XCOM: Enemy Within is a follow-up to last year’s hit strategy release, XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Halfway between a sequel and an expansion pack, Enemy Within adds more weapons, powers, enemies, missions, and even new resources to an already amazing game. But at a steep $40 price tag, only 10 dollars less than you would pay for the original game on Steam, Enemy Within has to work hard to be worth the value.
The “Enemy Within” that the title refers to is EXALT, a new anti-XCOM faction. EXALT enemies aren’t bizarre alien monstrosities, they are human, just like you, and me, and Bob the sniper. EXALT is made up of alien sympathizers that believe alien technology should be assimilated by the human race. Facing them is a lot like facing your own troops. They will use squad tactics, superior numbers, and plain old guns to back you into a corner and overwhelm you. Outisde of battle, they will raise the world’s panic levels, which reduces their confidence in the XCOM program.
EXALT missions basically take place alongside the main XCOM campaign. You can either choose to take these missions on to lessen the EXALT threat, or completely ignore them and just blow through the main campaign facing the consequences. The actual goal of the EXALT missions is to find the EXALT base and take down their center of operations. It actually has a sort of “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?” feel to it. Successful missions give you intel on where the EXALT base is. You then have to accuse countries of harboring the EXALTs and bad things happen if you guess wrong.
As much as EXALT sings the praises of transhumanism, you also commit some pretty horrible scientific atrocities over the course of XCOM: Enemy Within. For example, you can turn your units into MEC units, which basically amounts to cutting off their arms and legs and putting their dismembered stump into a giant robot. Yep, nothing morally sketchy about that! MEC units are fantastic tanks and hit like a truck, but they lose all their class-specific abilities. They can’t really use cover, but they sure make good cover. They basically have a permanent target on their face, which is dangerous when you are dealing with a permadeath situation.
You can also upgrade your soldiers with gene mods that give them cool new abilities as well. Wait a minute… weren’t we fighting against the transhumanists? Anyway, these gene mods let your troops do stuff like auto-heal, resist mind control, and even become invisible to a certain extent. You can equip gene mods to a soldier’s brian, eyes, chest, skin, and legs, and each area has two modifications to choose from. These modifications stack with Psi abilities, but can’t be used by MEC soldiers.
Both of these new upgrades are purchased with a new type of resource called meld. Meld canisters are randomly distributed throughout maps in the campaign. Each canister has a self-destruct timer attached to it which means you have to harvest it quickly. This usually means jumping out recklessly into the line of fire instead of slowly approaching the enemy. It’s Firaxis’s way of making the gameplay more aggressive and for the most part it works. However, meld is plentiful at the beginning and you can always luck into a random meld placement that makes it very easy to harvest. Not to mention you could complete the entire game without ever spending a drop of meld, so harvesting these canisters is purely optional.
One issue with these new powers and upgrades is that they make everything feel too easy, especially if you are the type of player that lumps all of your enhancements on a small group of troops. It doesn’t take long for your soldiers to feel like they have become absolute murder machines. Classic and normal difficulties are a breeze, even in Ironman mode where you can’t make multiple saves or reload past save stated. Luckily, the new enemies and missions do keep things feeling fresh, even if you are steamrolling over aliens and EXALTs alike.
You can also always crank the difficulty up to impossible which continues to live up to its name, but beware. The jump from too easy to teeth-grindingly difficult is profound. Those looking for more subtle tweaks in difficulty can turn on new Second Wave options like Marathon, which increases the length of research and construction time. Then again if you like being an unstoppable power house, you can always turn on options like Save Scum, which re-seeds random number generators every time you reload. Missed that critical shot, just reload and take the shot again until it hits!
XCOM: Enemy Within kind of feels like a toy chest. It’s like Firaxis just created a whole bunch of new content and asked us to go nuts, and that’s basically what you do as soon as you pick Enemy Within up. As fun as the new maps are, and as interesting as the EXALT plotline and side missions can be, the high points of Enemy Within are when you charge through alien forces with your MEC soldiers, flamethrowers a blazing. It exists very much in opposition to the feel of the original, which for most people was a very slow and surgical strategy game.
Unfortunately, to experience all that Enemy Within has to offer, you basically have to start all over and this is what is going to turn most people off. Granted it feels like a very different game, but it’s still familiar enough to feel like retreading old territory. You are basically spending $40 dollars ($30 for the PC version) to replay XCOM: Enemy Unknown with a longer expanded mission and lots of shiny new toys. This might seem like a rip-off to some, but trust us, the new toys are really really shiny! Even if you don’t pick up the expansion right now you should definitely pick it up as soon as it goes on Steam sale. After all, who can put a price tag on giant robot soldiers punching aliens in the face? It worked for Pacific Rim and it works here too.
This review is based on a publisher supplied copy of XCOM: Enemy Within for the PC.