Keep Your Friends Close, but Your XCOM Even Closer: A XCOM: Enemy Within Review
1993 was a year full of many endings: Pablo Escobar and Andre the Giant’s lives, Michael Jordan’s first retirement, the Cheers finale, and John Wayne Bobbitt’s penis. The last day of the year saw a new beginning with the release of the groundbreaking X-COM: UFO Defense.
X-COM was a very unique mixture of turn-based combat fused with researching technology and managing resources. After a few less successful sequels, the series switched hands between publishers as Hasbro bought out MicroProse. It wouldn’t be until 2012 that the series returned to true form with the re-imagined XCOM: Enemy Unknown.
Enemy Unknown is a game about making difficult choices. Coming to the aid of one country could lose you the support of another. A bad call on the battlefield could result in a soldier you’ve spent countless hours leveling up dying permanently. Perhaps the hardest choice of all is whether or not to turn the game off, or “do just one more mission”.
It has been a year since Enemy Unknown released, with only two rather insignificant DLC releases, and a disappointing XCOM third-person shooter did nothing to quench the thirst of dehydrated XCOM fans. Suddenly, like an oasis in the middle of the desert, XCOM: Enemy Within has arrived… and it is quite refreshing.
Perhaps the hardest choice of all is whether or not to turn the game off or “do just one more mission”.
Enemy Within is an expansion pack to Enemy Unknown, so this review is going to largely focus on the new additions made to the game.
First let me say that Enemy Unknown was a game that was highly replayable, even a year after it came out. With the exception of a few key story events, each playthrough was very different with randomized maps, events, and soldiers. Enemy Within just adds more layers onto that equation with new enemy types, soldiers, and equipment.
New ways to play
So what could make an already great game even better? How about piloting a robot and rocket punching an alien through a wall? The addition of MEC is personally where I spent a lot of my resources as they are very durable, kick like a one ton bull, and can use unique weaponry like proximity mines. They aren’t able to use cover, but a fully upgraded MEC Trooper is indeed a one man army.
In addition to hacking off your soldier’s limbs to jam them into a robotic tin can, you can also conduct a bunch of genetic experiments. Gene Mods will grant several perks like health regen, cloaking, and increased mobility and aim. Gene Mods can be stacked with Psi abilities as well, however MEC Troopers cannot receive Gene Mods.
The game could have easily lost all sense of balance if you were able to make an all MEC wrecking crew, but Firaxis smartly limited the speed at which you can start applying these new upgrades. The introduction of Meld works as a form of currency for both the Genetics and Cybernetics Labs. Meld is only obtained through missions, most of the time in a “risk vs reward” situation. Meld containers work on a countdown clock and can often be placed in areas where claiming it can leave your soldier totally exposed. Clearing a map quickly will also claim any Meld that has not expired yet.
There are also 47 new maps added to the game across all modes. In terms of gear there’s quite a few grenade types that have a range of effects from stun to working as a decoy. Not much new in terms of guns except for re-skinned guns obtained from the new Exalt faction (I’ll get to them in a minute). Enemy Within also comes with all the previously released DLC content, so if you missed those you will also notice the addition of S.H.I.V. drones and fusion type weaponry for your heavies and airforce.
Character classes have also been slightly rebalanced… like snipers receiving a nerf that only grants critical hits utilizing Squad Sight only if you use it in combination with Headshot. A maxed out sniper with Archangel Armor and a Plasma Sniper Rifle is still an unstoppable angel of death, regardless.
Medals are another new addition and are rewarded for playing particularly well on any given map. Players are given two choices of a buff to assign to a medal from five different tiers. Once a buff is chosen and a medal assigned, it becomes permanent and cannot be switched over to a different soldier.
New things to shoot at
There are only two new classes of aliens added in this expansion. To serve as a counter to your own MEC Troopers, the aliens now have a Mechtoid. Of course, Enemy Unknown had several robotic enemy classes anyway, and as a result, the previous Sectopod has been buffed to differentiate from the Mechtoid. The Seekers are a more unique addition, with the ability to cloak to get in close for a strangulation move. The sniper Battle Scanner perk is definitely a must have for fighting these enemies.
The bulk of the new enemies comes in the form of the Exalt organization. These missions see you mostly on the defensive against invading forces of genetically modified humans. Rather than taking the existing maps and just dropping in human enemies, Exalt missions definitely feel different and unique. You choose one soldier to go in as a covert operative, only armed with a pistol, and after a few days your team will go in to extract him/her. Being surrounded by enemy snipers with only a pea shooter in your pocket can be far more intimidating than facing down a squad of armored Mutons.
All these new character classes are also playable in multiplayer mode, as well as a few subtle changes to balance things out a bit more. The menu and loadouts have been optimized a bit to make the overall experience even smoother.
The Slingshot DLC introduces Shaojie Zhang, an original character with a unique voice not found the customization menu. Similarly, Enemy Unknown gives you the spunky psi-powered soldier, Annette Durand. There are also quite a few new customization options, as well as a very cool feature to have your characters speak in the language of their origin country. I had critiqued Enemy Within for having every character sound distinctly American, despite being from all corners of the globe. The new language feature unfortunately only covers European nations… which is a small portion of the nationalities represented in XCOM.
William Carter from The Bureau: XCOM Declassified also joins the cast as an easter egg, similar to Ken Levine and Sid Meier already being hidden characters in the game.
20 years of X-COM
The end of this month will mark the 20th anniversary of the original X-COM: UFO Defense. I can’t think of a better way to celebrate than with the definitive successor to that game. The series as a whole has definitely seen more shares of lows than highs, but in the capable hands of 2K and Firaxis, the future looks quite bright.
XCOM: Enemy Within is currently available for 360 and PS3 for only $40, and on PC as an expansion pack (that requires Enemy Unknown) for only $30. If you have never played a turn based strategy title before, this is an excellent place to start. The layout works perfectly on consoles with a gamepad, and with its random nature and second wave options, this is one of the most replayable titles in recent memory.