XCOM Enemy Within - Preview
The familiarity is setting in. My crack team, humanity’s last line of defense, are dropped into a field ready to tackle the latest threat to the world. They move forward cautiously, expecting the enemy to rise from cover at any moment. At the other end of the battleground lies our spy. Armed with only a pistol, he is tasked with disrupting the foe’s satellite network by hacking into their upload stations. He waits patiently, attempting to remain unseen. My team crawl forward. They group together around a tree that provides some high cover, scoping out their surroundings. We’ve been made. Men, humans, descend on our position, driving them closer together. Suddenly out of the heavy fog of war a rocket flies towards their position. They can do nothing as it collides with one member who collapses instantly. A second takes the blast heavily and is floored. The rest scatter, just hoping to stay alive. This is no ordinary mission. The usual aliens with their plasma beams. These men are using our weapons, our tactics, against us. We’re in trouble.
A little has already been revealed about XCOM: Enemy Within, the impressively large expansion to last year’s excellent turn-based strategy XCOM: Enemy Unknown. A game that revitalised the aging XCOM series. We’ve seen the MEC suits that soldiers can don, deadly machines that tear apart the enemy but cannot hide in cover. We’ve heard that your team can have genetic enhancements to enhance their abilities on the battlefield. But there is one final announcement to make, one that makes the name of the expansion make more sense. There is also an entirely separate foe that we have to face, one that comes from within our own human ranks.
They are called the Exalt. Alien sympathisers that believe the extraterrestrials come in peace, despite the catastrophic death toll they’ve already left behind. These traitors will infiltrate the governments of the world, siphoning money and perhaps even convincing them to depart from the XCOM project. They must be stopped at all costs. Money must be spent scanning the various regions for Exalt cells and, once discovered, sending a team in to root them out. This is the mission our fateful team, some of whom are now lying in bits across the grassy field, were embarking upon.
In classic XCOM style the squad panics. They run for the hills, spreading out in random tactically unsound directions. This crack team, the best the world can offer, has been scattered by lowly terrorists. But they regroup and slowly I regain control. The support officer begins to heal them up as they lie in cover, her own wounds slowly healing with genetic implants that enhance marrow function. The enemy may be encroaching on our position but unknown to them the spy, hidden behind their lines, is slowly hacking into their satellite uplinks and disabling their systems. We may have lost men, but we must not fail the mission.
The sniper picks off a few more Exalt, bullets pinging through their skulls. It seems like the team may be getting the upper hand, my mind begins to play through the classic XCOM strategies that succeeded in the past. The spy continues to progress further into the enemy compound and a second uplink station goes down. It seems like the Exalt have caught wind of the covert operative and men begin to drop in on his position. He sprints for cover. Just one more station to disable. Suddenly the enemy pulls another trick, one we failed to predict: a smoke grenade is launched towards the sniper, who has been happily downing enemies from afar. Exalt troops rush towards his position, into the smoke, they have him surrounded. With my team spread thin, and their accuracy hampered by the gas, the attempts to block this maneuver fail, their bullets veering wildly wide. The sniper is cornered and in trouble.
The beauty of the new content featured in XCOM: Enemy Within is the way it subverts the player’s strategy, forcing them to consider new options and tactics. The team at Firaxis have obviously studied the community’s reaction to XCOM: Enemy Unknown. and planned to solve many of the issues that have been raised with this extensive DLC. Details that have already been released are filled with such examples: the meld resource that is used to create the new MEC troops and genetic implants can only be gathered on tactical missions from canisters that are scattered across the map. However these canisters explode after a limited number of turns, destroying the precious meld inside. This ensures the team must move quickly to secure the resource, undermining that nefarious, but all too common, practice of luring the aliens out slowly and then picking them off individually from afar.
The Exalt are a further extension of this; with their human weapons, human equipment and human minds, they will change the way you play XCOM. Returning to the messy field, with half my agents passing out on the grassy bloodstained floor, we find the sniper making a run for it. An enemy on overwatch spots him and bullets spray in his direction. Already injured from the rocket incident, the sniper’s health falls to a dangerously low level. He might not make it home. With time not on our side, the spy is ordered to hack the last terminal. The mission, in theory, is complete. Now all we have to do is survive and escape to the dropzone.
With their systems down the Exalt throw in reinforcements all over the map, they are not going down without taking us with them. The spy has to sprint. It is a suicide run, but there are no other options. With only two men left, and the spy armed only with a pistol, there is no hope of killing the enemy. I order the support to throw a ghost grenade towards the spy. This new piece of equipment, along with many others this expansion adds, is yet another way to rethink tactics. Like the ghost armour, this grenade adds a level of stealth to the allies in the blast radius (don’t ask how that works). Disappearing from sight the spy safely makes it to the drop zone. The other two men limp towards the ship to escape. Yet another man falls as an Exalt sniper picks them off from afar. The support trooper, with her rehealing limbs, crawls into the dropzone and we dust off. Mission complete. A complete failure, perhaps.
XCOM: Enemy Within promises many enhancements hopefully revitalising the game, allowing for a few more campaigns. The AI of the enemies is improved, hopefully not falling for the same old tricks continuously. But there are also a few neat little changes that have clearly been requested. It seems Firaxis have listened. The frustrating mess of removing equipment from unassigned troops has been resolved with a single button which unequips all non-mission soldiers, allowing valuable equipment to become available efficiently. Each unit can now have extra customisations, from changing their language (English, Russian, Spanish, French, German, Italian and Polish), to altering the colour and style of their armour. It does not change the game particularly, but it adds that unique element to each unit, making them instantly recognisable and causing further emotional pain when their lifeless bodies lie prone on the floor.
There will of course be many, particularly fans of the 1994 original - myself included, that will always ask for more. While more maps are added with the expansion, they still lack randomisation ensuring missions can be identical over a long period of playing. The story, along with that most terrible of finales, is unaltered, the new content simply slipping in beside it, which presumably means we will still be left feeling rather bemused by the end. There will also be new rooms to build in the XCOM base, though the arguably restrictive mechanics will remain, but there is also a rumour (based on the released achievements for the game) that the game will include base defense missions, which is an exciting prospect and a satisfying nod to the original. How this will play out is sadly unknown at present. We shall have to wait until the 15th of November 2013 for the launch in the EU. XCOM: Enemy Within will be released as a fully boxed product for both PS3 and 360 (which includes the original game) and as an additional DLC for PC (no word on the iOS version yet).