It has long been a universal truth that you can make anything better, no matter what it is, by adding Mechs.
It’s not a well-documented, or even particularly tried and tested truth, but it remains a concrete fact nonetheless. Take Pride & Prejudice, or Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, for example: imagine how much better they would be with giant robots blowing the crap out of the place. Recent Del-Toro action-fest Pacific Rim made the entire concept of Godzilla better simply by having ridiculously oversized robots punching monsters in the face. Developers Firaxis Games appear to have recognised and embraced this truth during the development of their latest expansion – and the pay-off is colossal.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown was one of the most underrated games of last year, earning its fair share of critical acclaim but managing to be overlooked by a great many gamers who either hadn’t heard of the franchise or who were put off when the words “tactical” and “strategic” were used without the word “shooter” showing up too. Now Firaxis have taken Enemy Unknown back to the workshop and given it far more than a new coat of paint, actually managing to improve on one of 2012’s best releases.
Enemy Within is a standalone expansion to the original, essentially the same game but with an insane amount of tweaks and additions. The Commander Edition comes with the Elite Soldier Pack, as well as the Second Wave and Slingshot packs, and it also contains Progeny, the latest piece of story-driven DLC. That alone would be a decent package as, although Slingshot was underwhelming and the Soldier Pack is just clothes and hairstyles, the difficulty modifiers included in Second Wave are brilliant.
But this is far, far more than just a Game of the Year Edition. Enemy Within takes the original right back to the grass roots and re-grows it, weaving in a new resource, a new enemy faction, a handful of new mission types, a ton of new locations and some frightening new alien aggressors. As a result it not only alters and improves on the story, but introduces enough new elements to each encounter to perturb even hardened XCOM vets.
The difficulty has been ramped up considerably, not least thanks to the inclusion of the Stalker, a stealth-based enemy who can become invisible, sneak up on your soldiers and choke them, removing them from the action and slowly killing them. They’re easy enough to guard against as they’re fairly weak physically – and sticking your idle soldiers on Overwatch is a good way to negate the threat – but when you’re simultaneously contending with hulking Mutons and devious Floaters, they can make those few seconds between every turn incredibly tense.
The core game remains the same, so you’ll still be splitting your time between managing your headquarters and commanding your team in the field, only now there’s a little more shine to both sides of the XCOM coin. During your sojourns into the field, your soldiers can earn medals for their actions for you to assign as you please. Each one confers a small, but significant, buff to performance, which you get to choose when you name the medal . Once again, you’ll be naming and customising your operatives, and pinning medals on their puffed-up chests fills you with a strange kind of pride. If there’s one thing XCOM does incredibly well, it’s making you care about your squad to the point that every mistake you make fills you with a palpable fear for their safety.
There have been no changes made to the growth trees of the four main classes, but you can now customise your soldiers in three new ways. Where Enemy Unknown allowed you to send a soldier off for PSI testing, Within allows you build a Gene Lab and Cybernetics workshop, so that you can modify and enhance your soldiers even further. Unlock the right research projects and you can send a lucky (or unlucky) squaddie off to the MEC lab, where he or she is transformed into an inhuman cyborg that can wear one of the new MEC suits, essentially a walking combat tank capable of soaking up damage and raining hell on the alien menace.
The MEC Troopers (of which there are four classes based on the soldier’s original specialty) move and act like other units in the field, but they can’t take cover. For abduction and terror missions they can be a life-saver, but sometimes you’d do just as well to leave them back at base and use the slot for an extra sniper or support operative. Their huge movement range and combat effectiveness is a bonus, but it’s easy to get over-excited and leave one exposed far away from the team – and the lack of cover means they’re easy targets for the aggressive, impressive enemy AI.
All these new upgrades and improvements are made possible by harnessing a new resource called MELD. Part organic and part nano technology, MELD is an alien substance that allows soldiers to be enhanced in a variety of ways, bonded to MEC suits or augmented – for example – with better vision (for increased Aim) or hardened skin (for better resistance to damage). You can even give one of your troops Chameleon skin, allowing them to become invisible. Graft it to a Support trooper with increased movement and decent armour and you’ve got an excellent recon unit without having to splash out for the expensive (and weaker) Ghost Armour.
