The temptation to just keep throwing more “stuff” into a strategy game can be very strong. More options! More maps! More items! It’s better because it’s more, you see? Firaxis scored a modest hit by revamping the old XCOM franchise with Enemy Unknown last year and, like many modest hits, publisher 2K was keen to keep revenue flowing with an expansion. Thankfully, the team at Firaxis didn’t just toss the kitchen sink into the elegant balance between base-building strategy and turn-based tactics, but gave the player significant choices to make in Enemy Within. All of the fun new toys, however, do work a bit against the game’s biggest flaw – after a certain point of advancement, the challenge and satisfaction of snuffing aliens dissipates quickly.
Enemy Within presents a new version of the alien invasion, one which nicely dodges the narrative problems regularly associated with prequels or sequels by styling itself a “standalone expansion”. You are still the commander of a multi-cultural organization formed to thwart attacks from hostile aliens. The gameplay is split between commanding your XCOM squad on tactical missions and making strategic decisions back at your base in what equipment buy or research to conduct. In this new invasion, the aliens drop a resource called MELD that must be harvested on the tactical map. There are two canisters per map, and it’s a nice diversion to move your squadmates to the little yellow phalluses to collect MELD instead of just murdering the aliens. You often have to balance whether the stuff is worth risking your soldier’s lives, and that makes for some tense and risky maneuvers.
The MELD is attractive, because it’s used to fuel the two new ways to make your team more powerful. MECs are, well, mechs controlled by human agents that can be upgraded with dastardly modules like flamethrowers, grenade launchers and a kinetic punch that always deals 12 damage. Once you have access to the parts – you have to research the aliens you kill or capture through interrogations and autopsies to adapt their technology – it’s incredibly useful to use MECs as your shock troops. They can absorb a ton of attacks, and there’s a handy upgrade which lets the MEC soldier heal every turn. The addition of the MEC class follows a completely different upgrade path than normal advancement and takes up a lot of MELD, but it was enjoyable to experiment with the new permutations, even if it felt a little overpowered having two or more MECs in your squad.
The other way to upgrade is to modify your soldier’s genes using alien strains of DNA. These gene modifications are also discovered through alien autopsies, and they can be applied to any class, be it sniper, assault or support. Unfortunately, you can’t do gene modifications on MEC soldiers, because that’d be cheating. 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 really have to pick and choose how you upgrade your squad’s body parts. It may make the most sense to modify your sniper’s eyes so that his aim improves the higher in elevation he is, and allow him to get to that height by modifying his legs to leap on top of buildings, but modding every new recruit just isn’t feasible. Especially if they are just going to perish the first mission they are deployed because of an (un)lucky crit roll.
The most interesting new way to improve your soldiers is through the medals you as the commander of XCOM can award in a little ceremony. After a few missions, you’ll gain access to a medal, and you can pick one of two ways the recipient’s stats will improve. You can even name your medal, just like you can your soldiers, and the medal perishes along with them if they meet their demise. The added customization options for new visuals and voices really allow you to create a squad that says something about you as a person. Because of that, the short snippet of video of your customized soldier in his XCOM dress fatigues earning a medal made me feel like a proud father; making you feel attached to your team is still one of the amazing emergent features of Enemy Within. Just don’t name your squad member Michael Bluth and give him the No Touching Medal like I did. It doesn’t have the same effect.
Against all of these improved soldiers is a slew of new enemies. On the alien side, the Mechtoid is the obvious counterpoint to your own MECs – a massively huge machine with a single sectoid in the center. These guys gain HP from a neural link from sectoids, fire plasma weapons twice per turn and are generally not able to be put down without concentrating all fire on them as soon as you discover them. The other new enemy is a little more subtle – the seeker is an organic flying unit that generally operates invisibly. The seeker can surprise a straggler, latch onto his face and begin sucking the life out of him. Keeping a few soldiers on overwatch is good idea if there are seekers on the map, but you can usually shoot them off without harming your teammate much. Both these new aliens must be countered with slightly different tactics, and as with the plentiful new maps, the additional variety is appreciated.
But perhaps the largest change to the XCOM formula in Enemy Within is EXALT, a secret human organization that decides to take advantage of the invasion to take over the world. They will be a nuisance in your war against the aliens, draining credits from your coffers and causing panic in countries all over the world. To defeat them, you have to expose their cells and send in an agent from your team armed only with a pistol. There then follows one of two extraction missions – a king-of-the-hill styled operation in which you have to defend zones from EXALT attempts at hacking, and a more simple download and extraction. The EXALT forces, besides being impeccably dressed in kerchiefs and suspenders, use classes similar to your own team – woe to the commander who faces several EXALT heavies and has to endure missile attacks. These missions are an entertaining change of pace, but overall the kerchief-wearing maniacs just feel annoying rather than a true adversary. They don’t really threaten you enough for you to care. Once you’ve performed at least three of the extractions, you can start guessing where the EXALT base is and assault it on your own. That mission is interesting foil to your operations – there’s even a huge hologram globe just like yours in the EXALT base, but it played out rather tame. Much more resistance was expected by this dastardly organization, but that feeds into the one big failing of XCOM: Enemy Within.
All this stuff, all the jiggery-pokery of new items and upgrades is incredibly fun and satisfying to employ – up to a point. The point at which your player skill and your team’s abilities have outpaced any challenge the A.I. throws at you is when XCOM fails, and that point seems to occur earlier in Enemy Within. Even the harder difficulty levels like Classic or Impossible are only challenging for so long. After you’ve progressed far enough, the missions become a chore and the strategic decisions feel unimportant. Why bother deciding which upgrade to research next when you’re able to completely destroy every alien on the map with barely a scratch on your titan armor to show for it? You could argue the last third of the game is a victory lap of sorts, allowing you to show off your chops as the world’s greatest commander as you shoot down UFO after UFO, but I’d prefer the end game offered as much challenge as the first few missions did.
Bottom Line: Enemy Within is a solid expansion to an excellent game, with options like MECs, medals and gene mods that make you want to stomp aliens all over again in exciting new ways. The first two thirds of the campaign are definitely improved, but EW doesn’t solve the problem of slogging through the endgame.
Recommendation: Grab EW if you’ve been waiting for a turn-based strategy fix, and bask in its alien slaughter, but don’t expect the wheel to be remade. That’s what mods are for.[rating=4]
Game: XCOM Enemy within
Genre: Turn-Based Strategy
Publisher: 2K Games
Platform(s): PC, PS3, Xbox 360