XCOM: Enemy Within Review
Last year’s reboot of the XCOM series was a masterwork. Its deep strategy and intense firefights required careful scheming, but putting a bullet through the last invader’s overgrown skull was one of my favorite moments of 2012. The game was so finely balanced that I thought adding to it would disrupt its strategic flow, but Firaxis has released an expansion that slides between Enemy Unknown’s cracks, filling in some gaps I didn’t even realize existed, further diversifying the tactics without disrupting XCOM’s delicate balance.
If you played Enemy Unknown, you’re already familiar with XCOM’s dual nature: You alternate between commanding a squad of soldiers in turned-based combat and managing your limited resources to defend against alien invaders. Both layers of the game are highly rewarding in their own right, and Enemy Within cleverly adds to both.
The most important addition is a currency system called Meld. With it, any soldier can receive biotic implants, granting them a variety of superpowers such as the ability to jump to previously unattainable heights, sense unseen enemies, and emit psionic feedback on any alien that tries a mind meld. The augments help diversify your options on the battlefield and open up new strategies that weren’t available in last year’s game. Having trouble flanking alien squads? Equip a skin mod that makes one of your Assault members nearly invisible in high cover. Tired of watching your squaddies throw grenades at their friends after they become mind controlled? Beef up their psionic defense with a brain mod.
Biotic mods are a useful tool, but Enemy Within’s new MEC class quickly became my favorite use for Meld. These cybersuits are Enemy Within’s new character class. They can’t take refuge behind cover, but they often don’t need to. Their high-impact Gatling guns and devastating physical attacks mean that enemies don’t stick around long when these hulks are on the battlefield. Some MECs have extended mobility, which makes them effective scouts, and the mech’s upgradability gives it an extended arsenal that includes grenades, flamethrowers, and EMP blasts. MECs are such a highly versatile new unit that now I can’t imagine an XCOM playthrough without them.
With all these great trooper augments, Meld never remains in the bank for long, which kept me on a greedy hunt for more every time I entered a new level. It is found inside canisters during each ground mission, but the containers are on a countdown timer. If you don’t find them quickly, they explode, destroying their contents. I was often in such a rush to acquire more Meld that I pushed my troops deeper into the map, placing them into sticky situations that required clever footwork to escape. You have to start a new game to take advantage of Enemy Within’s new content, but Meld is an enticing and dangerous carrot that adds a beautiful wrinkle to a game already fraught with sweat-inducing decisions.
XCOM’s new toys are a lot of fun, but they don’t make things too easy. The alien invaders have a few new tricks of their own, like new units called Seekers. These flying robotic squid cloak themselves, then materialize out of the air and start strangling your soldiers with their prehensile limbs – slowly squeezing the life out of your teammates until they are rescued. This means snipers are no longer safe on the roof of a gas station across the street. However, Mechtoids are even more terrifying. The alien answer to MECs, these goliaths have massive health bars, and their twin cannons can fire twice each round. These new enemies round out the existing units, and often forced me to rethink the tired strategies I developed playing the core game.
Aliens aren’t the only enemy you face this time around, either. Enemy Within contains a meta-narrative about a group of human extremists called Exalt who are convinced that the aliens will improve humanity’s way of life, and they set out to combat XCOM at every turn. These battles are a change of pace from the alien encounters, since fighting Exalt is more like fighting an evil version of your own squad. They have equivalent powers and technology, and I enjoyed gunning them down just as much as the invaders.
Even though I enthusiastically devoured all of Enemy Within’s new content, there were moments where I felt like I was playing last year’s game. Despite Firaxis’ improvements, the developer wasn’t able to fix the line-of-sight issues, which often grant enemies full or partial cover even when you should have a clear shot. Acquiring new squad members still feels unbalanced; since you can’t assign your soldiers’ roles, and they only learn their specialty once they’ve ranked up, it’s easy to end up with holes in your squad. By the end, I had an abundance of heavy units and was sorely in need of a support squaddie.
Enemy Within’s minor flaws shouldn’t be enough to distract anyone from diving back into Firaxis’ well-tuned expansion. The game often throws you curveballs; you can easily have a rookie wander too deep into the battlefield and suddenly alert three units of enemies. However, dealing with the bad hands you’re dealt is what makes XCOM’s battles so exciting – and often leads to creative problem solving. Enemy Within adds more troop customization options, fearsome enemy units, and new levels to explore. Anyone who loves an intense firefight should test their mettle on Enemy Within.