XCOM: Enemy Within Review
Written Wednesday, November 13, 2013 By Lee Bradley
There’s something deeply fucked up about the mechs in XCOM: Enemy Within. To create these clunking beasts, you first need to pick a soldier and amputate all of their limbs. It’s not a gory process, in fact you don’t see it at all other than in diagram form, but it’s chilling, a queasy button press turning your soldier into a quadriplegic whose torso is then clamped into a human-sized metal exoskeleton.
But that’s not the most horrible bit. That comes once you’ve built your mech - or MEC as they’re called in Enemy Within - and plonked your now limbless solider into it. These masses of metal - with a tiny, disproportionately small human head poking out it - have a nightmarish quality. The way they stomp around the battlefield reminds me of a cross between Boston Dynamics’ freaky BigDog and the bit in RoboCop where ED209 falls down the stairs. It creeps me out.
"Will my bum look big in this?"
Cybernetics are one of the headline additions in XCOM: Enemy Within, made available to players via a new resource called MELD. This mysterious alien substance is found dotted around maps, stored in containers with a limited lifespan. Fail to collect it within the requisite number of turns and it’s gone forever. Grab enough of it and you’ll gain access to a range of powerful modifications for your soldiers. Yet, typically for XCOM, Firaxis doesn’t make this easy.
MELD in most often found on crashed and landed UFO missions. There are typically two canisters per mission; one that’s relatively easy to access and another that’s is far more tricky. It changes the face of a map completely, encouraging you to press ahead more quickly in a game that requires a more considered approach and pulling you around the environment to areas which may not be tactically optimal. It’s a classic risk/reward system, rather elegantly executed.
You see the rewards are great. The MECs I mentioned, while also scaring the crap out of me, are also super powerful, armed with devastating chain guns and a huge health bar. As with any normal soldier they also have a number of upgrades available via promotions too, things like an area effect flamethrower, a cover destroying punch or numerous stat buffs. MECs become an essential tool in your arsenal, death-spitting point men balanced by a near-constant need to reload and the fact that they can’t use cover.
"Cover me! I'm going in!"
The addition of MELD also allows your soldiers to become genetically enhanced, which brings attributes like increased aiming, reduced wound recovery time and bonus Will. It’s a more subtle but no less essential modification which ensures that whenever you encounter a mission with MELD on the map, you’re going to want to hunt it down, regardless of your position. A squad made up entirely of high-ranking modified soldiers is what you’re going to want to achieve.
The depth to which this is all embedded into the experience is impressive. To be able to explore cybernetic and genetic mods you have to build more labs at your “ants nest” base, and to actually carry out these enhancements costs money as well as MELD. So as well as adding depth, these new additions put an extra strain on your resources, and those that played the original game will know that juggling your various financial and material interests is already a tension-filled pain in the ass. The XCOM experience is one of constantly having less than you need, desperately trying to ensure that your scientists, engineers, satellites and soldiers are all doing exactly what they should be doing exactly when they should be doing it. The new modification options are an extra layer of stress.
As are the EXALT, a new enemy faction determined to mess with the XCOM, capture alien resources and use them for their own nefarious needs. To tackle the threat of EXALT, you are required to dispatch one of your soldiers on a Covert Operation. Should they be successful, one of two new missions types are triggered; Covert Data Recovery and Covert Extraction, one of which charges your team with hacking two arrays, while the other sees you defending an encoder and a transmitter against a ridiculous amount of EXALT agents.
EXALT - wardrobe by Spandau Ballet.
The ultimate goal of all this is to track down the EXALT base and take it out, eliminating the shadowy agency’s threat permanently. Along the way you’ll have to make informed guesses as to the base’s whereabouts, guesses which if incorrect will infuriate the host region, causing them to withdraw from the XCOM project or cause a continent wide panic. At risk of hammering home the point, while the original XCOM: Enemy Unknown was a pressured exercise in plate-spinning, Enemy Within makes it feel like a picnic. It’s not necessarily harder (how do you differentiate between different levels of insanely difficult, anyway?), but it is altogether more stressful. Every single action, every button click in the game has lasting consequences.
Beyond all this, Enemy Within is also pretty generous with its new content, offering new enemies, 47 new maps and all of the DLC from the original, including the Elite Soldier and Slingshot packs. There’s also two big, brilliant set-piece missions, one of which sees you defending the XCOM base itself from invasion. Throw in a new, wonderfully-paced achievement list that reflects the challenge of the game itself, encouraging you to explore its various nooks and crannies, and you’ve got a fantastic package. The weird line-of-sight and frequent clipping issues remain from the original game, but to be honest that has never really got in the way of my enjoyment.
So XCOM: Enemy Within is a relatively rare phenomenon in terms of standalone console expansions, most of which slap an extra bit of content on the core game and essentially ask fans to dish out for it all over again. Enemy Within, meanwhile, weaves new additions into the experience, adding depth and variety to the gameplay in a way that accentuates the core values of the experience. After years of updating its titles on PC, it should come as no surprise that Firaxis would do a good job, but this is masterful, a brilliant chance to catch up for those that missed the game the first time around and an essential buy for fans.
Squadmates barking their acceptance of orders gets a bit tiresome, but otherwise the sound design is atmospheric and camply creepy.
The distinctive art style and interesting enemy designs are notable, but XCOM is about gameplay not visuals. It does the job well enough.
Just brilliant. It’s easy to learn the ropes of XCOM: Enemy Within, but pretty soon it’s piling on the pressure. Stressful, but satisfying.
Loads of wonderful new content that’s weaved expertly into the core game, adding tactical depth, new missions, new enemies and all the DLC released for the original game. You couldn’t ask for more.
A decent spread of achievements, the completion of which will take considerable skill and effort. Fitting then for one of the most challenging and rewarding games of this generation.
Essential for fans and newcomers alike, XCOM: Enemy Within’s additions meaningfully alter your experience of the game, forcing players to take new approaches to an already loved title. Firaxis has done it again.
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