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XCOM: Enemy Within

XCOM

As 2012′s Game of the Year (voted for officially by me) XCOM: Enemy Unknown made up a not inconsiderable percentage of my gaming time over the last twelve months. It was a title full of so many options that it demanded multiple playthroughs, each experimenting with new approaches and tactics. And just when I thought I’d squeezed all possible enjoyment out of it, along comes Enemy Within, a weighty expansion that packs in enough new content to keep fans occupied for a good while longer, while at the same time radically changing the dynamic of the game.

Like Firaxis’ Civilisation expansions, Enemy Within doesn’t offer a totally new campaign. Instead it sits on top of the existing content, requiring you to start a new game. It was a little disappointing that the adventures of Major Quentin Fabulous and his team had to come to an end, but after tweaking the look of my new squad via the further improved customisation options, I took his successor into the fray with a new squad, new hats and thanks to the international voice packs, new accents.

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“It sits on top of the existing content, requiring you to start a new game”As soon as you touch down on the ground for your first mission, your HQ support team notify you of a new resource that they’ve located nearby. This turns out to be MELD, an amusingly contrived alien creation that powers all the new goodies you’ll find in Enemy Within. Having access to this powerful resource so early on does spoil the delicate pacing of the early game somewhat, but in the end it’s certainly preferable to waiting hours to get to the good stuff.

Once you’ve scooped up a bin-bag full of wonder-goop, you can use it to create the two main additions to your arsenal. Firstly, you’ve got the mech soldiers. Oh, the mech soldiers. Select one of your promising troopers and send him off to the lab. There your crack team of scientists will hack off his puny human limbs (oddly enough you do this to perfectly healthy squaddies and not those critically injured in battle, which seems a little unfair) and stuff him into a robotic war suit. These things are fun.

Eschewing the subtleties of cover, mech suits instead rely on their heavy armour, shrugging off hits that would splatter your normal troopers to pieces. They initially come armed with a minigun, but you can upgrade them with MELD to carry such treats as a handy flame-thrower, wide dispersal medical spray or, and this is my personal favourite, a great big bloody power-glove with which to thwack melee-happy aliens – it’s particularly cathartic to use against those pesky Muton beserkers who were so deadly in the core game. Whatever setup you choose the mech troops are huge fun to play, offering a real departure from the more cautious tactics needed to keep your unaltered troops alive. The mech suit options in general seem to promote a feeling of empowerment, of taking the fight to the aliens on your own terms. To counter-balance this increased power there seem to be a lot more enemies around this time, particularly the heavy-hitting elites, so although you can be more aggressive you never feel invulnerable.

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“A real departure from the more cautious tactics needed to keep your unaltered troops alive”After you’ve stocked up on a decent supply of mech troopers, you’ll want to try out the other new option for your squad members – gene modification. Gene mods are less dramatic than mech upgrades, but are generally cheaper and more varied. By following the familiar research trees, you’ll periodically unlock a new alien ability to splice into your soldiers, and there are two different slots for each organ that can be replaced. You can for example choose between an eye upgrade that increases your aim after a missed shot, or one which confers further bonuses when attacking from higher ground. These stack on top of your regular class skills, so while fully buffed, gene-modded troops may lack the straightforward brutality of a tier-3 mech suit, they can still be lethal tools in your arsenal, able to pull off tricks the big boys can’t, like integrated camouflage and a passive alien detection ability. They succeed, along with their robot buddies, in making you try new things, new tactics and new combinations of skills. This is the kind of shake-up that was needed, and one that fans of the original who’ve settled into a routine will appreciate.

The new enemies also seem to have been designed to keep you on your toes. Stealth camouflaged squid aliens will isolate those snipers that you like to leave at the back line, choking them to death while you desperately try to get back in time to save them. Sectoids (the basic grunt alien) will hop in mech suits of their own, unleashing devastating volleys of plasma fire. New, more familiar enemies (more on them later) will provide yet another combat style to deal with, and there’s generally a more varied mix of the different aliens in each assault. It’s all excellently designed to make sure that you have to experiment with new approaches in order to succeed.

Aside from the MELD-enhanced main features, you’ll find a scattering of new toys and gear for your regular Joes to play with. Some, like the gas grenades which slowly poison enemies, feel a little ineffective, but there’s enough gadgets to play with that at least one will catch your fancy. Needle grenades that don’t penetrate cover are one tactical option you can use to give front-line troops an advantage, but there’s also gasproof respirators, invisibility grenades and various other bits and pieces. You can now unlock an upgrade that allows troops to carry two different accessories, which is a smart move that avoids the issue of players stockpiling nothing but the consistently useful grenades and medkits. Now there’s an incentive to try out the more situational gear.

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“The new enemies also seem to have been designed to keep you on your toes”While the new equipment options are welcome, it’s also a relief that Enemy Within adds plenty of new levels and missions to experience. Recognising that the original roster of maps needed to be expanded, Firaxis has worked in an impressive amount of new locations to visit. While most of these new random encounter maps tend to adhere to the core game’s focus on abandoned urban environments and forest clearings, with few radically new settings, they at least provide a change from the familiar. The more interesting new settings are reserved for several new mini-missions, little excursions that take the place of the generic council missions of the first game. These side quests can earn you a few new goodies, but they also provide some of the best moments in the new expansion, in particular a tense trip to a deserted fishing port that provides a neat survival horror take on XCOM‘s gameplay formula, and an unexpected alien offensive that occurs around halfway through the campaign.

This time around the aliens aren’t the only threat. A shadowy terrorist group, EXALT, has collected an arsenal of contraband alien tech and natty office-wear, and they’re intent on using the ongoing invasion to mask their own bid for global power. As a human threat, EXALT use many of the same tactics as your own XCOM troopers. Split into roughly similar classes, you can expect to see them utilise medkits, rocket launchers and genetic modification. They never seem quite as threatening as the alien forces, but they provide a nice alternative challenge, generally favouring weight of numbers over individual threat. Again there’s a neat spin on typical gameplay here, as you send in operatives undercover to gather data on EXALT activities. When it’s time to extract your agent, you’ll be given a few tasks to do on the tactical map, all the while protecting your vulnerable plain-clothes soldier who comes armed only with a pistol.

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As you can probably tell by now, there’s a great deal of new content added with Enemy Within. The fact that very little of it feels superfluous is doubly impressive. The new toys are great, there’s plenty of new levels to play, and the mech suits in particular are a joy to use, radically changing the flow of XCOM‘s combat. While it’s a shame that you have to start a new campaign to experience what the expansion has to offer, once you do so it’s hard not to be won over by the sheer quantity and quality of the new additions. If you’re a lapsed player this is a perfect reason to return; Enemy Within significantly improves a game that was pretty damn excellent to begin with.

9 out of 10

The author of this fine article

is a Staff Writer at Thunderbolt, having joined in September 2012.

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