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The Right To Upgrade Arms - XCOM Enemy Within Thoughts

I'm X-communicating

I've been playing unfinished code for major XCOM expansion Enemy Within.Here are some early impressions for you.

XCOM has a confession to make. All this time it's been carrying on like it's a militaristic strategy game (albeit with aliens and robots and psychics), but really, really it's been a superhero game all along. With major expansion Enemy Within, it proudly rips open its shirt, throws its spectacles to the wind and brazenly displays the lurid spandex beneath. My current squad, for instance, is led by a Mexican in a bright pink mech suit, wearing a matching tribly. He can spray flames from his hands. He can leap over small buildings. He can seep healing gas from whatever's replaced his pores. He is, in short, about as far away as soldiers get from the mopey-looking, meandering dudes in overalls who characterised X-COM.

With Enemy Within, XCOM and X-COM almost entirely part company. While that's a statement that would have seen 2011 me immediately take my seat in the Angry Tank, here's why 2013 me is absolutely convinced this accentuated divergence is only a good thing.

Despite what I just said about Enemy Within taking XCOM on a magical mystery tour into over-the-top superheroics starring Mexicans with metal legs, what it also does it transform XCOM into something that's rather more clearly a Firaxis game. It's become really rather statty. Making an efficient soldier, one who can confidently thin the ranks of what's seemed on a few of the 'new' missions I've experienced so far to be a raised enemy headcount, means choosing and tracking many numbers. Even more so, if you decide to augment a given soldier's genes rather than slice their limbs off and stick them inside a Transformer: Deus Ex-style implants confer an array of bonuses to Aim, Crit and whatnot.

Add to that the new Medals system, in which you can choose to bestow a limited pool of awards with their own Aim, Crit and whatnot bonuses to your best, brightest and bloodiest. And new types of ammo. And energy fields from Mech units which confer... oh, you know. Point is, there's a lot to juggle and it's really ramped up the emphasis on right and wrong builds. It's not so much about keeping tabs on what individual stat numbers are, and more about ensuring you've stacked matching things on relevant units in order to then turn them into the superhumans poor, besieged old Earth so desperately needs to protect it.

Essentially, this comprises a bunch of smaller or even under the hood additions, but put together in a pot with the more overt new stuff - the soldier augmentation - what we've got is an add-on which, so far, has absolutely made what's my fifth playthrough of XCOM feel fresh and different, gently forcing me to shed old habits and develop new strategies. If you'd asked me a couple a months ago what I most wanted from an XCOM add-on, I'm sure I would have banged on about a new campaign and loads of new enemies. Now, I realise that a remix was a much better idea.

Not that my experiences have all been good news. The game does feel a little cluttered now, in terms of the amount of things that need researching and building slow things down enormously - which wouldn't be an issue if it wasn't for the matter of keeping the XCOM project's funding nations happy. With all my cash and efforts going into Mechs and gene-splicing, it's much more tricky to raise the capital and staff needed to build more satellites and Interceptor kit. I had four nations back out in my second in-game month, which wasn't because I'd fouled up any missions but because I couldn't erect enough satellite dishes - which as you may remember also entails building enough relays and power generators and lifts and excavations - in time to offest their rising panic from the terror missions I wasn't able to do. Still, it is feasible enough to get by, but my point is that all the new stuff - colourful and varied and silly and strategic - both steals focus from and really shows up weaknesses in the base-management aspect of XCOM.

Back to the new stuff, though. It makes its presence know almost immediately, which feels a little odd in that you can be fielding an eight-foot-tall cyborg long before you've worked out how to build laser pistols or armour made of something stronger than tissue paper. Still, I'd rather that than have to play through the earliest stages of vanilla XCOM yet again, and it means my focus is on building a new type of team than the usual rookie training and grisly trickle of alien autopsies.

The Mechs essentially constitute a brand new class, with their own skill unlocks and choices, and their own weapon'n'armour tech tree (primarily unlocked via The Foundry and researching heavy weapon types). Whichever class a soldier was before having their limbs chopped off and replaced with Mecanno confers a different bonus power to their resultant semi-bot state, so with a bit of care you can wind up with a team of Mechs who all play a little differently despite a common appearance.

The main thing to know about Mech units, however, is that they're bullet-sponges - they don't and can't use cover, which means they're a little more vulnerable. This stops them, and their high damage output, from being overpowered, especially in the early game, but it also means you'll approach missions in a slightly different way. Without having to forever think about whether a unit is safe in its turn-ending position, there's much scope to focus on flanking enemies or attaining maximum line of sight - or, for the melee-focused Mechs, getting them right up in an alien's fearsome maw in order to introduce it to the knuckliest end of a powerfist (12 damage before any upgrades! Hummuna hummuna).

