I’ve been playing a lot of XCOM: Enemy Within lately and marveling at its use of acronyms. There’s MELD, EXALT, and MECs, not to mention XCOM itself. Beyond its frighteningly efficient use of letters, Firaxis has somehow managed to do the impossible – pack more of the same turn-based gameplay we loved about the reboot and add enough fresh new options to make you enjoy the alien-snuffing campaign over again.
To recap our interviews and previews so far, Enemy Within is a moderately priced expansion – preorder on sale now for $26.99 – which adds all the features described below to the missions, plot, and gameplay of the original on the PC, while on the consoles, it’s a standalone expansion which you can buy as a separate disc, but that also includes all of the missions, plot, and gameplay of the original XCOM: Enemy Unknown in addition to the new stuff in the campaign.
Enemy Within comes out on November 12th, and adds strategic wrinkles and tactical options to the ongoing campaign against the invading aliens such as a new items, a third faction of human enemies called EXALT and an alien resource called MELD. Firaxis was kind enough to let me play the first half of the campaign with a preview code this past week, and I got to experience all of the new features within the context of how you’d actually play the game. I am happy to say EW makes XCOM 78 percent better.
The biggest overall change is the need to collect a resource on the tactical map itself. MELD is introduced in the second mission of Enemy Within, and it’s a very good idea to make recovering the canisters a priority for your team. Excluding special Council missions or covert ops, alien encounters will begin with two canisters on the tactical map, each containing 10 units of MELD. There’s generally one canister close to the starting zone that will expire in 4 or 5 turns, and one farther away you must grab within 10 turns. To collect MELD, one of your team needs to be adjacent to the canister – which really just looks like a yellow pillar jutting out of the ground – and you left-click to activate it. Doing so doesn’t cost an action, but you can’t pick up MELD if you have used both your actions that turn. Grabbing MELD is a fun secondary objective to murdering aliens, but it’s pretty easy to do both on normal difficulty. Through the first half of the EW campaign I played on normal, I only failed to collect one available MELD canister. Of course, I also found myself delaying killing the last alien to make sure I had all the MELD, and that led to few fatalities. My apologies to Squaddie Robinson, but you had to die to ensure the success of XCOM and provide your commander with fancy new toys.
Gene modifications work a little differently, improving the abilities of soldiers you already have been training..Dr. Vahlen in the research department can splice a gene onto the various body parts of your soldiers, but it doesn’t affect the class abilities – except in indirect ways. For example, you can modify the eyes in one of two ways, increasing aim after a miss or increasing the height bonuses to aim, while your legs can either provide health regeneration or allow you to jump up onto any height. I modded my sniper with the latter genes, allowing him to get to a high elevation quickly and rain death with devastating accuracy. Modding your soldiers takes them out of active duty for a long while – 3 days per mod, usually – and costs significant amounts of MELD – up to 35 MELD per mod – so you have to pick and choose how you upgrade. I also found some mod bonuses just weren’t worth the investment on normal, like the skin mods that improved cover, but may be essential on classic or higher difficulties.
The strategic game has a lot more nuance to it in Enemy Within. You can prioritize research in alien autopsies to get gene modifications, as well as researching alien ship tech for the building of MECs. Satellites, while still important in keeping XCOM council nations happy, can’t be produced to the exclusion of everything else. And there’s also the threat of EXALT, the new pesky human operatives ready to steal credits from your coffers and disrupt your operations. In practice, I found EXALT more of a nuisance to play through than a truly engaging part of the XCOM universe. Each time I received a message in the situation room that an EXALT cell had attacked, I felt it pulled me away from my plans of defeating the aliens. Of course, lead designer Ananda Gupta said there’s a big payoff for that when you finally get to assault the EXALT base and eradicate them once and for all, but I didn’t get a chance to test that with this build.
Spoiler Alert! Don’t read the rest of this preview if you want the plot of Enemy Within discussed.
What I did get to do was defend the XCOM base from a massive alien assault. In a surprise cut scene while scanning for alien activity, the computer systems in the base start to blink and shutter, and humans with blank eyes start attacking XCOM officers. A random group of your soldiers mixed with raw recruits get cut off from the rest of the base, and have to defend themselves against waves of cyberdiscs, drones, mutons and sectoid commanders, not to mention the big mechtoids and seekers. Your soldiers have only the equipment they had on them when the base is attacked, so you may have to use conventional guns even if you’ve upgraded to lasers or plasma. The whole base attack mission was a nice change of pace, and the tension was high as I had to make do with the small number of resources available. Adding in raw recruits actually ended up being incredibly fun, and I internally cheered any time a lowly staff member took down a cyberdisc with an assault rifle.
In many ways, Enemy Within embodies the perfect expansion. It recognizes exactly what you enjoyed about the original game – the emphasis on choice, both strategically and tactically – and offers more of it. Testing out different builds of soldiers and putting together the perfect XCOM squad for your play style was incredibly satisfying, and the new features allow for even more. Based on my time with it this week, I will play another hundred hours of XCOM: Enemy Within when it comes out on November 12th for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360.