Expansions, real expansions, are a rare thing in this age. An age where we’re sold tiny extra maps as DLC, or a handful of extra models that should have been included in the original package. Greedy publishers constantly scrabbling at our pockets, draining us of our pennies between full releases. Expansions should change the way the original game is meant to be played, provide a new angle, and most importantly provide content that adds real worth to the experience. XCOM: Enemy Within is a real expansion, twisting and turning the recent reinvention of XCOM: Enemy Unknown into a more structured and refined beast.
Playing XCOM: Enemy Within with the experienced eye of someone who has ploughed hundreds of hours into the Enemy Unknown, it quickly becomes clear that the developers have analysed the issues and complaints of players and attempted to integrate solutions into the gameplay. Slowly the already complex web of tactics and countertactics is being spun into an infinitely tuned mesh of strategies. Solutions to the alien invasion that worked without a hitch when the Enemy was Unknown are suddenly less effective. Pla/cing a deadeye sniper in the air overlooking the map picking off enemies from afar, can now lead to tragedy as he is strangled to death by a stealthed squid-like creature called a Seeker, your team below unable to successfully blast them free. This can then in turn be countered by equipment that prevents strangulation, but takes up valuable equipment space. The entire expansion is rife with such examples as well as many additions that reinvigorate the game.
Perhaps what is most impressive about XCOM: Enemy Within is the way it gels into the campaign. Unlike a typical expansion where the content is clearly separate or must be unlocked by reaching a certain point, the additions instead seep in slowly almost as if they were always meant to be there. Excellent new storyline missions, that see your team racing across a collapsing dam to recover a mysterious weapon, and even a base defence mission (with a clever nod towards the original), interweave directly into the content. New enemies appear alongside old, with new tactics and smarter AI.
It is not quite as simple as that though. While the new content often flows into the narrative neatly, at times it seems to jar against the overall structure, feeling forced. For example the new Meld resource, which is responsible for the majority of the additional content since it allows your troops to be genetically altered or mechanised, is introduced on the very first mission opening up the new avenues immediately. Before the alien threat has really been established, your scientists have begun genetically splicing the troops or turning them into hulking mechanical leviathans. It sits uncomfortably in the narrative, pre-empting the later discussions between your team of abusing the newfound alien powers.
Not that narrative was ever XCOM: Enemy Unknown’s strong point and it is obvious the development team clearly wanted to introduce the newest elements of gameplay as quickly as possible. Strategy and tactics are what really matters and here the Meld resource and its resultant technologies shine through. Even the way in which Meld is collected, harvested on specific missions, alters your overall planning. Hidden on these maps are two resource cannisters that explode after a limited number of turns, which means that players have to forego the usual cautious approach to each scenario in favour of hasty and dangerous reconnaissance. Sitting back and slowly discovering the alien threat often results in a loss of Meld which hinders your ability to upgrade the troops back at base. As with so many of the changes made in XCOM: Enemy Within it alters the way you are used to playing. It breaks and subverts the comfort zone.
Once recovered, the Meld can be used to add certain genetic upgrades (often found through performing alien autopsies) into your troops, ranging from partial invisibility to hyper powered leg muscles that allow the unit to jump on top of buildings. There’s no real downside to upgrading your troops in this way, so often it is best to splice away assuming you have the resources. You can then work these upgrades into your refined strategy, sending your snipers to previously unreachable heights, or hiding assault troops further into enemy lines before unleashing a barrage of flak into their flanks.
While certain genetic upgrades at times feel overpowered there is always that overarching feeling that they can be stolen from you at any time with a costly mistake or unfortunate critical hit. Obviously the perma-death remains and assuming the player does not rely on reloading after such incidents, fielding your melded troops can be a costly experience. The beautiful risk vs reward balance remains and if anything is heightened further in this expansion.
Meanwhile the poster child for XCOM: Enemy Within, the foreboding MEC troops, with their amputated limbs replaced with mechanical contraptions may well be the least impressive part of the package. These monstrosities roam the battlefield, speaking with eerily digitised speech, filling aliens with lead from their miniguns or crushing them beneath their melee pneumatic pistons. Yet they lack the ability to hide in cover, taking the brunt of enemy fire. With their extra health and an entire skill tree designed to soak up damage this is not particularly an issue, however the game really struggles with line of sight when the unit is behind tall cover. This is an area that the game already has issues with, yet this becomes completely unpredictable as to whether your MEC can be seen or return fire.
Personally I only ever created one MEC troop. He was a beast, admittedly, charging around the map with aliens being flung in all directions around him. He rose through the ranks to Colonel, but the unpredictability of his aim, along with his often compromised positioning, meant he spent more time in the med-bay recovering from injuries that out on the battlefield.
