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XCOM: Enemy Within review

For

  • MEC Troopers and gene mods are awesome
  • The new campaign missions
  • though sparse
  • are incredible
  • EXALT missions add some variety to battles...

Against

  • ...but don't stay exciting for long
  • Occasionally buggy

Load up your last save from XCOM: Enemy Unknown and take a good, hard look at your memorial. Assuming you didn't cheat and reload every time one of your soldiers ate plasma (you did, didn't you?), there's a chance it's decorated with some achingly familiar names. Nathan "Sexy Man" Drake, dead after 38 missions. Thomas "Werewolf" Jefferson, smashed into bits by a Berserker. Mitt "Binders" Romney, cut down by the friendly fire of a panicked Paul Ryan (no, really!). That's XCOM, baby.

Enemy Unknown's first full-fledged expansion, Enemy Within, provides just enough incentive to re-experience the tough but rewarding thrill of saving humanity from alien invaders thanks to its new enemies, missions, and additions to your squad's arsenal. And if you've never played the XCOM reboot before, this all-around upgrade is the best way to experience it.

Enemy Within doesn't start to feel like much of an expansion until a few hours into the campaign, and once its new additions start creeping in, they're more subtle than blatantly obvious. That means XCOM veterans and newcomers alike will quickly get into the swing of cursing their horrible luck, as Enemy Unknown's unforgiving structure is largely unchanged.

All of the grueling battles and in-between base management elements are just as fun as they were a year ago, even if the campaign is exactly the same save for a few (incredible) new story missions. To write about them in much detail would spoil their delightful surprises, but they consist of harrowing situations that are sure to strike fear in the hearts of even the most hardened XCOM Commanders. That said, a few more of these would've gone a long way toward making the expansion feel a bit more substantial.

Run-of-the-mill ground assaults are as intense as ever, thanks to permadeath and XCOM's emphasis on strategy and tactics, though occasional run-ins with glitches and some wonky camera angles dampen the fun. The only thing worse than getting a game over is watching a soldier magically float in the air for no reason, unable to move for the rest of a mission--or getting to the end of the final level only to have the game bug out, forcing a restart. Thankfully, instances like these were few and far between, and I still had a blast playing through another campaign's worth of abduction and terror missions thanks to the slew of new maps--ranging from urban cities to remote farms (an awesome nod to some classic pre-reboot XCOM locales)--as well as the two new alien types.

The first of these that you'll encounter are Seekers, stealthy assassins that are invisible until they wrap one of your soldiers in a suffocating death grip, choking them out with nasty-looking tentacle things. By the time you get laser weapons, though, they hardly pose any threat. Mechtoids (Sectoids in mech suits, GET IT?), on the other hand, are far more terrifying because of their high health and dual plasma cannons, and provide consistent challenge right up through the end-game. But because you'll encounter both pretty early on, there are no new surprises left in store for the campaign's second half if you've played before, a disappointment that's almost as depressing as losing a veteran soldier to an exploding car.

A shadow organization called EXALT--composed of human enemies that have an odd obsession with wearing handkerchief masks and dressing like Don Draper from Mad Men--tries to fill that void, but only partially succeeds. Fighting against human enemies is notably different than fighting against aliens, as the former always try to overwhelm with their sheer numbers. These missions add some welcome variety to ground battles, but they feel a bit bland after completing only a handful; the EXALT operatives 20 hours into your campaign are the same as the ones you'll face much earlier, except they pew pew with laser guns instead of pea shooters.

The price you pay

Alright, so Enemy Within is pretty great, and is no doubt the definitive version of Firaxis' XCOM reboot. The thing is, if you've already purchased Enemy Unknown on PC, this expansion will run you an additional $30. If you're a console gamer, you can't buy Enemy Within separate from the main game. Instead, you'll have to buy a pack-in compilation that includes both the core game and the expansion for $40--a pretty sweet deal if you haven't played it yet, but a bummer if you have.

While fighting EXALT forces is only sort of fun, they play a far more interesting role in Enemy Within's so-called "strategy layer," where they contribute to global panic. As if it weren't difficult enough to keep the world's nations from bailing on the XCOM project--thus decreasing your base's monthly income and by extension the survivability of your troops--hidden EXALT cells will crop up without warning, sending terrorized nations over the edge. As you complete EXALT missions, you'll gradually gain clues as to where their headquarters is located. Guess which nation they're based in correctly, and you can invade their HQ and shut 'em down; guess wrong, and whoops, Canada just backed out of the council.

Of course, the enemies of mankind aren't the only ones who get some new toys. Though some new items--such as ghost grenades, which turn your soldiers invisible for a turn--open a surprising amount of strategic avenues during battles, the real highlights are gene mods and MEC Troopers. The former imbues soldiers with passive buffs. Each body part has two gene mod options; because you can only choose one of these two options, no single mod feels too overpowered. They all, however, allow for some really cool scenarios. By the end of the game, my sniper (one Steven "Armageddon" Tyler) could use his superhuman legs to jump onto a previously inaccessible rooftop from the ground, then use his surgically-enhanced eyeballs to spot a distant alien and blast it away. Hotness.

Then there are the MEC Troopers, humans-turned-cyborg that walk around in a giant suit of power armor. At first, these guys are totally unreliable; they start off with mediocre health and accuracy so awful that Heavies look like marksmen by comparison. A few upgrades later and you'll be a walking tank, hurling grenades across the map and burning down droves of aliens via flamethrower, or launching them back into space with a hard-hitting kinetic punch. Building one of these units and upgrading it to the max is something every XCOM vet should experience.

All of the new units and items feel like natural inclusions in the XCOM universe, and while they become super powerful late in the campaign, their addition makes allocating your limited funds all the more difficult. I could've spent some cash on a satellite to prevent Egypt from getting wiped off the map instead of outfitting a MEC Trooper with a particle canon--alas, the allure of power was too great. Like always, decisions in XCOM have brutal opportunity costs, and a wealth of new things to spend money on means choices are tougher than ever to make.

But that's part of the fun. Enemy Within's new additions don't make the experience any easier; the added benefit of having access to gene mods and MEC Troopers is offset by new alien types and a whole new faction of fanatical humans. If anything, saving the world is harder than ever. You might find yourself wishing for a few more new aliens, or guns, or story missions (I definitely did) but the additions are undeniably cool. While Enemy Within isn't a huge makeover, it's enough of a facelift to make the trauma of devastating loss worth enduring, be it for the first time or the fifth.

This game was reviewed on PC.

Enemy Within is a worthwhile expansion to both XCOM vets and newcomers. All of its new additions bring a great deal of extra challenge and strategy to one of 2012's best games.

More Info

GenreStrategy
DescriptionThe stand alone spin-off to 2012's amazing XCOM reboot.
PlatformXbox 360, PC, PS3
US censor ratingMature, Mature, Mature
UK censor rating, ,
Release date:12 November 2013 (US), (UK)
Available platforms:Xbox 360, PS3, PC, iPad
Genre:Strategy
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