By Alec Meer on November 11th, 2013 at 2:00 pm.
Enemy Within is a proper expansion – like in the olden days – for last year’s XCOM: Enemy Unknown, which was a very different reworking of 90s ultro-classic X-COM: UFO Defense. This time around, we get robo-folk and genetic modification, and one giant leap further away from XCOM’s parentage. Good idea/bad idea? Let’s find out!
Saving the world with a big, pink, French cyborg: this perhaps isn’t the XCOM expansion we asked for, but I think it’s the one we needed.
It’s probably worth reading my recent preview of Enemy Within before embarking on this wall o’words, as the code I had then was so close to complete that both details and my take on it was pretty damned clear there. While I will cover the key points again here, that and this are really two halves of one mega-verdict. To reiterate though, this sizeable expansion for Firaxis’ speeded-up, more action-focused XCOM do-over adds cyborg soldiers, genetically modified soldiers, a rival human faction and a smattering of new setpiece missions into the game. Its purpose is to have you replay the campaign again (in my case, that meant for a fifth time), with new abilities and fewer repetitive missions, rather than to provide a brand new campaign. That means existing savegames and troop rosters are no use: you’ll start anew, rookies, no satellite coverage and all.
I admit I was grumbling at that before I went in. Much as I’m extremely fond of XCOM, I didn’t fancy playing the meatgrinder and glacially slow tech-up early phases all over again. It’d be like having to reintroduce myself to an old friend: no thanks, let’s just get straight to the drinking and the in-jokes, please. Fortunately, Enemy Within doesn’t waste much time before dropping in the new stuff. So much so that it’s incongruous in fact, as you’re so under-researched and ill-equipped in terms of the XCOM basics that being able to build mechs or gene-slice so soon makes little sense. I’d rather it this way than have to wait five hours for my first pink robot, though.
Here’s how it happens, which I didn’t mention in the earlier piece. Many ground missions – primarily standard UFO and Terror ones – add a new element to the map, a resource called MELD. That probably stands for something, but I can’t remember what and would be lying if I said I cared. I call it Magic Upgrade Juice. It’s used to modify soldiers either mechanically or genetically, and there are two cannisters of it on each map. Like the occasional timebombs in existent XCOM missions, MUJ crates have a turn-timer on them. If you don’t manage to get a chap next to them before that timer runs out, they evaporate or teleport or, well, I don’t know, it’s blatantly contrived but it does work as a mechanic nonetheless. One of the deep-in-the-bones problems with XCOM is that there’s not much call to fan out your soldiers – you creep everyone forwards in broadly the same direction, save for putting snipers on roofs and, if you use them, sending a SHIV ahead as a scout/hat-on-a-stick to draw fire1.
With MUJ in play, and often far from the heart of the action or sometimes dangerously close to a lurking pack of Xenos, I’d usually split one guy from the pack to try and grab it before the timer ran down. It’s a fascinating, multi-faceted risk-reward mechanic – you’re possibly sending a lone soldier into danger, you’re making less firepower available to your main team, and you’re potentially choosing to defer shooting at hostiles because you want to spend the turn double-running someone over to the MUJ. Repeatedly, I’d end up with someone dead because I played the latter odds, and even more repeatedly I’d stir up a hornet’s nest of previously unseen enemies. I often had far more visible foes on-screen2 than in Enemy Within, thanks to a combination of reckless MUJ-chasing and the fact that the hitpoint-heavy Mechs can’t use cover and thus tend to stride right into the heart of the action. The game became highly stressful at times, because I was so often outnumbered and outgunned, forcing me to make far more use of running away and Hunker Down than I had in the parent game. That is what I needed an XCOM expansion to be: a complacency-buster.
An additional complication/strategy for MUJ is that it can be destroyed by anything from a pistol upwards, so stray fire (e.g. a near miss on an enemy standing near it) or excessive use of area-of-effect explosives will wipe it out. Sometimes, it’s brutally necessary to sacrifice MUJ, due to the aforementioned tendency for more baddies, and it hurts to do so.
If you do obtain sufficient MUJ, it’s good for both adding gene mods to soldiers, who otherwise retain their existing abilities and armaments, or for having their arms and legs chopped off and replaced with big stompy metal ones. Additionally, it’s used to upgrade Mech suits with extra abilities and more hit points. Money is required for all of these things too, both per-upgrade and for the initial cost of building two new relevant rooms in the base, but it’s not vast sums so usually doesn’t interfere with the bread’n'butter building of satellite nexuses and power stations. But in cash-poor months it can tip the balance, and the initial construction of the gene and mech lab rooms particularly can cause a problem as you run out of space, money, time, engineers and power needed to throw up new Satellites as fast as possible.
