Night had fallen on a small fishing town located in Argentina. XCOM soldiers had been sent in to investigate the disappearance of the town’s inhabitants and what they found was a large shipping vessel that had crashed onto land. Inside the vessel was a dead whale from which aliens continued to be birthed. The whale’s giant corpse had been incubated by Chryssalid eggs that would continuously spawn more aliens, unless one soldier could make it to the top of the ship and call in an airstrike on the ship itself thereby destroying the monstrosities that lay multiplying inside.
By the time I got to the top of the ship I had already lost three of the five soldiers I initially brought into the mission. Once on top of the ship I had my remaining two soldiers split up, one went in the direction of the ship’s bridge where the airstrike had to be called in, and the other would distract the incoming Chryssalid aliens by running to the bow of the ship. Miraculously, my custom named soldier Tyler Durden was able to call in the airstrike, but he never made it off that ship. With the airstrike approaching, my only remaining soldier had but only a few turns to get off the ship and back onto the sky ranger which would fly her back to the safety of XCOM’s home base. I command Ellen Ripley to jump from the bow of the ship and back onto land. She weaves through the town’s buildings with Chryssalids just inches away from landing a killing blow. Ripley makes it to the sky ranger, the airstrike is delivered, four of my upgraded and named soldiers have died, and the mission is considered a success. It doesn’t feel like a success after losing Ian Malcolm, Marty McFly, John McClane and Marla Singer, but that’s how it goes as the commander of XCOM.
The first expansion for 2012’s XCOM: Enemy Unknown by Firaxis is standard fare for anyone familiar with Firaxis expansions such as those seen in the Civilization series. Content has been added throughout the game in just about every aspect of gameplay from new weapons, gadgets, maps, research options and building types. In addition to these additive changes are more substantial extensions such as the introduction of a new resource called Meld. As you play through the varying scenarios that play out on a variety of maps, there will occasionally be the opportunity to collect Meld containers. Much like the bomb defusal missions from the base game, the player is tasked with reaching these containers within a certain number of turns. Not only is there a time limit to collecting this new resource, but it must also first be discovered by moving through the fog of war.
In the base game of XCOM, many players eventually grew wise to the tactic of placing all of their soldiers in overwatch while moving one soldier up to reveal enemy units. As the enemy units were revealed in the fog of war, all of the units queued up in overwatch positions would open fire; if they didn’t outright kill the newly discovered opponents, they would easily clean them up on their next turn. This tactic was effective but it made the game slow, plodding and far too easy. The introduction of the meld containers builds upon the bomb defusal missions by incentivizing the quick and often risky movements through a map that are necessary to reaching the Meld in time. Once back at base Meld can be put towards the two new and significant upgrade paths for your XCOM soldiers.
In Enemy Unknown, soldiers could be upgraded from four different skill trees which were dependent on which class the soldier was promoted into. Past the class specific skill tree progression was the ability to discover soldiers with psionic abilities giving a fifth, albeit much shorter skill tree that focused on psionic abilities. In Enemy Within, soldiers can now be upgraded with gene mods or fitted into MECS which are giant mechanical battle platforms; think Ellen Ripley walking around in a power loader at the end of Aliens. Gene mods are unique modifiers that fall into five categories, brain, eyes, chest, skin and legs. This new upgrade path resembles the original skill trees except they can be upgraded in any order and are purchased with Meld instead of accumulated experience from missions. A more permanent change to soldiers comes in the form of the MEC upgrade. When upgrading a soldier into a Mechanized Exoskeletal Cybersuit the soldier’s arms and legs are replaced with robotic appendages that slot into a frame that you must build separately in your engineering bay. Without a MEC suit these soldiers cannot function in the battle field. MECS can be customized in a variety of different ways and once again these upgrades cost Meld. With these new tools at your disposal there also comes a new threat in the form of the Exalt.
The Exalt is a new enemy faction introduced in Enemy Within and surprisingly they are far more entertaining to engage with than the numerous aliens that you get used to fighting over the course of the campaign. The Exalt is a group of human soldiers who aim to sabotage the work of XCOM either by raising panic in nations around the world or by draining money from the player’s reserves. Exalt soldiers have access to the same weaponry and abilities that XCOM soldiers have and as a result battles feel more tense. Exalt soldiers use med kits, they throw smoke grenades and if you clump your soldiers together they will put their rocket launchers to use. Encounters with the Exalt are a welcome change of pace from the countless battles with invading aliens that make up the core of XCOM’s gameplay.
With the introduction of the Exalt comes another layer of management in the base screen. At the beginning of the game, the Exalt base is randomly placed in one of the nations that make up the satellite map in your base. By scanning for Exalt movements and sending your soldiers on covert operations you are able to narrow down the list of possible nations that may be harboring the Exalt HQ; a few days after a soldier has been sent on a covert operation the player is then tasked with conducting an extraction mission for the undercover agent. There’s something inherently cool about seeing your undercover soldier in civilian clothing and armed with nothing but a pistol making his or her way to the rescue team and these extraction missions have become a highlight in XCOM’s gameplay.
The Exalt isn’t the only new enemies you’ll face in the expansion either. Enemy Within introduces the Mechtoid and the Seeker. The Mechtoid is basically a Sectoid alien that’s been plopped down into the alien equivalent of a MEC suit. They feel a like a mix between the Sectopod and the Muton enemies and aren’t that much of a change to the game. However, the Seeker is far more interesting addition to the enemy force’s stable of alien foes. The Seeker is a unit capable of flight and stealth and they specifically target any XCOM soldiers that have been separated from the main group. The seeker will find a lone target and will attach itself to the soldier which incapacitates the unit indefinitely until they die or until a fellow soldier shoots the Seeker off. The introduction of the Seeker will make players think twice about setting a sniper far away from the action and forgetting about him or her; the buddy system is recommended when Seekers are present.
Unfortunately the faults that could be found in the base game still remain in the expansion. The spike in difficulty between normal and classic still feels far too steep but this can be alleviated through the use of ‘Second Wave’ options which are gameplay modifiers that only become present once you beat the campaign once. The base screen management can still feel like busy work in the later stages of the game and this problem is only accentuated with the addition of more weapons and items. The late game of XCOM becomes too easy which makes sense given the new technologies you have access to. However, playing with your high powered soldiers becomes dull and repetitive as more and more missions involve trudging through overly large and oddly designed alien spaceships. The game is at its best when you’re navigating urban environments and the spaceship layouts which felt laborious to fight through in the base game feel the same in the expansion.
XCOM: Enemy Within continues in the tradition of Firaxis expansions. The gameplay changes are not immediately noticeable on a new play through, instead they are cleverly interwoven into the main game and the process of discovering these new mechanics makes an old game feel new again and that’s about the highest praise you can give to a game expansion. There are still some problems with some of the core game design that makes the endgame of XCOM feel more like a chore than an adventure, but the overall campaign is still plenty of fun to play through. Enemy Within is a substantial addition to XCOM: Enemy Unknown that enriches the experience in clever ways while unfortunately leaving its flaws mostly untouched.