XCOM: Enemy Unknown is famous for its punishing difficulty. Balancing attention between managing squad members, conducting research, erecting base facilities, and intercepting UFOs is an arduous task; losing one of your prized soldiers in battle is heart-breaking. The combination of these aspects and the deep — yet accessible — strategic gameplay gave life to one of the best and most satisfying games of 2012. Not content to rest on their laurels, Firaxis brings us a full-fledged expansion in XCOM: Enemy Within. This fantastic package does more than just add to an excellent game — it improves it in several meaningful ways. After experiencing XCOM with this new expansion installed, you won’t want to go back.
A significant overhaul, Enemy Within is an entirely separate instance from Enemy Unknown, even to the tune that launching the game asks you to choose between one and the other. This means that you don’t lose the classic core experience or any of your saved games therein, but it also means that none of your existing saves will appear in Enemy Within. You’ve got to start from scratch.
It doesn’t take long for things to feel different, though. A tutorial mission is added at the beginning to introduce Meld, a new currency. It’s explained as a material comprised of nanites, microscopic machines – partially organic and partially robotic – that can be used to either create mechanical suits or fuse alien tissue with that of humans. This currency (and what it’s used for) acts as the most impactful addition to the XCOM experience brought about in this expansion.
Simply the practice of gathering Meld is somewhat of a game-changer. Most missions in Enemy Within include two Meld canisters dispersed throughout the map — a squad member need only reach an adjacent position to a canister to be able to collect the resource, and the act of collecting it does not cost an action. But there’s a catch: in the majority of cases, you have a finite number of turns to find the canisters before they self-destruct. Meld is a scarce commodity; collecting it will prove nearly as important as accomplishing the main objective. Will you split up your squad to find both canisters quickly, or stay together in a safer formation and risk losing one?
Meld acquisition enables the construction of two key facilities: the Cybernetics Lab and the Genetics Lab. Along with being considered a workshop for adjacency purposes, the Cybernetics Lab is used to convert existing soldiers to MEC Troopers, replacing almost all of their organic matter with robotic components. The soldier keeps their rank and gains a bonus relative to what type of soldier he/she was (i.e. a Heavy gets a defence bonus) but loses any upgrades obtained prior to conversion. However, they gain access to an entirely new skill tree specific to MEC Troopers.
These Troopers can’t do much without their primary weapon — the upgradeable MEC suit (Mechanized Exoskeletal Cybersuit). This is constructed separately in the Cybernetics Lab and requires additional currency to do so, making the MEC Trooper investment a rather expensive one — but the payoff is huge. A MEC Trooper equipped with a MEC suit is an intimidating specimen, at first armed with a powerful minigun and a choice of either a flamethrower or an incredible melee attack. Their health points are also significantly higher than those of any foot soldiers, and you’ll be thankful for that because soldiers in MEC suits cannot take cover — in fact, an unlockable skill enables them to become high cover for other soldiers.
The aforementioned Genetics Lab is considered a Laboratory for adjacency benefits, and allows for the development of Gene Mods revealed through alien autopsies. These provide a total of ten new upgrades for squad members, including the likes of Hyper-Reactive Pupils (+10% on any shot after a miss) and Depth Perception (height advantage adds +5 to Aim and +5% to Critical chance). My early favourite, however, was the Adaptive Bone Marrow upgrade, which not only reduces wound recovery time by 66% after battle, but also causes the soldier to regenerate two hit points per turn — it saved the lives of several of my soldiers on multiple occasions.
Gene Mods and MEC suits are both hugely consequential transformations for soldiers, but you’ll have to pick one or the other. The conversion to MEC Trooper is permanent, and strips the soldier of any Gene Mods they may have had. As both options require Meld, deciding which to spend the limited currency on can be difficult. MEC suits are incredibly powerful but rather expensive. Gene Mods also prove very helpful and can be spread around more soldiers at a lower cost. Conversely, spending all of your time and energy on developing MEC suits and Gene Mods also means that you may not have access to other new weapons or armour for a while. It’s a brand new balancing act that considerably affects the process of research and development.
