Reviews

New Growth – XCOM: Enemy Within

At weekendwarrio.rs we loved XCOM: Enemy Unknown. It got a mention as one of the best games of 2012, and I regaled you all with my tale of science fiction’s finest taking on the extraterrestrial threat.

Now Firaxis gives us Enemy Within – a proper Expansion Pack from the days of yore. But is it more of a good thing, or have they managed to cock the whole thing up?

Whether you loved or hated XCOM: Enemy Unknown, Enemy Within is unlikely to change anything. If you hated it because it was a bastardisation of that strategy classic X-Com, or if you hated it for some other reason, you will continue hating it. If on the other hand you were enamoured by Firaxis’ 2012 offering, then this is exactly what you’ve been waiting for.

Simply put, Enemy Within is more of the same, but the additions are interesting and varied enough to completely reinvigorate the base game we’ve all spent tens of hours with.

The biggest and most obvious change is in the new modifications available for your troops. As soon as you start a new game you’ll be introduced to MELD, mysterious extraterrestrial science-magic that both your head scientist and head engineer are keen to get their hands on. The science department can use this science-magic to genetically engineer your soldiers to give them a variety of largely passive buffs. In the engineering section they don’t fuck around with this passive buff bullshit, they build giant fuck-off mechs (sorry, MECs) for your soldiers to take into battle.

Turn your Sniper into the motherfucking Predator with light-bending skin, building-hopping legs and elevation bonuses, or turn your Assault into an unstoppable killing machine with health-restoring bone marrow and a second-heart to bring them back from the brink of death.
They won’t massively change the way you play the game, but every new tool in the fight against the aliens is a welcome addition.

The MECs may actually change the way you play the game, as they function somewhere between a traditional XCOM soldier and one of the mechanical SHIVs you may have built the first time around. They can’t use cover, but with a metal exoskeleton they hardly need it, and with the right upgrade they can actually become cover for your other soliders.
Their abilities are less about precision and more about area of effect and collateral damage.

The MELD required to perform these upgrades on your hapless meatsack soldiers is fairly hard to come by, which adds even more tension to combat situations that were already stressful enough. You could either spread the MELD around on a number of soldiers with minor upgrades, or sink it into a small handful of super soldiers… and then weep uncontrollably when you lose one during your Iron Man* playthrough.
In any mission where MELD canisters are available there is usually one nearby with a short timer, and one further away with a higher counter and invariably a contingent of enemies nearby. It’s a well-designed risk vs reward mechanic, adding another layer of strategy to further remix the base experience.

The other most significant change is in the form of a new group of enemy combatants. EXALT are a covert human group working to undermine XCOM for their own nefarious purposes. The actual combat against EXALT forces tends to be easier and less interesting than battling the aliens, but the covert missions are enough of a change of pace to break up what could be a repetitive campaign in the base game.

The other new element that goes towards mitigating any repetition is the addition of a few new scripted missions. In the original game there were a few story missions, but apart from a certain set of architecture these missions were just as randomised as the rest. With Enemy Within they’ve carefully constructed these missions to be atmospheric, tense and wholly unique. It isn’t enough to adversely affect the vehicle for emergent play that Firaxis has provided us, instead it’s a perfectly thrown curveball that will wholly grab your attention all over again.

It’s not all rainbows and sunshine dust though. The camera controls are somewhat improved over Enemy Unknown, but it still isn’t quite up to snuff, and they haven’t at all addressed the squad selection/cycling issue that is my biggest irritation with the game. If your gameplay encourages me to move my team methodically, then perhaps you shouldn’t keep cycling back to the soldier I just moved, simply because they still have an action point left. Perhaps I want to spend everyone’s first point, and then cycle back around? Perhaps that seems to be the smartest way to play the game, and surely it must be the way the majority of players play the game. How this annoyance made it through beta testing, post-release patches and now an Expansion Pack is beyond me.

There’s also a lack of balance and consistency to the research and technology trees now that we’ve been given all these brilliant new toys to play with right at the start of the game. The other option though was to introduce these elements later and make for a boring early game, so at least this way they let us start tinkering with the new toys almost straight away.

If you loved or even just liked Enemy Unknown you should just bite the bullet and pick up Enemy Within because it takes an already brilliant game and makes it bigger, fuller and better in just about every way. If you’ve resisted picking up the new XCOM, it’s cheap enough on sale these days to be an easy recommendation.

*It is my opinion that Iron Man is the only way to play, if only because the other option is to lose a whole evening to one mission in the hopes of getting that perfect outcome by slightly changing tactics.

 

Recommendations:

  • Gamepad – It seems counter-intuitive that a gamepad would be the best option for a strategy game, but Firaxis have actually done a brilliant job of making a console-friendly turn-based strategy game that’s streamlined but not dumbed down.
  • Iron Man – ‘Nuff said.
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