My team has tended to be three mechs out in the field causing havoc, two snipers hanging back to pick off stragglers and one Support equipped with medkit and Arc Thrower. That's right, two items, thanks to a new option in the officer training school, and another small thing that makes a huge difference. Now every non-Mech soldier has an emergency grenade in addition to their usual best-kit (scopes for snipers, arc throwers or chitin for assault and so forth), and to reflect that there are a host of new grenade types - Flashbang, Thin Man-derived poison, Chryssalid-derived Needle, invisibility... And that all ties into the fact that researching alien corpses now yields multiple benefits, as opposed to just the faintly boring air combat buffs of XCOM-unexpanded. In other words, behind the headline making giant robo-guys, some of the nuts and bolts of the game have been made more rewarding and added many new branches to what was formerly a slightly skeletal tech tree.

Like I say, there's a lot going on all of a sudden - a lot of choice, a lot of new toys, a lot of subtly or significantly different ways to play the game. Mostly, I enjoyed that, because frankly I have played XCOM to death. But if I hadn't, I'd be more concerned about the effect on the game's coherence. Everything seems well-balanced, but as I say it's gone into full-on superheroics now, and the sense of being an all-too-human military force struggling to adapt to an enemy wielding impossible science is diminished.

It's not been made easier for it, however - my fair share of hapless rookies still went through the grinder, and even a couple of Mechs met messy ends, all the more painful than losing standard soldiers. The enemy are quick to field Mechtoids, which is exactly what it sounds like in appearance and almost as deadly as a Sectopod in practice, as well as a new, invisible, flying tentacle thing that can pop out of nowhere to strangle soldiers. While they're a deviation from the standard X-COM/XCOM roster, they do fit the game and they do require new strategies.

I'll probably talk more about the gene mods, which add new abilities and skill buffs to 'standard' soldiers, when I'm Wot I Thinking Enemy Within; being primarily statistical they're less interesting to both talk about and play with than the Mechs, but they do perform a useful function in terms of making soldiers more specialist and dealing with the issue of redundant or outdated kit - for instance, a suitably augmented sniper can now leap on to rooftops or turn invisible without having to wear Skeleton or Ghost armour. Options are good thing, but the trouble there is that there's now little reason to ever research Skeleton Suits or Ghost armour. For the most part, Enemy Within has been fitted to Enemy Unknown in a way where the gaps don't show, but that's one of those instances where it's a little more obvious that a whole load of new stuff has been crammed in wherever it will fit.

Then there's EXALT, the new human enemy faction, who look like a bunch of 50s Feds (a callback to poor old The Bureau, perhaps?) and wield essentially the same weapons as you, plus some amped-up gene mods. They bring with them a new mission type, wherein you send in a lone operative who carries only a pistol and a jacket that looks like it came from Top Man to suspicious-looking areas from base mode, which a few in-game days later is followed up by an extraction mission in which you send your main squad in. You then play one of a several variations of XCOM's escort mission, wherein you need to safely shuttle the operative around various enemy transmitters or prevent EXALT from holding your own transmitters for more than a couple of terms.

It's not a massive remix of the standard game, but between the tweaked challenge and facing your own weapons - particularly sniper rifles - it does good work in terms of stopping missions from becoming repetitive. It also means an additional narrative arc of sorts, as successful missions slowly pin down the location of the EXALT base, which leads to outcomes I'm not to chat about yet. There is also - at last - an event involving your own base which I'll keep shtum on for now, but will have much to say about come the WIT.

In fact, I'm at risking of splurging all I'll have to say about Enemy Within now, so I'll wind things up at this point. There's a hard stop in the preview code, with the promise of further new stuff and campaign alteration to come, and I'm absolutely gagging to get to that. From which you might, accurately, extrapolate that Enemy Within is very much doing the trick for me - it's making me obsessed with XCOM all over again, it's making me approach familiar situations with new solutions and it's making me further accept Firaxis' title as its own game rather than worry about how it does or doesn't honour the past. I'm happy.

Just a few smaller observations I want to add, actually:

- the belated inclusion of multiple spoken languages for soldiers makes a huge difference. Having chatter in French, Spanish, Italian, Polish and Russian makes the XCOM project seem international at last, as opposed to the cheesy 'merican action hero noise of before.
- a new button to unequip all items from all inactive soldiers is a time-saving Godsend.
- there are so many hats now. What is this, Team Fortress? I do love fielding an all-Trilby squad, though.
- This playthrough was the first time I tried the entirety of the earlier Slingshot DLC. Its trio of more scripted skirmishes makes a bit more sense now that the game as a whole has more setpiece missions, but the focus on a special character who even gets a couple of his own monologues is bizarre and inappropriate.
- There's an excellent new mission involving a whale.
- Classic Iron Man or GTFO

Enemy Within will be released in about three weeks. You need to own XCOM to play it.

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