I'm growing older all the time. It's getting to the point where it's embarrassing.
I think Dark Souls is a work of art that belongs in a museum. The Royal Ontario Museum disagrees, but I think I'm starting to wear them down.
When I was in grade 5 I went to school as Robin for Halloween. The costume was basically a pair of green lady tights and a tunic that had to be Velcroed at the crotch like a baby's onesie. My self esteem never fully recovered.
I believe Alan Wake was criminally under-appreciated. It's unclear if this notion stems from a legitimate love of the game, or my loyalty to any piece of media that is going to include tracks from Nick Cave, Poe, and Depeche Mode.
Some of my stuff has been front-paged. I'm super proud!
XCOM: Enemy Unknown was my personal GOTY of 2012. Firaxis managed to do what seemed like an impossible task, reinventing the classic masochistic strategy franchise for a new generation, while staying true to its roots. Enemy Unknown came at me from my blindside and floored me like nothing else I played last year.
Now in 2013, they might have done it again with Enemy Within.
Enemy Within might be the most fun I've had with a game all year. It's easy to get cynical about DLC, the trend towards superfluous "mission packs" and the endless repackaging of "extended-full-ultra-complete" editions, but believe me when I tell you Enemy Within is the real deal. This is the type of expansion from the golden era of PC gaming – a complete package of new content, features, and tweaks that takes everything you know and love about the original Enemy Unknown, turns it inside out, and somehow makes it better than ever. With all the new toys and enemies, it feels more like a sequel than some other franchise games I could mention this year.
And what new toys! Commanders have a candy store of new options to explore in Enemy Within (if candy stores sold flamethrowers and plasma cannons anyway. And really, wouldn't it be a better world if they did?).
Brave soldiers that volunteer to have their limbs clipped off and replaced with cybernetics can be transformed into hulking MEC troopers – a kind of exo-skeletal tank. These guys can provide ungodly firepower and comparatively shrug off damage that would decimate a regular soldier. But their massive frames mean they can never take cover, and they lose all the former class skills they had before surgery.
A somewhat less overtly radical, but perhaps more insidious, route can be taken with gene-splicing. Now the research lab can weave alien DNA into your squad members bodies, granting them fantastic abilities - leaping tall buildings in a single bound, relying on a secondary heart to survive fatal wounds – transforming them into something not quite human, but perhaps more capable of saving humanity than anyone else.
But there is a trick to all these new toys – if you want to play with them, you'll have to leave your cozy little comfort zone.
Like many XCOM players, I eventually settled into a comfortable, cautious, rut with my tactics in Enemy Unknown. Leapfrogging my squad inch by inch across the map with a shameless dependence on Overwatch coverage, I avoided ambushes at all costs and systematically took on the alien menace one small, isolated group at a time. Enemy Within won't tolerate that.
A new resource called "Meld", a magical goo that makes cyborg and mutant troops possible, is only found on the battlefield – and it has an incredibly short shelf-life. Hidden at the start of a mission, each canister of Meld has only a few scant turns to be found before it self-destructs and is lost forever, forcing you to pick up the pace, and maybe even split up the team, if you want to grab it all (AND YOU DO).
This may not seem too radical on the surface, but the effect it has on the gameplay is tremendous. I ended up in more frantic multi-front engagements, and lost more soldiers, in my time with Enemy Within than I did over my entire career of Enemy Unknown. Meld enhanced soldiers are an incredible asset to a team, but you'll have to be prepared to make some sacrifices and take some risks to supply them.
Aside from the Meld-fulled modifications you can make to your soldiers, there are also a surprisingly large assortment of new conventional items and upgrades available. None of them are as particularly game changing as the MEC and gene-spliced soldiers, but they offer new tactical options to creative commanders. A new upgrade that allows each squad member to carry a second item is a Godsend, letting you break away from the "required" item choice of each class and actually experiment with some of the new goodies.
Of course, your troops aren't the only ones getting an upgrade – the invaders have also stepped up their game in Enemy Within. The newly added squid-like "Seekers" seem tailor made to punish commanders that relied on the (somewhat overpowered) Sniper class. Seekers will turn invisible when engaged and float off, waiting to strike when a unit is isolated or weak, strangling them with a tentacle kung-fu grip. Strangulated soldiers have to rely on a teammate to save them, and commanders may find themselves in a sticky situation when their MVP Sniper gets choked to death far behind friendly lines.
To match the super beefy MEC troopers, the aliens field more mechanical units than ever. The new Mecatoid is basically a Sectoid in a mech suit brimming with plasma cannons who will use his two attack rounds per turn to cause you no end of frustration. The classic Sectopod is considerably tougher than before and will require the concentrated firepower of your entire squad to bring down, feeling more like a mini-boss encounter than anything. Along with a few other tweaks and changes, the alien force is more definitely more formidable than ever. It's only the added "oomph" of the MEC and gene-spliced troopers that keep things just shy of being unfair.
Among the new threats however, the most interesting by far are the members of EXALT, the new threat at the heart of Enemy Within.
EXALT is a clandestine organization similar to XCOM Command, but these traitorous scumbags are on the side of the alien invaders. These new human enemies place an entirely different type of strain on the XCOM mission, sabotaging your efforts by stealing funds, halting your research with hacker attacks, or stirring up panic in random nations.
