XCOM: Enemy Unknown was one of my favorite games of 2012. As a fan of the original franchise back in the '90s, I felt like it did an excellent job of not only re-introducing the once-beloved franchise back into the fold for newcomers, but also providing veterans with a fulfilling strategy experience. Developer Firaxis is now revisiting the XCOM universe with Enemy Within, a new expansion pack set to augment the original game.
Leaping back in, I immediately jumped at the prospect of creating an Exosquad-esque mech soldier with the new Within content. I named him Duke Nukem, gave him a blonde buzz cut, and pumped tons of credits into his loadout -- I even had a brief vision of completing the game with him, sticking through the thick and thin. Then he promptly died on the very next level.
Yep, this is still XCOM alright, and I wouldn't have it any other way.
XCOM: Enemy Within (PC [reviewed], PlayStation 3, Xbox 360)
Developer: Firaxis Games
Publisher: 2K Games
Release Date: November 12, 2013
MSRP: $29.99 (PC download upgrade) / $39.99 (Console disc)
Enemy Within is still the same great turn-based strategy game you played last year, but with a number of added maps, customization options, enemy types, and missions mixed in. It's a really weird way to approach an expansion (almost like an RTS, blending in new and old), and when it was announced I was apprehensive. At first, I thought I'd have to play through the same game again, with the occasional bit of mixed content -- but as I soon found out, there was a lot more added than I had previously assumed.
Enemy Unknown was the original title of the game due to the fact that you literally had to discover how to vanquish XCOM's alien menace with very little knowledge going in. Gradually, you would research corpses and live specimens, slowly developing the skillset and upgrades required to best them. It was a unique way to tie in a mechanical crescendo in with the narrative, and it worked out wonderfully for Unknown.
But now, the new Within moniker refers to a new enemy -- your own kind, the human race. Instead of simply dealing with an unrelenting horde of extraterrestrials, now you have to deal with organizations on earth trying to put a stop to the XCOM Initiative and bringing you down. While this may not seem like a huge change, it significantly alters the narrative in the sense that everything is a lot more bleak -- which has ramifications not only on the way the story is told, but actual gameplay as well.
For starters, a new foe emerges in the form of EXALT -- a super villain-like organization that will stop at nothing to shut you down. They're a thorn in your side in many ways than just physical altercations, hacking your mainframe and raising hell across the world in the form of enhanced panic (if a country reaches a panic level that's too high, they pull out of the program, which contributes to a game over).
Missions of the EXALT variety are more covert affairs, kitting down your troops into a more subversive toolset, with pistols and sneaking equipment. The new human AI opponents are fun to fight and do a good job of mixing things up for when you get tired of fighting aliens over and over. Beating EXALT is also a game of cat and mouse, as you eventually have to find out where they're located and shut them down permanently -- or just deal with them, or ignore them entirely with the consequences in tow. You'll have to slowly hunt them down Clue style, and accuse a country of harboring them. Accuse wrongly, and that country pulls out of the program (see a pattern, here?).
You'll also have to deal with new alien enemies like the Mechtoid (you guessed it -- an alien mech), and the squid-like Seekers, which can cloak, fly, and strangle your party, among other foes. In short, the game is absolute hell, and is working to crush your spirits around the clock. On Iron Man mode (a setting that prevents re-loading saves) and a high difficulty setting, it's one of the hardest modern games ever created. It's this madness that contributes to the magic of XCOM, and why so many people find it so appealing in an age where games constantly hold your hand and tell you how to win.
The other big upgrade is the ability to genetically alter your team with options like superior eyesight and Bioelectric skin implants. These upgrades allow you to, as the game calls it, become a "little bit alien." The over-the-top modifications are not only fun to play around with, but they make the world more harrowing and real. Now, the people of earth are significantly altering their bodies just to avoid extinction, to the point where they can barely even be classified as human beings. It all serves to add to the allure of the XCOM universe and add a sense of hopelessness.
Another great thing about these two upgrades is that it all feeds into the core game's central tenet of allowing you to play the way you want to play. If you want to only help out certain countries, build an army of MECs, and have an all-female unit -- you can do that. If you want a tactical team of genetic super soldiers all named after Saturday morning cartoons, you can customize that too. With the new additions in Within, the sky is the limit.
In addition to that, there's further amounts of customization to get lost in like new outfits and national accents which help give you a sense that the conflict is a real worldwide affair, and not within the confines of a US-centric sphere. There are also a number of interface and mechanical changes, most notably a new tutorial for the Within features, as well as tougher AI, more skills, and 47 new maps that are mixed in throughout the entire game. Controller support on the PC still works great, and I used it throughout my entire playthrough.
If you haven't played the newest XCOM yet, now is a perfect time to do so with the Enemy Within package. For all the XCOM veterans out there, you'll find a solid amount of new activities to engage in, as well as an unprecedented amount of squad customization. In other words, this is now the definitive Enemy experience.
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