No matter what you choose, if you thought losing a top-notch soldier in Enemy Unknown was devastating, just wait until you’ve lost one after spending all of this additional time and currency on them. These soldiers may be much more powerful, but it’s that much more difficult to handle losing them on the battlefield.
Medals are one more addition to buffing soldiers that is intriguing, but has less impact. After completing certain tasks in a mission, one of five different medals can be earned. Each of the different types has two potential buffs — you’ll choose one when the medal is first awarded, and that particular medal will forever carry that perk. However, instead of the game automatically giving the medal to the soldier who completed the task, you’re able to award it to whomever you prefer. Also, like the soldiers themselves, you can rename the medals to your liking or amusement.
Enemy Within doesn’t let you get away with all of these powerful upgrades without introducing some new predicaments. You’ll have two new alien enemies to contend with. One is the cloaking Seeker — their strangulation attack is a powerful one; be wary of leaving squad members too far from the pack in the presence of these foes. Another is the Mechtoid, the intimidating counter to the human MEC Trooper — these enemies are also notable in that they award Meld for defeating them.
There is also the introduction of EXALT, a human faction that is bent on leveraging the alien attacks to obtain world domination, including the eradication of the XCOM organization who would stand in their way. EXALT’s influence is less direct — from the cover of sleeper cells in Council nations, they can spread propaganda to increase panic, sabotage XCOM to steal money, or even reverse progress on a research project through hacking initiatives.
When EXALT goes on the offensive with one of these efforts, the location of the offending sleeper cell is exposed, allowing XCOM to infiltrate it. This is accomplished by deploying a single soldier as an operative to go undercover, and sending a full squad in to extract the agent several days later. The result of a successful extraction halts EXALT’s progress, but also includes a clue to the random location of their primary base of operations (an example may be: “The EXALT base is not in one of the world’s 5 most populous countries”). Once you’ve determined the location, you can accuse the appropriate country of harbouring the terrorists. If your accusation is correct, you’re able to assault the base and destroy the entire EXALT threat. But be careful; if you’re wrong, the accused country will withdraw from the XCOM project entirely, or spread continent-wide panic if they had already withdrawn.
Along with 47 new maps, Enemy Within also leverages several new mission types to keep you guessing — the result can be punishing. At one point, I was in the middle of the Slingshot DLC missions with several injured soldiers out of commission. Suddenly, the XCOM base was directly attacked by a swarm of invading aliens in quite the epic and difficult operation. With no control over my squad deployment, I struggled mightily to hold them off and was left with several more injured soldiers. Immediately after this mission, I was concurrently presented with a UFO abduction mission and the third Slingshot DLC mission — with only two healthy soldiers at the ready, I was required to ignore both missions and suffer the consequences. Doing so gave me just enough time to heal up a few more soldiers when the first EXALT mission presented itself — and this was on the Normal skill level!
Enemy Within also provides a smattering of additional, smaller enhancements throughout the game. The multiplayer modes benefit from the core additions, with the new alien enemies and EXALT soldiers available for play, along with eight new maps. There has also been rebalancing across the board including some point reductions to the cost of basic multiplayer units and an Aim penalty for panicking soldiers to help avoid too many friendly fire situations. The list of tweaks is extensive — while not always noticeable outright, these changes do help the overall flow of the gameplay.
Unfortunately, several bugs still remain. On the XCOM base defence mission, I had trouble positioning my units on the highest floor as it kept disappearing from view, making it very difficult to find the best areas of cover. I also experienced repeated crashes to desktop at seemingly random times on the PC. While not specific to Enemy Within (and not isolated, either, as evidenced by a glance at the Steam forums), the presence of the expansion did nothing to solve this frustrating issue. Still, none of these bugs proved major enough to effectively detract from the numerous enhancements brought by this extensive add-on.
Firaxis could easily have made us wait for a full-fledged sequel to XCOM: Enemy Unknown. But with Enemy Within, we’re introduced to a vast array of features that legitimately change the way the game is played — at half the cost of a fully priced title. It truly earns the moniker of “expansion,” and fans of the core game would be remiss to pass on it. For the rest of you who haven’t yet experienced the punishing yet rewarding gameplay of XCOM, there has never been a better time to jump in.