I’ve said this before, but I think the need for rapid, expensive and slow satellite coverage is the weakest part of XCOM. It requires too much, and obtaining those things is too convoluted – for instance, each new nexus requires more engineers than the last, but those can only be obtained in anything like a hurry by building new Workshops. Which takes ages still, and is expensive, and usually requires a new power station, which usually requires excavating. And in any case some countries will give you bonus engineers in the end-of-month council report, so clearly extra engineers are not dependent on extra workshop space, so why can’t you just directly recruit new engineers and aaargh.
It’s deeply illogical, it involves dependency upon dependency upon dependency, and it means that not prioritising satellites over everything else early in the game can lead to an inescapable early game-over later on. This is due to the still-aggravating fact you’re not allowed to carry out all Terror missions when they come up, but instead must choose one of three, and thus have no choice but to increase panic in not just the nations whose missions you couldn’t do, but every nation in the same continent. Too much panic means a nation drops out of funding you, and as well as this limiting your teching up, if enough nations drop out it’s game over. A mess, and not a hot one at that.
So yes, the new upgrades do complicate that fudged system further, but not dramatically – just be mindful that your resources will be stretched more thinly, and try to concentrate on getting more satellites up before you succumb to the temptation of super-soldiers.
MUJ seems plentiful early on, and I found myself spending it willy-nilly simply because it was exciting to so quickly grant my soldiers new powers, but late in the game the costs of the higher-end upgrades (especially the third and final tier of Mech suits) was so much that I had no hope of maxing out everyone unless I started grinding for the juice. By that point in the game, that wasn’t a lot of fun because, despite changes to the first ‘half’ of the campaign, in its later stages it’s the same as Enemy Unkown. Disappointingly this means the game’s basically just waiting for you to hurry up and build storyline-critical rooms such as the Gollop Chamber and stops throwing many missions or UFOs at you. Despite this I was determined to grind my way to another 100 MUJ4 so I could finish up another tier-3 Mech. After watching the in-game clock burn through an entire month without anything of note happening, I reminded myself that I’d only really be using that guy for the final mission, which I knew from quadruple experience wasn’t particularly bloody hard anyway. So why bother? So I didn’t.
The first ‘half’4 of the game is brimful of new stuff, though. This remixing of XCOM’s campaign had me back hook, linker and cyber-sinker all over again, which I hadn’t expected. Despite a degree of anticipation for the add-on – I truly believed I’d exhausted this game. The Exalt / covert operation missions are one part of this (again, more fully documented in the earlier piece), as they mean you have two over-arching objectives at once now. One is, still, to respond to every alien attack while gradually teching up so you can bring the fight to them, and the other is slowly locating the secret headquarters of the mad, bad, alien-sympathising humans who staff Exalt, aka the anti-XCOM. Each successful covert op eliminates one or several nations as possible home to Exalt, so there’s a certain tension-thrill to slowly tightening the net, and if you’re a gambling sort you choose to accuse a nation of housing them before you have proof. Get it right and you get to invade Exalt’s base, get it wrong and that nation is never speaking to you again, let alone giving you cash on a monthly basis. Trouble is there’s no real need to accuse anyone before you’ve definitively narrowed it down to just one place, unless you’re desperate to put an early end to Exalt missions, to stage the base invasion and/or come back with a wodge of stuff to sell, but I like that the option’s there.
The Exalt base invasion itself isn’t anything particularly special, though it is an opportunity to see new in-game environment, and because it’s interior-set, a whole lot more stuff gets blown up. It’s nice to have the added micro-campaign and a different sort of foe (one who tends to hunt you rather than wait for you at that), but there’s no real pay-off to speak of, and while it might sound like I’m spurting spoilers with wild abandon, there isn’t really anything to spoil: it’s more variety on the same journey, is all. Stop and smell the flowers, there’s no hurry.
There is another base invasion, however – that of aliens into your own. Here I will be more spoiler-averse, and elect to write more about this later, if ever. All I’ll say is that it’s a big, satisfying and more challenging mission than the XCOM norm, and while it was pre-fab rather than being ‘my’ base, with my carefully/chaotically-chosen layout and whatnot, it does do new stuff, busts complacency and it’s impressively relentless. I’m glad it’s there, but I’d have loved for it to have been a forever-looming threat rather than a mere one-off.
Added to that is smattering of new missions. One involved Infinite Chryssalids and a whole lot of running away that I’d name XCOM’s best scripted mission, and there’s a small arc centring around a rescue effort which offers some dramatic new scenery, a couple of tweaked objective types, and a guarantee of psychically-able soldiers by the end of it. It’s comparable to the earlier Slingshot DLC in terms of content, and in its slightly odd focus on named characters with special dialogue, but as part of the overall Within package it’s a worthwhile bonus and again makes yet another playthrough of XCOM’s campaign feel entirely worthwhile.
