At some point, I quit naming my squad mates in XCOM: Enemy Unknown. I got attached far too easily, and XCOM‘s hardened soul hates everything I hold dear. But it is a game built on player stories, and I decided – with my review of the new expansion, XCOM: Enemy Within – that I’d have one to tell at the end of it. So I named my first soldiers after the interns currently writing for NAG.
Let’s… let’s not speak of that again.
XCOM: Enemy Within seeks to rectify some of the problems in Firaxis’ original Enemy Unknown and augment your XCOM experience with new risks and rewards. “Augment” is definitely the right way to describe it. I’m going to assume that readers are familiar with Enemy Unknown, because that’s really who this expansion is aimed at. If you’ve never played Enemy Unknown, I can recommend Enemy Within without caveat. It is one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences you’ll have from a modern game, and is the best way to get into the franchise. However, if you’re already a veteran of Enemy Unknown, read on.
Firstly, you’ll be starting from scratch, as the content from Unknown doesn’t transfer to Within. And you will still be playing through the original campaign. Enemy Within doesn’t hold the goods to ransom, though; all the new content is well-integrated into the existing flow of the campaign, and introduces them as ruthlessly as bullets into your squad mates.
What immediately becomes apparent is the number of new ways to tweak and customise your squad. The first you’ll encounter, which serves as the basis for most of the new systems, is the Meld resource.
Meld is usually found in two short-lived glowing canisters on every map – you’ll have to act fast if you’re going to secure both before they dissipate. It definitely changes up the standard missions, forcing you to weigh up the odds of pushing ahead and results in more risky tactics. Due to its transient nature, it’s also a rare resource to collect for the purposes of the new ways you can modify your soldiers.
Gene mods allow you to bestow small advantages to individual soldiers at the cost of Meld and a few days for the implant process. While some of the gene upgrades are particularly useful – such as one that minimises the number of moves needed to scale high structures with enhanced jumping – and a nice way for finicky commanders to optimise the performance minutiae of their troops, they felt lacklustre overall.
More significant is the introduction of the new class, the MEC Trooper.
The MEC Trooper is an armoured cyborg behemoth that has a significant impact on the game. Gone is the need for the Mars Rover lookalike, the SHIV: the MEC Trooper’s abilities and toughness – combined with the fact that they benefit from the rest of their squad’s buffs and cures – will ensure their placement in any commander’s ranks. There’s something immensely satisfying about a unit that can go toe-to-toe with a Berserker.
Add the new medal system that allows you to decorate soldiers of your choice with earned medals that provide small buffs and the cosmetic (but welcome) option to have your soldiers speak in their native language, and you have a squad that’s a lot more diverse in both function and style, making the loss of your favourite squaddies all the more poignant.
And you’re going to need them, because Enemy Within doesn’t mess around with its new shadow organisation, EXALT. EXALT – a human collective seeking to accelerate the alien invasion for their own ends – quickly becomes a thorn in the side of any commander looking to manage the Council nations’ panic levels. EXALT will siphon your funds, sow dissent in the Council nations and play havoc with your well-laid plans. EXALT, with their pinstripes and waistcoasts, dress like a ’50s drama but play like your soldiers, with similar unit types and tactics, which is a refreshing change from the typical alien onslaught.
Investigating EXALT requires individual squad members to infiltrate sleeper cells in Council nations, from which you will later need to rescue them. These extraction missions play out like Unknown‘s escort missions with a twist; there’s usually some secondary objective that needs to be met, such as disabling network nodes or protecting stationary vital equipment. These missions require some creative tactics and constant readjustment, and I found them quite invigorating if slightly on the long side.
As your investigation begins to narrow down where EXALT’s HQ is located, you’ll encounter increasingly stronger, genetically modified EXALT agents. Get it down to three or four possible countries and you’ll be able to accuse them of harbouring the rogues, but guess incorrectly and that nation will pull out of the XCOM project immediately.
Less inspiring are the alien additions. The first is the Seeker – a flying, tentacled Matrix rip-off that can turn invisible and strangle lone units. With low hit points and terrible AI, it’s easily dealt with in the single-player missions even early on – I’m pretty sure the Seeker was actually a stealth mod to alter the “single heavenly sniper” strategy that pervades the multiplayer scene.
Secondly, the Sectoids now have a new big brother in the form of the Mechtoid which, through the Sectoid’s psionics, can be buffed with a shield that adds additional hit points and reduces incoming damage. And the Mechtoid isn’t shy about getting in your face. He craves attention, bearing down on your units while you decide whether you should focus your firepower to punch through his defenses or waste it on his meager companions.
But what about the gameplay? Having spent some 40 hours with Enemy Within, it feels a lot more frantic (as much as a turn-based tactical strategy game can be). Firaxis has tweaked the gameplay in several small areas so that previously ignored systems and abilities now have to be equally juggled alongside the rest: for example, EXALT infiltrating your base is countered by research labs, and research has been slowed down somewhat, making labs quite vital to your success.
Covert operations, gene modifications and the MEC Trooper surgery all take a few days to complete, and during that time those precious squad members are unavailable. And the new missions and Meld canisters minimise the move-overwatch-move-overwatch nature so typical of Unknown‘s play. Ultimately, scarcity is the name of the game with Enemy Within, and you’ll constantly feel you never quite have enough.
The new Council missions and extensive map set go a long way to alleviate the sense of sameness that could weasel its way into players’ longer playthroughs (Where did the UFO land? I’ll give you a clue, it starts with “F” and ends in “orest”). UFOs now crash in a variety of locales, from city blocks to farms, while the huge number of new maps ensures it’ll be a while before you start cycling through the same ones again.
Much ado has already been made about the XCOM HQ assault and the Progeny missions, but there are other notables that pay homage to literary and sci-fi classics. I had a particularly memorable one that, without spoiling too much, subtly draws from The Shadow Over Innsmouth and unsubtly murdered the best of my six-man squad, leaving the sole rookie to hightail it (gibbering, I like to imagine to myself) back to the rendezvous point with Chryssalids close behind, slavering for his flesh.
Is Enemy Within worth it? I was enthralled, but it’s a late love letter to ardent fans of Enemy Unknown. It’s more XCOM, not new XCOM, and I’m not sure there’s enough new content to draw in the casual XCOM player. It plays largely the same despite the morsels of new content (some of which are once-off events).
If you’ve never played XCOM:Enemy Unknown and are wondering if Enemy Within is the way to finally drop into the war, the answer is a resounding yes. For hardcore Enemy Unknown fans still caught in its addictive talons (myself included), Enemy Within provides a hefty boost of new systems, refinements and content to enliven future playthroughs.