Fortunately, you can launch your own covert operations against them in a new mission type. Once you've found an EXALT cell, you can send in a lone soldier, dressed in civies and armed only with a pistol, to flush them out. You'll be short that solider for a few days (God help you if you've sent your best man and the next day Paris is overrun with Chrysallids), but eventually you'll have the opportunity to extract them and strike a blow against EXALT at the same time. These new missions provide different objectives from the your squad's normal bug-hunts - defending communication towers, hacking enemy computers, ect. None of it is particularly earth shattering, but these missions provide a nice change of pace and allow you the novelty of commanding seven soldiers at once.
The EXALT shadow war will continue until you can locate and destroy out their main HQ; but before you do that, you'll have to identify the country harbouring them. Point your finger at the wrong nation and you'll offend them so much they'll pull support for the program. So you'll want to narrow down the suspects with covert ops and intell scans before staging your Inspector Poirot parlour room style accusation.
In the field, EXALT operates like a dark mirror of your own squad. Kitted out in similar gear and divided into similar classes, EXALT snipers will clamber up rooftops and billboards to rain down critical hits on your squaddies. Their version of the Heavy trooper will flatten the landscape with rockets and grenades, leaving your troops exposed to other fire. And all the while, evil Support units keep the EXALT team patched up, resulting in a more tenacious and tactical force then the XCOM team is used to. As the game progresses, EXALT will evolve similarly to your own forces, trading in ballistic weapons for flashy laser guns, upgrading their armour, and adapting deadly gene modifications too ambitious for even your own resident mad scientist.
Sadly, while EXALT is an incredibly compelling rival in the early and mid-game, by the time you're ready to take on the HQ, your own team will probably overshadow them in every way. In all my games, the final battle against EXALT was less of a meeting of two titanic forces, and more of a victory lap. My fully upgraded MEC trooper dunked on the hapless pin-striped humans while my Assault squaddies did an obnoxious end-zone dance in the conference room of evil. As satisfying as it is to finally put a hated enemy in their place, I feel like the progression and fight against EXALT could have been better balanced to ensure a more dynamic and consistent threat.
Enemy Within has a surprising amount of heart. While the storyline of Enemy Unknown was fairly subdued and relegated to the background, there is more emphasis on the people that make up the XCOM mission this time around. The most compelling narrative will still be the story you weave yourself - the struggles of your squad and the pathos of lost comrades - but Enemy Within frames that drama with a more cohesive theme. The shocking lengths Meld augmentation allows your team to go to combat the alien threat, transforming themselves into mechanical monsters or mutant freaks, is contrasted against the power hungry and morally bankrupt EXALT. While the XCOM mission is guided by the overall benevolent goal of saving the world, it's hammered home that the changes you make to your very humanity in the pursuit of that goal are not a trivial thing; after this war is over, what will become of these supermen and cyborgs? Once the aliens are gone, how long will it be before the laser guns and hover-tanks be turned on our fellow man?
The new story hooks do a good job of making the XCOM world feel a little more weighty and nuanced, without ever getting in the way of the action. They use a subtle touch to remarkable effect.
Along with the overarching plot, Enemy Within introduces a few special missions with their own small storylines to the mix. These missions often include their own unique objectives or obstacles and feature some of the best setpieces in the game. While some of it feels almost undoubtedly made from scrapped DLC, they still provide a fun diversion from the run of the mill abduction and "Terror!" missions. One of these unique setpieces takes the XCOM team to a spooky abandoned fishing town in Newfoundland, playing up the creepy atmosphere like a survival horror game. It is a real change of pace with an exhilarating pay-off. I hope Firaxis continues to build on these side-missions in future expansions and sequels.
On the technical side, Enemy Within cleans up some persistent and frustrating bugs from Enemy Unknown. Joyously, we are finally rid of the randomly spawning Hover-drones that would occasionally pop into existence square in the middle of your squad, potentially ruining an entire campaign in one fell swoop.
Sadly, there are still some other bugs that occur with annoying regularity. Twice I lost characters outside of the map when the grappling hook movement option decided to glitch out and fling them into the void – "amusingly" (read: "Infuriatingly") one of these instances was during an extraction mission and that soldier was lost for good when the chopper left without her. Similarly, the new rocket-punch for the MEC trooper may well be my favourite thing in the world, but there were a few times when it refused to activate despite being right next to the enemy, turning what was supposed to be a one-shot beatdown into a sudden pointblank quick-draw with an empty weapon.
For these reasons, as hardcore and fun as it sounds, I still can't recommend the much touted Ironman mode, a gameplay option that limits a campaign to a single save slot. The prospect of uncorrectable perma-death definitely ups the tension and forces you to concentrate on every decision, but as soon as you lose one treasured solider to a glitch the entire experience is soured. I'm not the type to go on controller breaking tantrums, but when you lose 10 hours of gameplay to a random bug, it's hard to keep zen-like composure. The game is definitely better when you play like it was on Ironman and resist the urge to reload every time a trooper stubs his toe – but you may want to keep that emergency exit open just in case.
This expansion forced me to face my own "enemy within" – complacency. With all the time I put into Enemy Unknown I got so familiar, so lazy. Depending on my slow methodical approach to keep me safe, relying on my rockstar Snipers to effortlessly dispatch the Aliens from half a map away. Enemy Within punished those sins. Surrounded on all sides, fighting a pack of Mutons in the parking lot, fending off a Seeker trying to choke a Support trooper who fell a little too far behind in the convenience store, and trying to decide between rescuing him or making a mad dash for that Meld canister on it's last turn before self-destruction – I felt the old terror again, the dread and stress that pervaded my first playthrough of Enemy Unknown.
And I couldn't be happier to be playing XCOM again.