MELD is found in many stages, and usually only lasts for around five turns. If you can position a soldier adjacent to a canister, you can collect it by tapping ‘A’; alternatively, if you finish the mission before it expires you’ll take home whatever is left on the field. A single canister typically yields 10 units of MELD, and the cost to spend it isn’t ever all that high – but what MELD is really there to do is give you something else to think about in every encounter. Knowing what it does and what it’s used for, you won’t be able to resist going after it every time, and its limited lifespan means you often have to take chances and overreach if you want to collect all the available canisters.
Heading into a mission with a fully enhanced and augmented group of well-outfitted super-soldiers may inspire acts of considerable bad-assery on your part, but beware: the enemies are sharper and more plentiful, and the new environments are designed to test you by spreading cover more thinly or making you search for alternate routes when enemies spring upon you from within the ever-present fog of war. Some of the new mission types will challenge even career commanders; Site Recon missions, for example, may send you into a civilian area to discover the source of a massacre.
One particular mission had me investigating a fishing village overrun with zombies, which I soon found where the result of a Chryssalid hive inside the corpse of a sperm whale. The hives are a true nightmare, disgorging fresh Chryssalids every turn – and every XCOM player is familiar with the very real terror of seeing their squad overwhelmed by the insectiod zombie-makers. Forcing me to walk past the hive to activate an airstrike on the area, before forcing me to reach extraction within 8 turns saw me lose three of my best soldiers and make it out by the skin of my teeth – and I consider myself a decent player. Enemy Within will make you work for your pips – but you’ll feel like you earned them.
The last significant addition is Exalt, a shadowy organisation that most resembles The Bureau in appearance. Made up of humans who share XCOM’s technology but none of their ethics, EXALT agents show up now and then to bring a different kind of conflict to the fore. They move well and deal some pretty hefty damage, but they’re physically weak and susceptible to critical hits – hence their large numbers.
After a certain point in the story you’ll be able to scan the world for signs of EXALT cells, to which you can then despatch a covert operative from your roster of soldiers. After several days you’ll learn whether the mission was successful or not, and in most cases you’ll need to despatch an extraction team to bring the operative back. These missions are among the better additions to Enemy Within, as there’s something cool about going in to rescue one of your cherished soldiers and bring them out, perhaps providing covering fire as they hack EXALT servers and then peg it to the extraction zone. Taken alongside the existing game (building an Arc-Thrower, capturing and interrogating aliens, bringing down their network, etc), the EXALT missions are always a breath of fresh air and a welcome change of pace.
The only real complaint that can be levelled against Enemy Within is that an already unforgiving game has now become a hardcore challenge even on Normal. Newcomers who missed Enemy Unknown and dive straight into this new edition may find the going particularly rough, even though there are several tutorials to ease you into the game itself and explain the acquisition of MELD. Most likely because of the considerable number of additions and gameplay tweaks, you can’t load up a save game from Enemy Unknown and continue on; you must begin Enemy Within from the start with a fresh base and a fresh squad of recruits. Frankly, the gameplay is so close to perfection that you won’t mind.
There are still a few issues with the visuals, and now and then the action will stutter between you issuing a command and the soldier carrying it out, but the new environments are, if anything, even more detailed than the old ones. There’s an option to have your soldiers speak in their native languages (well, Russian, German, Spanish and Italian, anyway), but there still aren’t any accents for the English-speaking nationalities. You can’t have a British or Australian bent; everyone is either a continental European or an American. It’s a minor gripe, but it’s something the developers could have easily addressed.
VERDICT: Small annoyances aside, Firaxis have taken a great game and made it brilliant. There’s so much content and so much to see and do in Enemy Within that one playthrough is unlikely to do it. The changes to the overall challenge are occasionally steep, but always surmountable – if anything, they force you to think, to utilise every single skill at your disposal. More than ever before, XCOM makes you consider the consequences of your actions, the new mission types urging you to plan ahead and fret about the way out of an area of operations as well as the way in. It may be almost utterly unforgiving to rookies, but Enemy Within is an absolutely essential purchase for fans of the original.
SUPERB. This is the mark of greatness, only awarded to games that engage us from start to finish. Titles that score 9/10 will have very few problems or negative issues, and will deliver high quality and value for money across all aspects of their design.
Review copy provided by publisher.