Aside from the Meld the second major change this expansion heralds, and giving cause for its name, is the Exalt. Previously discussed here, the Exalt are a human contingent hellbent on disrupting XCOM. Their ideology and motivations are never made entirely clear, but it is obvious they are using the alien invasion as a distraction as they attempt to overthrow the world’s governments. With cells hidden across the globe they slowly pilfer money from your account, disrupt research or at worst persuade governments to withdraw from the XCOM project. To prevent this you must send covert operatives out on missions to root out the Exalt presence.
After a few days these covert troops, armed only with a pistol and no armour, must be extracted. There is then a dramatic mission in which the operative must group up with a crack squad of your fully armed troops and hold off the incoming Exalt soldiers. There are two randomised objectives during these missions, either the team must protect a broadcast array from being disabled or the covert operative must hack satellite relays placed on the map before sprinting to the extraction point.
Both missions require the player to rethink their traditional strategy and it is a rather unique feeling to hold a position rather than slowly exploring the unknown in standard missions. Furthermore the Exalt troops seem to flood the battlefield with unprecedented numbers, dropping in more reinforcements as the rounds progress. They may not have the technologies of the alien threat, but their numbers and human-like tactics swiftly become a problem.
Unlike the aliens, they can often throw grenades or launch rockets at your troops to destroy your cover, leaving them open to attack. Meanwhile their own support troops can chuck in smoke grenades to disrupt your aim. Essentially they use your own tactics against you. Fighting off the Exalt provides a refreshing distraction compared to the typical alien missions, constantly having to rethink your team's position as more troops flank around or your cover is destroyed.
Arguably, after several similar scenarios, the novelty does wear a little thin but as you complete missions and disrupt cells you also recover valuable data on the location of the Exalt base. Once enough data is decrypted you can attempt to wipe out the faction once and for all in a final battle, neatly sealing this distraction away and allowing you to concentrate again on the greater alien threat.
With just these two major additions XCOM: Enemy Within would be a success, yet the expansion also includes a whole host of small, but just as interesting, changes. Soldiers can now be awarded with a limited supply of medals that marginally improve their stats, but can be lost just as easily on the battlefield - pinned to their corpse. There’s a whole host of new equipment, ranging from grenades that emit a poison gas to beacons that trick the enemy into revealing their positions as well as many upgrades that have been added to the foundry to improve your MEC troops. There are two new enemies: the previously mentioned Seeker and the Mechtoid that is essentially a brutal kitted out Sectoid in mechanical trousers. Finally a large collection of new maps, particularly suited to the expansion, that ensures new playthroughs should not be met with too many repetitions, ameliorating one of the game's greatest issues when replaying.
Those with a penchant for flair and imagination will welcome the ability to customise the look and sound of your troops. No longer are they confined to cheesy American catchphrases but can instead can spout out some Polish, because why not? Their dull attire can also be modified, helmets added and livened up with colour, making them stand out in the crowd. It may not affect the gameplay but you can make a serious statement of intent to the aliens by fielding a squad dressed in pink power suits.
Meanwhile there has also been also been a serious amount of balancing and refining that sees many of the troops skill trees amended, hopefully allowing for more experimentation. Certain choices that were almost essential, such as the sniper’s squad sight, have been retooled to potentially provide a viable alternative. Also, clearly in response to feedback, shortcuts in the menu UI have been added, such as a single button that removes all equipment from non-mission personnel, allowing the player to organise their troops far more efficiently without scouring through individual inventories.
XCOM: Enemy Within should be an essential purchase for fans of XCOM: Enemy Unknown, or even those who have not experienced this brilliant remake. With its many additions and changes it provides fans with a revitalised campaign filled with clever nuances and potentially increasing the game’s lifetime by several magnitudes. It is not without its blunders however. While some of the content feels forced or unnecessary, it also seems littered with bugs that causes the system to loop infinitely until the player quits out. Speaking of bugs that dreadful ending to the campaign is untouched (bizarrely devoid of the new enemies as well), and the now infamous game breaking issue that stops players from completing the game remains. It’s a wonder, considering the feedback they must have received, that they did not touch the ending.
Perhaps I’m just a little bitter about that. Still, XCOM: Enemy Within is exactly what Enemy Unknown needed. More maps, more aliens, more equipment... more content. Arguably the decision to release it as a full game on the console (but simply as a separate expansion on PC), with no ability to upgrade for owners of the original, may irk some, yet as it comes with all the previously released DLC and at a budget release price it is still a worthwhile purchase.