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The Amazing & Astonishing RPS Advent Calendar: Day 13

They could rebuild it. They had the technology. Better, stronger, faster.

It’s XCOM: Enemy Within!

Alec:

Some of you – especially the pillocks who can’t stop themselves believing that someone really enjoying a videogame must be for sinister or corrupt reasons – may be relieved to hear that, having written a small novel’s worth of words about XCOM over the past couple of years, I now can’t think of a thing more to say. XCOM is good. I like XCOM. The XCOM expansion is good. I like the XCOM expansion. Good. XCOM. Good. Expansion. Um.

(It is safe to say that I’d probably be a candidate for having my arms chopped off and my torso stuck into a tin can were I an XCOM operative, rather than one of the guys who gets selected for augmentation with amazing brain powers. I’m OK with that.)

Part of me’s slightly uncomfortable that I close out a second year running with XCOM as my most played game by far – I hate to be a stick in the mud. Most of me, the celebratory part rather than the cynical one, is absolutely delighted to have been given more of a good thing, this smart-yet-boisterous remix that breathed dozens of hours of new life into a game I thought I’d exhausted. I must admit that the proposed changes and additions sounded chaotic and excessive on paper, but in practice they make so much sense, and wring a new game out of the same structure.

Another, greedier part of me, fervently hopes that same thing happens again next year, that there’ll be a second expansion which does for XCOM’s sadly flaccid late-game (and that bloody satellite mess) what Enemy Within did for the early/mid stages. Then I worry about what the hell I’m going to find to say for a third year running.

Adam: XCOM: Enemy Unknown could have been eviscerated, dissected on the internet’s butcher’s slab. As a reimagining of one of the PC’s most beloved properties, there was always the danger that it would attract packs of angry fans, furious at every change. All things considered, it managed to avoid that fate and the Enemy Within expansion takes it farther away from its source material. XCOM is a distinct thing now, a sort of superheroes vs monsters sci-fi spectacular, where augmented humans bound from rooftop to rooftop, and monstrous mechanoids clash in a whirlwind of sparks and fire.

Enemy Within doesn’t simply add bulk to the game, it adds definition. The multiple routes that soldiers can be ushered along make the smaller squad a more sensible choice, with every individual capable of changing the tide. They are still vulnerable and the game can still be cruel, but moments of triumphant heroism are more frequent, even if I still worry about the fate of my soldiers when the war is won.

I worried that fighting against human enemies would distract from the invasion but EXALT are a fine check to the bravado that can infect a commander leading a squad of mechanised warriors. Infiltration missions strip away advanced armour and weaponry, and caution is always necessary when fighting the flank-hungry bastards during an extraction.

Even Meld requires changed tactics. I say ‘even Meld’ because I initially found the idea of a disintegrating, timed resource extremely silly, fearing it would be clumsy way to force daft and daring dashes across the battlefield. It does provide a prompt push into action but, again, it’s a necessary one, making even the older maps seem new when plans sometimes shift so dramatically.

Firaxis, as they’ve proved with Civ V’s evolution, are good at making expansions that are both content-rich and relevant. Enemy Within has allowed their designers to make this XCOM a distinct and challenging piece of work that very much stands on its own two (heavily augmented) feet. In an odd way, it feels like a zoomed in focus on the skirmishes of a larger war – a feeling that I never had with the original X-COM – but that’s not to the game’s detriment. Wisely, a great deal of Within’s work is concentrated on the agents themselves, ensuring that no matter how loud and complex the battle becomes, it has a human heart.

And, finally, a diverse set of voices. I’m still waiting for the expletive-sitting British language pack though.

Back to the Calendar!

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The all-seeing eye of Rock, Paper, Shotgun, the voice of many-as-one.

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