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XCOM: Enemy Within

Over the past week, I spent as much time as I could playing XCOM, the greatest argument for hiring someone just to find chilling epigraphs to open your game with. I guess I shouldn’t expect any less from Firaxis, who had much practice sticking a quote in with every piece of research in the Civilization games. Last year, they showed us they can make a good tactics game, but this year, there’s nothing new about Firaxis making really good expansions, as we also saw this summer with Brave New World.

But enough about 4X strategy games that only nerds play, we’re here for XCOM: Enemy Within, expansion to one of the most well done video game remakes.

So let’s get right to the heart of the matter: Are the new unholy abomination mech battle suits and genetic supersoldiers good? In short, yes. In long, read on.

You can access both of these techs very early in the game (more on that later), which actually stretches your resources even more and increases the game’s pressure. You only have enough money and Meld for so much. In my playthrough, I tried to field a MEC trooper while also investing in capturing aliens for research credit. This didn’t work out for me as I couldn’t get an alien containment unit up fast enough to make a difference in my research for the first month and a half or so. Since you can’t not focus on building satellites in this game, the best course of action is to choose between either a Meld tech or capture tech, not try to do both at once.

How much of a dick move would it be to augment soldiers, then dismiss them?
How much of a dick move would it be to augment soldiers, then dismiss them?

You build MEC suits and choose an ability for them. Later on, you can upgrade them and make more choices between additional weapons or other capabilities. Your augmented soldiers can equip these MEC suits, which is hopefully a good consolation prize for having their arms and legs amputated and replaced with cyber-limbs. They also get a standard robo-filter applied to their voices, along with adapting more logical, less emotionally charged language. So when replacing limbs, does XCOM operate on the vocal cords too?

Some of the game’s flavor text notes that these modifications will hopefully allow a soldier to continue living a normal life after the war. Props to Firaxis for remembering that we care about our troops!

On the other end of making your soldiers less human, most of the gene mods are quite good too. They are unlocked by conducting autopsies, so those are thankfully a lot more useful now. Overall, gene-modding appears to be better saved for later in the game, when you have more gene mods available to use on highly promoted soldiers. Incidentally, gene-modded soldiers get sleeveless armor like some Vietnam war movie, which looks stupid. I don’t care how genetically modified you are, a shot of plasma to the naked arm will remove it. And then the XCOM commander will “volunteer” you for the MEC program.

Both of these features are gained by using Meld. I didn’t like how Meld appeared as this practically magic phlebotinum that XCOM could use for instant tech leaps in genetic modification, and building cybernetic exo-suits with power fists (Warhammer 40k fans who were disappointed with Space Hulk, this is the game for you). Meld is scattered over the maps without rhyme or reason. Enemy Unknown put more of an effort at having its sci-fi make sense. The progression also feels a bit odd because you get cyber-mechs and gene mods before any other advanced technology; if Meld is that awesome, why can’t XCOM weaponize it, or develop other applications for it?

Still, I appreciate that it’s a very difficult task to properly explain these new elements while also introducing them early enough that people can actually see Enemy Within’s most appealing features without investing 5-10 hours into a playthrough. Given those circumstances, Firaxis did the best they could and focused on improving the gameplay. Scattering Meld on the maps does this, forcing you to advance faster so you can collect it before it blows up. I also like how there’s an implication that EXALT uses Meld too, which makes sense.

 

Trading Fedoras for Bandanas

Speaking of EXALT, they’re a great addition; a very different enemy from the aliens that causes new kinds of problems for XCOM, and can’t be dealt with in the same fashion as the aliens. Check out their outfits; I’m not sure if Firaxis gave EXALT their aesthetic as a potshot at The Bureau: XCOM Declassified, or if the organization from that game actually is supposed to be an EXALT predecessor. It’s not the only reference Enemy Within makes to that reviled almost-reboot, either.

I think there’s a some lost potential with how Firaxis introduced a new enemy faction. For context, in the original X-COM, the aliens actually carried out infiltration missions against national governments. If you didn’t shoot down the UFOs undertaking these missions, the targeted country would not only leave the X-COM project, they would sign a treaty with the aliens. In XCOM 2012, this activity is actually hinted at when Dr. Vahlen discusses the Thin Men, but doesn’t go anywhere.

So, why not take that flavor to its logical conclusion in Enemy Within? The title even spells it out. I often contemplate whether EXALT should have been an anti-XCOM task force created by nations that joined with the aliens. I think it would give the conflict more weight, as EXALT currently professes an agenda of world domination through alien tech, but I never get the feeling that they are a credible enough threat to take over more than one country. Indeed, the covert operations come down to accusing a single country of harboring the EXALT base. Take it out, and they’re as done as 2K Marin.

 

Loose Ends

-The new maps are an incredible improvement and show good imagination. For example, one of the new UFO crash maps takes place on top of skyscrapers. How cool is that?

-There are some new council missions, and the Newfoundland one in particular was quite intense. It’s one of my favorite missions in recent video games, and a good example of how to use scripted encounters in levels.

I like to pretend my troops panic because another modern military shooter was released at that moment.
I like to pretend my troops panic because another modern military shooter was released at that moment.

-Medals are a great new feature that didn’t see as much hype. When you complete certain missions or have soldiers do certain things, the game gives you a type of medal that you can assign a bonus to (like a minor bonus to defense while in cover), and then pin on to one of your soldiers. Allowing you to decorate your troops is a brilliant touch, and Firaxis should buy hookers and blow for whoever thought of it.

-Firaxis tweaked and rebalanced a number of things like soldier class abilities, continent bonuses, and Foundry projects, all for the better.

-This is a very minor quibble, but when anybody fires and misses, they often miss by such a large mark that it’s just implausible how any professional soldier or alien got where they are (as if XCOM players needed another reason to despise rookies). Firaxis should tighten the miss cone so that wide shots are near misses, rather than looking like the shooter was aiming somewhere else altogether.

-Once more, I really wish Firaxis had mod support for this game as with Civilization V, because I think there’s a lot of potential. Nonetheless, I’m pretty pessimistic on modding prospects for various reasons, as I can’t think of any Unreal Engine 3 games with extensive modding capabilities other than Unreal Tournament III.

-Will we see another expansion? Some people take lead designer Ananda Gupta’s comparison to Civilization V: Gods and Kings as a hint that Firaxis will develop yet another expansion for XCOM that serves a similar function to it as Brave New World did for Civ V. I doubt it, but I guess we’ll see.  A common complaint with Enemy Within is that it doesn’t address XCOM’s late game, which gets a bit plain. So, bets on what the title would be? I’d go for “Enemy Abound” and the non-contextual EA potshot.

So whether you’ve already played XCOM for dozens of hours, or you have yet to play my GOTY 2012, Enemy Within is money well spent. It’s easily among the best video game purchases one could make for new releases this season.

Armen

Armen has a writing degree and actually works in the game industry. Huzzah! In addition to video games, he also enjoys books, studying history, and a stein of mead.

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