Developer: Firaxis Games / Publisher: 2K Games / Played on: PC / Price: $29.99 / ESRB: Mature [Blood and Gore, Strong Language, Violence]
I initially had some trouble wrapping my mind around what an expansion to XCOM: Enemy Unknown would amount to. Turns out it’s very similar to an expansion for Civilization: new mechanics, units, and custom content refresh the original experience. In Enemy Within, you play the same campaign as Enemy Unknown, only with lots of additions that change the feel of the game rather dramatically.
The banner addition in Enemy Within is meld: a glowing, orange substance that combines mechanical and biological matter. Nodes of meld are now distributed across the game’s maps, though they self-destruct after a few turns. Chasing down the limited resource before it vaporizes creates interesting tactical challenges. If you only have two turns to get across the map, you have to surgically plan every move.
Once collected, meld can dramatically upend the balance of power in the campaign. Based on the facilities you build at your XCOM base and the projects you choose to research, you can either augment your soldiers with MECs (Mechanized Exoskeleton Cybersuits) or amp up their basic attributes with gene upgrades. Either approach produces a damned overpowered superhuman. MECs have almost double the health of normal, squishy soldiers. They can’t take cover like normal soldiers, but it’s never really necessary. In my playthrough, I only lost one MEC due to two critical hits in one turn.
Gene upgraded soldiers are a little more nuanced, featuring boosts like an eye upgrade that grants +10 aim after missing a shot or upgraded legs that allow you to jump up elevations that normally require a ladder. These upgrades play more naturally into the role-based combat of XCOM, but there’s a tradeoff. A soldier with enhanced genes is just as vulnerable as anyone else. Losing a soldier along with all that invested meld stings far worse than any death in the original Enemy Unknown.
With MECs and gene upgrades, you have a lot more tools to dispatch aliens with in Enemy Within, which ends up making the game a lot easier since the aliens don’t have many tools at their disposal to fight back. Only two enemy types have been added: a stealth floater called a “seeker” that can materialize above a soldier and start strangling him, and the “mechtoid,” which is just a sectoid in a mechanical battle suit. Seekers are an interesting idea but rarely pose a legitimate threat if your squad stays together. Mechtoids are scarier, but can be dealt with just like the mutoids or cyberdisks. Ultimately, Enemy Within gives you powerful tools that make the game easier since the aliens don’t have many new weapons to fight back. For better or worse, Enemy Within is far more accommodating for the player that wants to push forward quickly and wipe out aliens with authority, which is a far cry from the slow, paranoid mood of Enemy Unknown.
Perhaps saying there are only two new enemies is unfair. Enemy Within also adds two special plot lines, events of which pop up intermittently during the main campaign. The largest involves a fanatical organization dubbed EXALT. Wearing old timey fedoras that look suspiciously similar to the agents of The Bureau: XCOM Declassified, this faction works to destabilize regions and run counter-operations against XCOM. Fighting against them is like fighting a mirror of your own squad—EXALT units include snipers, heavies, supports, etc. It’s a neat idea and the presence of a shadowy, clandestine cult plays into XCOM sentiments perfectly, but in practice there’s no difference fighting EXALT operatives or aliens.
A number of other special maps inject new life into the campaign, my favorite being a base-defense event that’s a nod back to the original X-COM: UFO Defense. But just like the buffs to your own squad, the injection of new special events changes the feel of the campaign. With all the new content enabled (you can toggle the events when you start), you’re pinged about a special event every week or so (of in-game time) in addition to the missions you’d play in Enemy Unknown. Enemy Within is very event-dense; you’ll spend way more time in combat and less time managing your base. That’s neither good nor bad on its own, it just depends how you felt about the ratio of combat to management in Enemy Unknown.
The new maps in Enemy Within are marvelous without caveat, though. Not only are there tons of new environments but they all make better use of elevation. In Enemy Unknown, I rarely sent units to high ground even with the skeleton suit. The placement of any overhead terrain never seemed to be that useful. Enemy Within is a different story though. Not only are the maps themselves more vertical (many take place in multi-level buildings), but there’s always a pipe or ladder around to make vertical movement more viable.
I also love the host of small tweaks and options added to Enemy Within. You can make it so individual soldiers speak in their native language, which is cool. I also want to call special attention to the handy button to unequip all soldiers of special gear right at the squad loadout screen now, meaning it’s way easier to deck out your squad without tabbing through every soldier. You can also issue multiple movement orders simultaneously, which is a fantastic time-saver when you know your immediate surroundings are alien-free.
It’s hard to bottom-line Enemy Within as a value proposition… it really boils down to what you want out of more XCOM. I loved the huge variety of new maps but felt the meld upgrades sapped some of Enemy Unknown’s bite. The other half of that sentiment is that I now feel empowered to pick up my Hard / Ironman run again. The neatest summary I can give is this: if you want an excuse to play more XCOM, you’ve got it.