps. When you're encountering UFOs in XCOM, most of the time they're wrecks of they're on the ground. Now you're seeing this thing that's the size of several city blocks floating over a city and that has this kind of creepy 'It shouldn't be doing that!' feeling."

The mission maps are still relatively static and bound by the rules established in the original game, which Joystiq called an "an exemplary turn-based strategy game," in its review. You and your enemies can blast through cover with heavy enough weapons. There are no secret buttons that you can press to open a shark-filled tank or anything like that. The improvement is more of a cosmetic one.

Assaulting an alien battleship as a Triad defector in XCOM Enemy Unknown's 'Slingshot' DLC
The scrolling city below the battleship that Murray describes is certainly neat, but the cemetery and train station locations also feel unique in comparison to similar maps from the vanilla game. Even small, simple changes like the Chinese text on store signs or the presence of Foo Dog statues Chinese architecture makes a big difference.

Then there's Zhang himself, who is fleshed out with his own, customization-locked look and a character-specific voice pack. He certainly stands out amidst the rest of your XCOM forces. Slingshot adds a range of new cosmetic armor mods to the game, but Zhang always remains Zhang. You might not feel the same sense of loss at his death that you did when your best pal ate it in an earlier mission, but the hope is that you'll come to value him too.

Murray explains that while Zhang plays an important role within the DLC's story, he's really there because the dev team wanted to bring a Triad tough guy into the game. "He looks like a badass. He has a snakeskin suit and scars. That guy looks creepy and I'm glad he's on my side. That's the fun of a pack like this."

XCOM: Enemy Unknown's Slingshot DLC pack will be available on December 4, 2012 for $6.99 (560 MS Points) on PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and Windows platforms.


Adam Rosenberg is a writer and dudebro academic based out of Brooklyn, NY. He's a full-time freelancer who has contributed to a wide range of outlets, including G4, Rolling Stone, MTV, and Digital Trends. You can follow his and his dog's exploits on Twitter at @Geminibros.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.