XCOM: Enemy Within – a bigger, wider, tougher take on enemies unknown

Enemy Within’s big question is just how much you’re willing to monkey with your soldiers before they’re no longer human. Certainly, your troops seem more human now – each responding to orders in their native language and wearing armour appropriate to their roles – but XCOM’s expansion is about taking your pawns and tearing them apart until they’re as abominable as the alien threats they face. It’s all for the good of humanity; ours, not theirs.

Enemy Within is a director’s cut of sorts – the same story with new beats, the same systems with new mechanics, the same missions with new maps. “The Civilization expansion packs [are] one-third, one-third, one-third,” says senior game designer Ananda Gupta. “It’s one-third new stuff we dream up for this new title, one-third modifications of existing systems, and then one-third fan-service fixing. We’re taking a similar approach [with Enemy Within].”

New stuff includes XCOM’s Cybernetics and Genetics labs, where XCOM’s soldiers are filled with alien goo and riddled with robotic components in the name of winning this new, more difficult war. Powerful cyborg MECs can be deployed with flamethrowers, grenade launchers and cover-shredding special attacks, and while they can’t take cover, they can be cover when locked down. Fighting alongside them are genetically augmented comrades who can be modified with alien tech to add passive cloaking systems, psi-cancelling implants and other abilities.

The two new flavours of augmentation dramatically change the squad makeup, and their presence is vital with the aliens fielding ‘Mechtoids’ – machine-encased Sectoid soldiers. There are 47 new maps, new weapons for mech troopers, new projects from the Foundry and a new resource – MELD – powering development of those new units once found. MELD canisters are scattered around maps, depleting with every turn and adding another tactical knot to each battle: do you rush in and grab the MELD or inch your way forward, scavenging what little you can as you leapfrog from cover to cover?

“There were a number of things we wanted to fix about the original game,” says Gupta about the existing systems Firaxis rebuilt and fixed, most notably the infamous bug that broke how XCOM calculated flanking advantages. “We needed to address that flanking bug but we could never patch it, so the engineers investigated it and found out there were three different flanking bugs and that’s why no one fix was working. We were able to fix it but we had to do a fairly substantial dive into some of this code, so while they were digging around they made some improvements to how certain things work. I think there are a number of cases where, with sharp eyes, players will notice that things are a little smoother, a little better… in some of the micro-movements of units, the kick from weapons and so forth.”

The remaining third was all fan service. Inventory management is made easier by a button that returns everyone’s equipment to a shared pool, and multiplayer gets new maps and offline squad editing. It’s a shopping list of things that only matter if you play XCOM regularly, but when you do they’re a big deal. Players on console platforms may respond less well to such small upgrades, where Firaxis’s “substantial dive” into the game’s code prohibits Enemy Within being distributed as downloadable content, but XCOM veterans will notice a little extra punch to the weapons, a slightly faster response to orders, and other near-invisible upgrades that make Enemy Within less like an expansion and more like the game Enemy Unknown should have been.

That’s not to say that XCOM: Enemy Unknown failed – “Nobody at the studio expected we would win 15 Game Of The Year awards, but everyone thought we were going to put together a game that would surprise people,” Gupta says – but like Civilization’s expansions, once you play Enemy Within, the original game seems much smaller and more limited. It’s not enough to deploy a shotgun-wielding sprinter to lead the assault any more; you have to consider his armour, how his genetic modifications meet the specific threats of the battle, and whether to send that fast soldier after MELD or after Sectoid heads. Cover-reducing attacks from mecha troopers mean soldiers have to stay mobile, fire and gas offer new ways to control space, and powerful MEC melee strikes knock soldiers off their feet and make precipices deadly.

Those additions to your tactical deck make it hard to go back to Enemy Unknown, but the $40 outlay on the Xbox and PS3 versions may make it hard to go forward for players already finished with Firaxis’s first XCOM project.

XCOM: Enemy Within will be released on 360, PS3 and PC on November 15.

sssss