XCOM's ambitious Enemy Within expansion pack might be the most fun I've had with a game all year. Yeah, I know we all get cynical about DLC and the trend towards "mission packs" and "extended-full-ultra-complete-editions" but this is the real deal. Firaxis has done what they call a "Firaxis style" expansion – meaning a game changing mega-pack that takes everything you knew and loved about the original, turned it inside out, and somehow made it better than ever.
(We'll have to forgive them for the entirely unnecessary Elite Soldier and SlingShot packs they released earlier this year that added a few vanity options for your troops and an extra mission for about $10 total – Firaxis style indeed.)
Enemy Within does everything right. It introduces new gameplay options that are meaningful and useful; without completely overshadowing previous classes and gear. It provides new content that fits directly into the game without feeling like shameless padding or a tact-on addition. And perhaps most impressively, it takes all us experienced XCOM vets and gets us out of our comfortable strategic ruts, forcing us to take on new missions, new strategies, and far more dangerous risks than we'd ever dared.
It's still [i[XCOM[/i], but with all the new options, enemies, and dangers, it feels like an entirely new experience.
I was going to go into more detail about the wealth of changes and how they all work together in beautiful Xeno-roasting harmony, but eventually I noticed I pretty much wrote a full review of the game! I think I would rather post that as a blog instead. What I would like to talk about here though is the idea of quality and expansions.
I really enjoyed Batman: Arkham Origins. But I think it was real lucky to hit my screen before Enemy Within.
Don't misunderstand me, Origins was a fine game. Fine. Good. Bland.
At the end of the day, it was more Batman – and it's hard to really be upset with that. I genuinely enjoyed my time swinging around the (deserted) streets of Gotham, beating up thugs, emotionally abusing Alfred, and fiddling about with gadgets. But when I really step back from it, when I compare what Origins did as a supposedly full on stand-alone release for the series, and what Enemy Within did as a modestly priced expansion, I can't help but hold it to some unfavourable comparisons.
While playing Arkham Origins, even an enthusiastic Bat-fan such as myself couldn't help but feel it was a bit of a rehash. While it's perfectly normal for a sequel to be iterative and lean heavily on previous titles gameplay mechanics and features, Origins goes beyond that, tripping into reshash territory.
Despite being set in the early days of Batman's career, where he is supposedly a rougher, tougher, and less savvy vigilante, the entire suite of Batman's gadgets and techniques are at your disposal – even when it doesn't make sense.
"Wasn't the crypto-sequencer newly designed by Batman in the (chronologically forward down the timeline) Arkham Asylum? Wasn't the grapnel accelerator a new thing in City? Wait, I have this remote claw zip-line thing? Where the hell was this when I was using the crummy dual grapnel in the previous game?" And on and on. Even the one "new" gadget, the glue grenade, is in every way functionally identical to the freeze grenade of the previous game - a pallet swap of the exact same code.
It isn't a big deal, and I can understand the gameplay reasons for making those concessions to the "lore" or "reality" of the series. But it feels like a missed opportunity. It feels like instead of getting creative and finding a way to convey a substantially different Batman, they took the easy route, did everything the same as before and TOLD us he was oh-so much more edgy and raw. Even the Riddler puzzles suffered for it, feeling less interesting this time out since you've used the same gadgets for three games now and have seen how most of the puzzle logic works.
When I look at how Enemy Within was able to slide in a busload of new equipment and options, how every piece fills a previously overlooked niche, or rises to meet a new challenge, I lose a little sympathy for the guys at Splash Damage. It feels like a failure of creativity, or an aversion to rocking the boat.
Large sections of the map are directly lifted from Arkham City. Okay fine, the game takes place in the same area, so I guess a little overlap is understandable. But as you explore the city and really get used to it, some of the shine comes off the apple.
Despite being a "new" game, Origins feels a little worn out around the edges. I spent upwards of 60 or more hours in City, and I got to know those neighbourhoods pretty damn well. Having to retread the Sionis Steel Mill, or the confusing double layered streets of the Bowery for the umpteenth freaking time in a isn't the most exciting idea in the world in the kindest of scenarios. But the frustration really sets in when you get familiar with the new areas in the game and slowly realize that they are are in every way smaller, less detailed, and of inferior quality to the areas plucked out of City. Grappling points that don't stick, enemies haphazardly posted on roof tops, invisible walls and inaccessible areas, ect. You start to notice how these places were grafted onto the existing map and the limitations they faced stitching it all together.
It might be unfair, I really don't know how the game was made or what it took, but it feels cheap. Like the devs took a shortcut and hoped you wouldn't notice. On one hand, I can understand and sympathize with the time constraints and pressure they were under. On the other, I REALLY hate that fucking steel mill.
Compare that to the 40+ new maps of Enemy Within, all of which represent a refinement of the XCOM design strategically, and many that raise the bar as surprisingly good looking set-pieces. I know Firaxis had a LOT less work to do on their simple top down, grid based maps than the guys at Splash Damage did rendering a functional 3D representation of Gotham, and I don't want to knock their efforts. For whatever else you can say about Origins, Gotham is stunning – the perfect mix of the Tim Burton movies and animated series. What I bemoan though, with the benefit of Enemy Within's clarity, is the failure to innovate on the design of the game. Gotham looks great, but feels like "more Gotham", whereas Enemy Within's maps often put the screw to the player in new and interesting ways. Firaxis took the opportunity in their expansion to really open up the game and experiment, Splash Damage took the same old formula and called it a new game.
The solution to spice up combat in Origins was to just add more of it. More fights per minute than Asylum or City, more hapless thugs per fight, more weapons and gimmick enemies in every brawl. It was like they took a spreadsheet from City that measured everything combat related and just added bigger numbers in every column. And hey, that isn't an entirely bad thing. I really enjoy the combat in the Arkham series, and who could really say no to watching Batman snap more legs and wrists?
But then I look at how Enemy Within, with a few well thought out additions and a subtle touch managed to completely turn your war against the aliens inside out, and it taints my Origins experience. Sure, kicking ass as Batman is great, and the Arkham games found a more fluid and natural way to make Batman feel and respond like a badass than I would have ever thought possible given previous efforts to put the Dark Knight in a videogame. But even when it's really great, does "more of the same" really justify a new game?
The more I think about the two, the more I feel like Origins is the one we should be calling an "expansion" and Enemy Within is the real "new" game. The evolutions on the design, the changes to the gameplay, and the sheer quality of the experience is so much more dynamic and meaningful in Enemy Within than Batman's latest adventure. A literal "expansion" of a game is so much better than a sequel that tastes like DLC.
I know I'm bagging on Origins a lot, and I feel like I have to reiterate that I did have a good time with it. Despite some heavy issues with cut & paste design, Origins does distinguish itself with a legitimately fun story and some excellent examinations and shout-outs to the Batman lore and mythos. If you're a big Batman nerd like me who enjoys all the comics, movies, animated series, and what have you, you'll still enjoy Origins just on the basis of its wonderful sampling from books like Dark Victory and The Killing Joke.
But after playing Enemy Within, I'm not sure a cool story is enough to justify Origins as anything more than an over glorified expansion.
(speaking of expansions – did anyone else notice the suspicious absence of Harvey Dent/Two-Face throughout the story? Outside of a news headline you could blow right over, he never makes any kind of appearance. I wouldn't be surprised if a few months from now we hear about Origins Two-Face DLC story a'la Harley's Revenge from City. You watch, I can see the future.)