Which brings me back to the main event, the new soldier types. Honestly, I really say all I wanted to about the Mechs in the last piece, but I will say here that they’re my favourite new thing. They really change the game, both by shaking up the traditional move’n'Overwatch formula, and because having soldiers right in the thick of it – and with the right equipment even punching Sectopods and Cyberdiscs and Beserkers straight in whatever passes for their kissers – alters the dynamic. They’re a long way from invincible, but they do lend a strong sense of taking the fight to the enemy rather than simply trying to survive them. The Gene mods are a little less interesting and certainly less immediate, but I think they’re ultimately the more powerful addition to the XCOM arsenal.
Bar some choice of skills, a Mech is largely a Mech, but with Gene mods you’re tailoring your soldiers, amplifying their existing abilities and setting up elaborate stat multipliers, as the right mods coupled with the right kit and the right allies results in a team who actually grow in capability during the course of a mission. As I’ve said before, it’s something of a Civilization mentality, where you’re really tracking what alters what and spending/equipping carefully, rather than simply making everyone as buff as possible. Buff-e-nuff is not enough! Brains and brawn! Quite a lot of numbers!
For that reason – i.e. because I am a bit stupid and lazy – I enjoyed the Mechs more. They were like having my home re-decorated, whereas the Gene mods were like getting loft insulation done. A more sensible decision for the long term perhaps, but it doesn’t have the immediacy, or the lurid paintwork (as mentioned in the intro, the option to change soldier’s armour colour and headgear really comes into its own when you’re fielding 8-foot roboguys. “It’s the end of the world!” “Whatever, check out my massive lime green robot bottom”).
That said, a sixth playthrough where I double down on Gene mods very much beckons. It does feel as though that’s where new tactical depths are yet to be plumbed, now I’ve scratched the itch for most ostentatious alien-bashing. Although, having gene-fiddled soldiers super-jump onto rooftops and automatically turn invisible isn’t exactly pizazz-free. Throw in the assorted new grenade types too, there are a lot of new toys to play with: this is a big, meaty expansion with plenty of flexibility, which remixes the game without sacrificing its nature, and it goes very big while remaining very well thought-out. This is most reflected in how the soldier mods complement rather than outright replace existing classes; you’re going to need Snipers, Assault et al as much as ever, but there are now new tactical combos and complexities to bear in mind, at least some of which are entirely necessary to deal with more and tougher enemies (most specifically the new Sectoid alien mech, which arrives early early on and regularly, packing equivalent power to a Cyberdisc at the point where you’ve probably barely made it to Laser Weapons).
Such a shame that the endgame remains such a damp squib, with all those exciting new toys and all those hours of planning and sacrifice still resulting in a fairly routine mission and a shrug of an ending. If there’s ever another expansion, that’s what it needs to address. Much as XCOM is a game about personal challenge and victory rather than a happy ending, you’ve got to have a worthwhile destination. This time around, the repeat journey was absolutely worth it, and I’m glad if surprised to end 2013 finding that XCOM was my greatest timesink for a second year running. It won’t, naturally, change the minds of anyone who felt XCOM was a betrayal of X-COM, but if like me you’re contented by the Gollop and Firaxis efforts co-existing and doing their own thing rather than replacing each other, this really is an excellent add-on despite a few pulled punches.
1. However, I found SHIVS to be all but redundant now, as Mech troopers tend to occupy their bullet-sponge shoes. That is presuming you build Mech units, of course – you can always double-down on gene mod guys. Of course there are those situations where all your best warriors are in the sick bay or Psi-lab too).
2. My as-yet unproven suspicion is that the game is simply fielding more foes than before too, to reflect the surfeit of stronger units and super-powers now available to Team XCOM.
3. Each mission, presuming you get both cannisters, tends to yield 20, for reference. Making a soldier Mech-compatible costs 40, building a mech costs similar, and individual gene mods cost anything from 15 to 50. While maxing an out an entire squad’s mods is certainly possible, again it’s likely to involve a degree of grinding in the late game.
4. The reason I keep writing ‘half’ is that you could in theory keep playing a campaign somewhat indefinitely if you so choose, though not a lot would happen as the virtua-months wore one. Alternatively you could experience a near-total wipeout of your best guys partway through and find yourself spending ages getting a bunch of rookies up to speed, delaying the completion of storyline-critical missions.
XCOM: Enemy Within is out tomorrow on PC as an update for the original game, costing around the £15-£20 range.