XCOM: Enemy Within is, in a lot of ways, the quintessential expansion pack. It’s not a pseudo-sequel. It doesn’t add on huge amounts of stuff after the end, or offer an entirely new campaign, or anything like that. It just expands on what was there before, giving you far more options and far more threats demanding attention in your war against the aliens attacking Earth. And oh, those options are glorious.
The biggest addition to the game is Meld, a new resource that not only gives you a number of ways to further improve your troops but also forces you to play maps in a slightly different way. This is a mysterious alien substance that – for some inadequately explained reason – appears in a pair of big canisters on most missions. If you can get to it, you can take it and use it for your own purposes.
The problems surrounding this are twofold: firstly, you don’t know where on the map the Meld canisters are. Secondly, these canisters are (for an equally inadequately explained reason) rigged to self-destruct after a certain number of turns, and you don’t know how long you have until you’ve seen the canisters. What this means is that the usual XCOM pace of “move very slowly from cover to cover, inching forward, making sure to reload all weapons after every shootout” doesn’t work if you ever want to get Meld. You’ll have to make mad dashes over to it, exposing your soldiers and leaving them in vulnerable situations. You’ll have to scour some maps in small groups rather than sticking together and carefully covering each other. Otherwise, you’re missing out on a bounty.
It’s a hell of a bounty, too. Meld gives you access to two different types of upgrade trees, one recommended by your engineers and one recommended by your scientists. Your scientists want to use this stuff to genetically modify your soldiers, giving them magic eyes and brains and legs and noses (except not the last one). These fall into a sort of Deus Ex augmentation thing that can be applied to any basic soldier; a trooper can have one eye augmentation, but you have to choose between giving them a bonus when they have a height advantage, or giving them a bonus to Aim following a missed shot.
Your engineers, on the other hand, saw this amazing gene-altering gel stuff and immediately thought “GIANT FUCKING DEATH ROBOTS.” What they do is saw the head off a soldier and staple it onto a giant robot body, which does absolutely nothing to counter my belief that XCOM’s R&D facilities are staffed with mad scientists. Going through with this changes the class of the augmented soldier to MEC Trooper, which has an entirely different skill tree and entirely different equipment.
MEC Troopers also have a trade-off between skills, though. Other than the skill tree choices, your MEC suits are upgraded periodically as you research the usual stuff, with each of the three levels for these giant murderbots offering a trade-off between two pieces of kit built into them. At level one, for instance, you can choose to give them either a giant pneumatic fist or a flamethrower. This is not an easy decision to make.
Let’s take the flamethrower, traditionally one of the most useless videogame weapons. It’s powerful at first, but – in terms of pure damage – it scales pretty badly into the late game, when enemies start getting absurdly large health values. However, it hits in a cone shape so it can fry more than one foe at once, and more importantly, it panics any organic units it hits. If a unit can be panicked, it is panicked. It’s a gun that causes instantaneous terror in anything that can feel terror. Fantastic, right?
But the giant pneumatic fist is no slouch, either. For starters, it does 12 damage, which means it’s capable of killing most enemies outright and can take even the biggest enemies down to half health in one hit. It never misses. It’s melee, sure, but MECs can move a silly distance in one turn and can’t use cover anyway. It has special animations when you use it to kill a huge enemy, like a Muton Berserker. And – best of all – the force of the punch smashes a killed enemy back about four spaces, through anything in the way. Walls? Pfft. Cars? Hah. This can lead to wonders like your MEC charging into the front lines and punching a Muton so hard it goes flying through a wall and into a car, which promptly explodes and kills the two Sectoids lurking behind it, which is a hell of a way to get revenge on someone that just killed your sniper. Alas, MEC troopers cannot be genetically modified: it’s one or the other.
Of course, you’re not the only one with new toys. The aliens have got a couple of nasty new units, one of which turns up very early, cloaks, and likes to sneak up on isolated soldiers, while the other will remain unspoiled in this review. There are a number of new setpiece missions, including one in which the aliens go on the offensive against the XCOM base. And then there’s EXALT.
EXALT are a human terror organisation dedicated to using the aliens to seize power for themselves, and to that end they set up sleeper cells in the countries around the world. Those cells can be found by using an intel scan (which costs money) or by waiting until they go active, which tends to result in you losing research or money, or an increase in panic in that country.
Once a cell is located you can neutralise it (and get a Carmen Sandiego-esque clue to the location of EXALT’s main base) by sending in a covert agent, but this has risks of its own. A soldier sent to infiltrate a cell is completely unavailable to you for a little while, and when he’s got the intel needed to shut down the cell he calls for extraction, which triggers a special Covert Operations mission. Here, you either need to guard a couple of areas against waves of EXALT attack, or get the covert agent to a couple of comm arrays and hack them.
The problem is that the covert agent goes into the mission with with no armour and only a pistol and his equipped items to protect him, and you’re totally without that soldier until the extraction mission pops up. Use a rookie and there’s every chance he’ll die during the extraction attempt, failing the mission. Use a pro and he’s not only unavailable for any regular missions that crop up in that time frame, but he’s dangerously vulnerable when the extraction mission occurs; if your A-squad is unavailable (due to, say, being wounded when fighting off an abduction attempt) the chances of his unfortunate death rises rapidly.
EXALT themselves use the XCOM class templates, weapons that are functionally identical to XCOM weapons, and special gene therapy through use of Meld that goes beyond what even your mad scientists consider ethically acceptable. In short, you’re fighting against squads similar to your own: you’ll deal with snipers on high ground, support types popping smoke grenades and healing their allies, and heavies launching rockets at troops clustered behind cover.
These are the big additions, but there’s a tonne of little stuff too. Medals, which give boosts, can be awarded to your soldiers. There’s now multi-lingual voice acting, so your German sniper can actually speak German. There are a host of new Second Wave options that massively change up the game, like having each soldier’s skill tree randomly generated (and thus having assault troops with perks from the heavy class, for instance). There are a host of new maps. Oddly enough, it’s these little things – the medals and the voices, in particular – that are probably my favourite changes, adding tiny little bits of flavour that make everything feel more coherent.
XCOM: Enemy Within is XCOM: Enemy Unknown, expanded. It’s the same basic game, but with more options, more threats, and nothing really done wrong. This doesn’t break the game or ruin it; it simply adds more of it and changes the way you play it. It’s a little sad that things like the XCOM base assault are setpieces rather than the result of aliens finding your base, and the strategic map still feels like you’re just waiting for the next event rather than fighting a war against a cunning foe, but these are minor quibbles that I’d expect to be addressed in a sequel rather than an expansion. The bottom line is that Enemy Within makes XCOM better, and if you’ve been waiting for an excuse to dive back in, then this is it.