Released in late 2012, XCOM: Enemy Unknown was almost universally hailed as an outstanding turn-based strategy title that combined just enough that was familiar from the classic XCOM series of games with a fresh and streamlined approach to the genre. Wonder of wonders, it was also amazingly playable on console with some players even going so far as to prefer the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions to the PC.
A year later, Firaxis and 2K Games have released an expansion to Enemy Unknown, XCOM: Enemy Within, but how is the expansion integrated and what is this new and mysterious enemy?
If you’re not familiar with XCOM: Enemy Unknown, then you would do well to read Peter’s review of the original game over here, suffice to say that it’s a top-down turn-based strategy game where you as the commander of a clandestine government agency, XCOM, must direct the actions of specially trained soldiers fighting against an alien invasion of Earth. Every decision you make has a potentially great consequence as you move your squad around the field of battle choosing which cover to use, which enemy to target and which ability to use when.
These decisions extend to your base where you’ll need to select weapon and technology research to pursue, micro-manage your soldiers’ equipment loadouts, as well as expand your base to increase capacity and efficiency, all while responding to various threats in cities around the world in order to maintain a balance and ensure every member country in ‘The Council’ is happy and not panicking.
XCOM: Enemy Within, on the other hand, is a slightly-above-budget-priced standalone expansion to Enemy Unknown, except that on consoles it’s bundled together with the base game in what they’ve called the ‘Commander Edition’ – on PC, however, Enemy Within is available as a separate downloadable expansion.
Enemy Within is what I would call an ‘integrated expansion,’ in that the new content has been stitched into the base game that you already know – there’s no separate campaign to play. You’ll instead meet a new threat in the form of the human insurgency group, ‘Exalt,’ get to augment your soldiers in new (and disturbing) ways, face off against new alien enemies in new maps and experiment with a few new weapons along the way.
Arguably the biggest new element in Enemy Unknown with Enemy Within is the addition of the ‘Meld’ resource. This alien energy can be found in cannisters, usually two per level, but is set to self destruct if you don’t get to it in time. What this does is effectively give you a new objective to complete while dealing with the enemies on the map, which in the world of XCOM means a set of new and important decisions to make: Do you go for the Meld cannister before it explodes or focus on getting your squad through the encounter alive?
Meld is used back at base to augment your soldiers with all-new (and decidedly alien) genetic modifications to improve their physical prowess, but it’s also used to transform soldiers into mechanical monstrosities capable of wielding flamethrowers and other heavy weapons, with a devastating punch attack available up close.
Also new with Enemy Within is the human threat, Exalt, which has taken the alien invasion as its opportunity to gain control of the planet. Again, the encounters with Exalt aren’t presented in a separate campaign but are integrated into the story of Enemy Unknown so not only will you have the aliens (and a few new alien units) to deal with, but Exalt specific missions will crop up and you’ll even have the opportunity to guess at the location of its base and make a final assault.
All of these additions, as well as new research options and levels, make the Enemy Unknown experience fresh again allowing you to dust off your previously learned skills and add a few new tricks to your arsenal.
The basic turn-based strategy gameplay formula and base management of Enemy Unknown will naturally be familiar to anyone who has already played Firaxis’ previous game, while strategy and diplomacy fans will be comfortable with the intense risk/reward decisions made throughout an exhausting, brain-taxing session of Enemy Within.
- 4.) It can be overwhelming at first, but I found the incredibly deep level of soldier customisation to be vital to surviving later missions.
- 3.) Those kill cam shots are as satisfying to watch as ever, especially after a hard-fought encounter.
- 2.) The connection to my squad members became extremely strong as they levelled up and I continued to tinker with their equipment and augmentations. I never went as far as to rename my soldiers, but it was always at least a little sad seeing them fall in battle.
- 1.) In the thick of things, making tough decisions can be panic-inducing both in the field of battle and while trying to keep member nations calm, but because every decision involves a very clear, visible risk and reward it can be exhilarating simply clicking a button or telling a member of your squad to take a shot.
Every closely contended fight in Enemy Within has the potential to end in an adrenaline-fuelled victory or complete disaster, and I enjoy savouring those moments when I’m able to pull a win out of the hat using strategic manoeuvrings against seemingly impossible odds.
- 4.) While it’s not a huge issue, it can get a little grating hearing the squad members repeat the same line of confirmation dialogue.
- 3.) Any given level isn’t enormous, but I often felt as though I could have used a little indication of which direction I should be exploring at the beginning of a mission, especially given the deliberate turn-based nature of the movement.
- 2.) On the default difficulty, the game isn’t easy on newcomers and can be quite overwhelming at first, but then rapidly becomes easier towards the end in a way that feels unbalanced.
- 1.) I accept that it’s part of ‘the charm of XCOM,’ but the unpredictable nature of missed shots in Enemy Within can be infuriating (without touching the Second Wave modifications, at least), especially with point-blank shots.
Playing a mission for close to thirty minutes only to have it all crumble minutes away from finishing the encounter, before descending into complete and utter failure with all of my soldiers killed in action. Like action games, escort missions in turn-based strategy games aren’t my favourite.
Not to be discounted is the inclusion of a one-versus-one multiplayer mode which this time allows you to take control of the human XCOM and Exalt groups, as well as the aliens, and put together your own mixed squad of units to battle against another player online.
If the easier difficulties are too pedestrian, then you can up the ante by trying out the Classic and Impossible game modes, too, while tinkering with gameplay modifications thanks to the Second Wave menu options.
XCOM: Enemy Within shakes up the successful turn-based Enemy Unknown formula by adding tough new decisions and challenging new enemies, in a seamless, integrated and smart expansion to an already outstanding game.