XCOM: Enemy Within Review – But Still Also Unknown, And All Around.

During my multiple failed attempts before my eventual success in XCOM: Enemy Within’ lengthy campaign I realized one thing: I am bad at XCOM.  Now, XCOM: Enemy Unknown was one of my favorite games of 2012 but my schedule being what it is I played through it maybe twice.  Having never mastered Enemy Unknown: Within provides a stiff challenge that at times can seem overwhelming and unfair.  Some of the scripted missions feel downright cruel until you realize that Enemy Within is meant to shake up the foundations of what the base game established.  It makes veteran players have to change their go to strategies in light of new enemy types, research, missions and resources.  In the end I realized that despite its apparently malicious difficulty it actually was forcing me to change the way I played XCOM and that is exactly what a great expansion should do.

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The largest addition to the XCOM universe is the resource MELD.  It is used not only to create gene enhancements for troops but also to build MEC’s and create the cyborg soldiers used to pilot them.  MELD is the best and most significant addition to XCOM for two reasons:  It allows for a much greater range of troop types and abilities but it also creates a whole new tactical challenge when going about acquiring the element.  MELD canisters are placed on the standard abduction and UFO crash/landing missions.  There are always two canisters that are placed in the map but the catch is they only have so many turns before they self-destruct.   On top of this they are also apparently built out of paper and glass.  Any stray damage, whether from a pistol or a rocket, will destroy the canister.  This turn limit causes players to do what they never did in XCOM, spread troops out and rush specific areas, many times completely blind.

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MELD is integral to survival in the expansion due to the addition of seekers and Mectoids. Mectoids are exactly what their name implies; they are sectoids with mech suits.  The Seekers are enemies that turn invisible and will cut off stray soldiers by strangling them.  This strangling does not kill the unit immediately but it does require another ally to shoot the seeker off.  MELD helps you create MEC’s to combat Mectoids and the gene enhancements/tech to track Seekers.    On top of this MEC’s and gene enhanced soldiers are required due to the increased difficulty of the general missions.  I felt in Enemy Within I saw bigger battles and more dire situations than I ever encountered in Enemy Unknown.  A specific highlight being an entire mission where the only enemy is chrysalid’s and their zombie hosts.  Ending in an epic escape before an imminent airstrike.

Enemy Within alleviates another major issue with Enemy Unknown, the lack of maps and mission types to keep the campaign from getting stale.  A host of new maps, including rural farms, snowy areas and UFO’s actually crashing in urban areas for once, make the base missions feel diverse and fresh.  On top of the new maps there is a host of new scripted missions like the one I mentioned earlier.  Enemy Within also includes the previous DLC, which makes for a deluge of scripted missions unseen in Enemy Unknown.  Luckily these missions are spread far enough apart that the game does not lose its agency.

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Small additions are spread throughout; players can now award medals to soldiers for added buffs, soldier customization is incredibly deep with a ton of new additions to the cosmetic choices for your troops.  The addition of individual languages based on nationality helps finally give XCOM the feeling of the worlds best fighting together.  A host of new tech and weapons are introduced and the addition of having two equipment slots for soldiers changes the dynamic considerably.  Firaxis even went so far as to add new assets and create much more dense and beautiful levels.  On PC and console the art style shines despite the aged tech of the Unreal Engine.  All these changes help Enemy Within change XCOM Enemy Unknown for the better, making it feel like a whole new game.

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The Second major addition and the reason for the games title is the Exalt; a human faction working with the Alien menace to gain access to their technology.  Players fight to find their bases and weed the Exalt out of each nation.  Squad mates are sent undercover and later extracted by your team in a new series of missions.  They involve your agent hacking data terminals or defending them while you squad works to defend your agent and extract him all while battling the Exalt.  The Exalt pose a unique threat due to their classes being replicas of the XCOM squads.  They have snipers, medics and heavies, making for tense fights.  The Exalt aren’t integral to completing the base campaign but add a new layer of intrigue and the ability to accuse nations of harboring this menace adds to the ever changing custom narrative that drives the XCOM gameplay loop.

Player agency is key to XCOM and if anything the new additions only increase the capability for storytelling.  I was able to name soldiers after family and friends, alongside actors and famous people.  My sister was my best sniper, gene enhanced retina’s made her a dead shot and legs imbued with alien genomes made her capable of leaping on to roofs with ease.  My brother was a MEC who spoke only Spanish (he is fluent) although American born.  I was a support class who could turn invisible to avoid detection, keeping myself alive to heal those who were critically wounded.  It is the attachment created to these squad members that creates mini narratives and drives players to keep partaking in the XCOM campaign.

Enemy Within is the perfect expansion to an already fantastic game.  It smartly follows the PC expansion standards of old, adding significant and game changing content on a huge scale.  On top of this the base game can be bought with the expansion on console for forty dollars, making one of the best deals in gaming.  The additions are smart and satisfying, shaking up what XCOM veterans know about the series and this is exactly what a perfect expansion should do.

9.25

Pros:

+MEC’s, MELD and gene enhancements

+Exalt mixes things up in a good way

+Assets and visual upgrade

+New missions types and maps

Cons:

-Difficulty can scare off some gamers

 

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