They're an organization that strikes from the shadows, enacting nefarious and secretive plots to disrupt XCOM operations and weaken the organization's presence worldwide.
For Exalt, it's all about achieving that goal – regardless of how many human lives are lost in the process.
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XCOM: Enemy Within (10/9/13)
Exalt doesn't work with the aliens directly, but opposes XCOM through the placement of covert cells hidden across the globe. Each cell continually works to weaken XCOM's strength in any particular region throughout the campaign: These cells count down as they work through their own plots and, once that plot is ready to fire Exalt launches its operation.
One such operation involves propaganda in South America, an Exalt "agitation" to "increase panic and destabilize the governments of the council members," Gupta said. Upon entering the situation room, I saw a new Covert Ops tab that highlights XCOM's current struggles against Exalt.
To find and prevent Exalt from carrying out these operation, XCOM can initiate scans for Exalt operations – just as it can for alien activity – at any time, for a progressively more expensive price as the month goes on. At the beginning of each month, the cost resets.
"By carrying out intel scans at the right times, you can paralyze Exalt by stalling out their operations," Gupta said. "It's just a band-aid because you're not actually getting rid of the Exalt cells." Since Exalt operations rely on being hidden from XCOM, exposing cells keeps Exalt in check. Exalt, however, can never truly be stopped and will remain a perpetual threat throughout XCOM: Enemy Within's updated campaign.
Exalt adds an additional layer of depth to the juggling act all XCOM Commanders must do. Balancing expenditure month-to-month on research, expanding the XCOM facilities, upgrading troops and advancing weaponry is the core experience of XCOM: Enemy Unknown, and that certainly hasn't changed in XCOM: Enemy Within. Now Commanders have one more thing to agonize over.
Diligent Commanders who have worked to locate Exalt will eventually employ a Covert Ops infiltration on Exalt's headquarters. Each scan provides Commanders with a clue to Exalt's location, and after gathering three clues you can guess where the enemy can be found. Choose correctly and you send in one squad member to prepare for your impending assault; choose incorrectly and the particular country you called out leaves the council immediately, presumably because you're accusing a country of harboring the enemy.
There are two Covert Ops mission types; I played Data Recovery, a King of the Hill variant where XCOM forces must find and protect a beacon from Exalt troops looking to hack it. Once all the Exalt in the area have been killed, you can move on and Exalt goes back to ground for a little while.
The other Covert Ops variant is Covert Extraction, a spin-off of the VIP escort missions, where you must locate and extract a high-value individual, found in XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Rather than being the follow-the-leader escapade of the usual VIP mission, however, your unit can fight in Covert Extraction – but this unit also has a job to do. There are two nodes in the environment, randomly chosen at the outset of the mission, that must be hacked before your team can exfiltrate from the hot zone. And the randomized node placement means that these missions will play out a tad bit differently every time, adding to the overall tension and difficulty.
Failing either one of these missions can result in the death of your selected infiltration unit. But more devastating is the panic that will rise in that particular region, which can cause that country to permanently leave the council.
Exalt isn't going to lay down its arms and simply let XCOM win, of course. I found fighting the Exalt forces to be a much different affair from mopping up aliens of XCOM: Enemy Unknown. For one, Exalt's greatest asset is numbers: For every XCOM soldier, I had to take down three or more Exalt soldiers. Gupta tells me they will always have the advantage of sheer numbers in every encounter with XCOM.
The Exalt soldiers themselves didn't vary in my demo. There were a cadre of foot soldiers who, surprisingly, looked a lot like the '60s XCOM troopers seen in The Bureau: XCOM Declassified, but I was assured they weren't one in the same. How interesting of a bridge between the two games would that have been?
Still, Exalt peons, clad in suspenders, grey slacks and thin black ties, looked like they were ripped right out of Mad Men – save for a bandana strewn across each's face to protect their identities. "They are mad men," Gupta joked in response. "These are sleeper agents, working at their jobs at the stock exchange, the ad agency, at the bank – then the phone rings. The moment has come."
Exalt soldiers were pretty smart and tenacious, employing a greater deal of cooperation than the aliens, I found. I saw units scramble to heal injured comrades, use smoke grenades to lower my shot success percentages and, quite consistently, rush vulnerable XCOM soldiers. Exalt was an aggressive force I was ill prepared for and, for an XCOM: Enemy Unknown veteran such as myself, a very welcome surprise and challenge.
"I didn't want them to come off like crazies. They're very methodical and very focused," Gupta said of their tactics and overall methodology. Later in the game, Gupta added, genetically modified elite Exalt troops will challenge XCOM units even more.
As my appointment wrapped up, I couldn't help but ask one question: What if you want to ignore Exalt entirely? "You can ignore Exalt the entire game if you're willing to let them proliferate throughout the entire world," Gupta responded wryly, before giving me a curious glance. Hopefully that question didn't clue him into my own opinions on aliens and genetic modifications.
XCOM: Enemy Within launches on November 12 as a $30 expansion on PC and Mac. A new "Commander Edition" of XCOM will launch on PS3 and Xbox 360, including all the Enemy Within content and Slingshot and Elite Soldier content packs, for $40.
Hail Exalt and raise your weapons against XCOM, brothers and sisters! The planet shall be ours!