XCom: Enemy Within: Stronger, Faster and Somewhat Better

XCom: Enemy Unknown was both one of my favorite games of last year and one of my most disappointing. A remake of the classic X-Com UFO Defense, the game modernized the design of the original, but left out a lot of the depth that made X-Com so engaging.

After a less than successful DLC, Firaxis went dark and decided to continue things with Enemy Unknown’s first expansion — Enemy Within. Giving us an expansion that improves on the areas that it affects but not as far reaching as I would have liked.

XCOM (2)

Swimming in the Gene Pool:

Enemy Within follows Firaxis’s style of developing supplementary expansion content as opposed to continuing content. In other words, Enemy Within integrates itself within Enemy Unknown’s gameplay and adds changes both major and minor.

If you haven’t played Enemy Unknown, I’m going to be skipping discussing it and focusing on what Enemy Within adds, but here are the links to my original analysis and spoiler filled supplementary piece on the game.

Off the bat, you’ll be introduced to a new resource called MELD, a powerful compound that appears during a mission. MELD canisters will self destruct after a select number of turns and forces you to change up your plan of moving carefully around the battlefield. This can become all the more risky for those playing on ironman difficulty.

The reason why you’ll risk your squaddie’s lives for MELD comes from the two new upgrade options: Gene splicing and MEC suits. Gene splicing allows you to give a squaddie a new buff based on the aliens you fight: Increased jumping, health regen, better accuracy and more. These buff unlocks are tied to alien autopsies and the chosen person will be out of commission while they are being operated on.

MEC suits are powerful hulks of armor that require the person to be surgically altered to use. Once altered the person loses their class and the respective skills while picking up new MEC specific abilities. MEC suits increase the wearer’s health dramatically while giving them new weapons and becoming total bad-asses on the battlefield.

However, MECs cannot use inventory items and lose the ability to take cover, meaning that it will be very hard for an enemy to miss when attacking them.

Inside your base, there are quality of life improvements found as well. Characters can now speak in most of their native tongues and the ability to auto unequip sideline troops makes it easier to get setup for battle. Another new way of enhancing troops comes in the form of medals which are unlocked after enough missions.

Medals can be renamed and you can choose one of two bonuses that the medal will confer. After which all you have to do is award it to someone for the effect to take hold.

Enemy Within

MELD canisters are the counter to careful movement as their limited life span will force you to rush.

There are also a number of new items and equipment options that expand the items and tactics you can use on the battlefield.

All in all, these improvements are definitely the best part of Enemy Within — Adding deep, far reaching choices without making any one choice “the correct one.”

But it wouldn’t be fair to give you all these new toys without giving something to the enemy and Firaxis has some new tricks to throw at you.

Three Sided Warfare:

In the original Enemy Unknown, the conflict was simple: You vs. the alien forces. But Enemy Within introduces a new faction called EXALT — an organization obsessed with gene manipulation and wants to take over following the alien invasion. EXALT introduces a monkey wrench into your plans as they can mess with nations, increase panic, increase research time and more.

Taking them out will require you to send people undercover to infiltrate cells around the world and then complete a new mission type to get the information. EXALT’s biggest difference compared to the alien forces is that they make use of the same weapons and tactics that you can use. So if you ever felt bad for having your heavy take out a crowd of aliens with their rocket launcher, you’re about to get a taste of your own medicine.

The aliens get two new enemy types to manage the new gameplay options. First is the sectoid counterpart to your MEC suits: the Mechtoids. These massive enemies can be boosted by sectoid mind melds and like your MECs is incredibility durable. They are for the first time in an X-Com game, sort of like mid boss enemies.

The second enemy was designed to mess with those who rush for MELD canisters and are called seekers. Once discovered, they cloak themselves and head towards one of your squaddies. They attack by strangling the unit and making them incapable of action with the only solution is to shoot them off with another member.

Enemy WIthin

Exalt forces add a new spin on things as you’re fighting enemies that use your tactics against you.

But what is perhaps the most welcomed change for combat are the new maps that Firaxis designed for Enemy Within.

These new maps bolster the number of available maps to over a 100 while adding some new variations to mission objectives and terror missions.

Enemy Within adds far reaching effects and changes Enemy Unknown in a lot of new interesting ways; however it doesn’t quite go far enough in some areas.

Unfinished Masterpiece:

Enemy Within’s changes to the game are most felt at the beginning to mid game of a campaign. And while it does a lot to fix some of the major issues people had with Enemy Unknown, it still leaves a few big holes here and there.

My three biggest problems with Enemy Unknown still remain even after all the improvements Enemy Within adds. First is that the feedback loop for the game is very polarizing. Once you start pulling ahead of the aliens in terms of tech and unit promotions, it’s very easy to wipe the floor with them. All the more so thanks to the MEC and gene upgrades.

But on the other hand, start to fall behind or have bad luck early on, such as having a full party wipe of your best characters and you may not be able to recover to the point that it would be better to just restart.

The other problem I have with Enemy Unknown and Enemy Within is that the campaign is still overly linear. I’m not a fan of how alien attacks come in groups of three which will always cause panic, or how base building is so generic. And of course, the ending of the game still relies on linear missions.

Lastly, the board game like design for how combat works still frustrates me, as I feel like the enemies and I are playing two different games with how much cover supports them and fails me. I would have liked to have seen more combat options for dealing with them, as I talked about in my original analysis.

To be fair to Firaxis, the second wave options that became available after game completion, do add back some of the randomness from earlier X-Com titles. And for everything that Enemy Within does add to the experience, it all greatly enhances the base game.

Enemy Within is an example of an amazing expansion pack: Adding content that you may have not thought you wanted, but now you can’t imagine living without.

Enemy Unknown is so close to being one of my all time favorite games and if Firaxis can continue with this level of quality expansions, then it may just get there someday.

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  • Grandy Peace

    I’m not picking this one up at this time; right now my gaming time is going to Sins, Path of Exile, and probably to Open X-com.

    I have been worried about a couple of things on top of the problems you point out. The race for meld sounds like someone took the original xcom – which at times feels like a boardgame uncomfortable in its own skin – and then added a mechanic from some other board game with no thought to whether it makes sense. The base building isn’t merely generic IMO, but is in fact not very well done mechanically and this clearly isn’t changing.

    Open X-com fixes many problems with the original game and adds a lot of interesting settings to spice things up. I think I’ll satisfy my alien killing itch there for now.

    • You’re right about base building, generic may not be the best word.

      I meant that it’s so simple that min/maxing is very easy to pull off. Removing any need for the player to think outside the box and instead follow a basic strategy that works almost everytime.

      As long as you focus on engineers you can easily setup enough basic uplinks with adjacent bonuses to provide all the coverage you need without much effort for instance.

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