So if you played XCOM: Enemy Unknown when it came out a year ago and liked it, you should stop reading this review right now and go play XCOM: Enemy Within. It’s more of the same, and while that might be a bad thing in most instances, it’s not in this case.
See, Firaxis Games has done something brilliant with Within. Put simply, they’ve cheated. They’ve created an expansion without actually creating an expansion. Within is merely a superimposed game over the original. New units, some new plot points, some new villains, but the same old game. No new story, no new setting, and the core mechanics are identical. While this might be a terrible idea in a game that’s narrative driven, it works perfectly in the world of XCOM where your actions drive the plot forward. The focus is on gameplay and mechanics, and by renovating those and giving you the same game, they’ve stayed true to what XCOM does best: providing exemplary squad based combat. Not to mention, of course, that you should never fix what’s not broken. They had a good house with Unknown and they built it into a mansion in Within.
The game does add story content, with the EXALT organization, a nefarious human organization bent on undermining your operations, running amok and a new story quest nestled right in the middle of the game that I won’t spoil for you. The real charm of Within isn’t with the added story features, though, but in the gameplay mechanics.
The most obvious addition are mechs and genetic soldiers, brought to you by a resource found on maps called “Meld.” Meld is a compound made up of mechanical and biological elements, able to bend matter and make stuff a lot better. It’s what really makes Within‘s gameplay differ from its predecessor because it allows the combat to escalate to a new level by giving you access to advanced units and weapons through either a tech tree that specializes in mechs or one that specializes in genetic modiciations. Mechs, the route I went in my play through, can do all sorts of things from making cover for your other troops to jumping on top of buildings. This adds a whole new level of strategic depth; suddenly, combat becomes layered like a marble cake, with your standard troops making a baseline and the alterations building off of that. The best part about it, too, is that escalation I spoke of earlier: things begin to feel epic.
The only problem I have with Meld is the way you procure it. The stuff just sits around battlefields for reasons unknown, but they have counters on them that, when they finally count down to zero, self-destruct. So what that means is that you will likely have to move quickly and overextend your defensive line in order to get the stuff. It puts your troops at great risk, and sometimes the Meld gets destroyed anyway. And while I understand that making the stuff difficult to come by was likely an attempt by the developers to keep Within‘s escalatory nature in check, it feels cheap when you risk so much for so little Meld.
Part of the charm in Enemy Unknown was it’s ability to make me feel engaged with the setting. The maps were always varied and nuanced, with broken down tractors and bales of hay littering farms to abandoned train yards with cargo spilled everywhere. Unknown also added sound features that gave hints as to what enemies lay around the corner. The good news is that this is only improved in Within. And that feeling is one of the things that keeps Within grounded. Escalation has a tendency to spiral out of control in games, especially in sequels or expansions that already have a specified tone they’re working with from the beginning. Within keeps the elements that made it great in Unkown, SK Games just ramped up the gameplay elements to make you feel more awesome in the process. That dark, mysterious, seedy tone is still there, reminding you that this is a dangerous situation, one where you’re outmatched, largely outgunned, and death lurks just outside your line of sight.
The other thing that keeps the escalation in check is EXALT. They are a big addition to the game and their units operate differently than the alien soldiers. EXALT, I think, is reasonably harder than their alien counterparts. That may be because I’m more experienced with fighting the aliens, but I suspect it’s because EXALT uses your own tactics against you. All those times the situation got hairy and you pulled out your bazooka to end the alien threat? Well, EXALT has no problem doing the exact same thing to you. The same unit types, like heavy troopers and snipers, are all available to EXALT, so suddenly you fight a mirror image of yourself. It’s a challenge, but a welcome one given the fact that all your units begin to resemble epic, mechanized monoliths and genetic mutants. EXALT brings balance, annoying balance that shoots you in the face with a rocket when you least expect it, but balance nonetheless. It keeps you humble, at least.
There are couple of additions in Within that feel superfluous. Medals are one example. Your troops can earn medals in combat and you can award them as you see fit. The medals give bonuses that you ascribe when you get the medal, like an increased defense rating or the inability to panic in combat. Yet these small bonuses don’t add much, and their ceremonious tone comes across as fake when you start realizing that there isn’t much to do with them but stick as many as you can on as many troops as possible. Perhaps awards were added to the game to give your troops a razor thin edge over the enemy, but for what you’re getting, they don’t add much. They’re just one more thing to manage in an already “full” game.
[pullquote align=”right”]The focus is on gameplay and mechanics, and by renovating those and giving you the same game, they’ve stayed true to what XCOM does best: providing exemplary squad based combat.[/pullquote]
Speaking of things to manage, I only have two serious criticisms of Within, and the first one is the fact that there seems to be a bit too much going on in the game. Since it superimposes itself on the old game, all the old stuff is still there staring you in the metaphorical face. You have a virtual smorgasbord of options, and while that’s awesome, it’s also a bit overwhelming. In the first game, you had satellites, panic levels, troop abilities, loadouts, upgrades, research trees, and so on and so forth to manage. In Within, you get even more than that, giving the game a crunchy, almost bureaucratic feel. It inflates the games difficulty unnecessarily, leaving you less challenged and more exhausted. This, in the end, is an acceptable criticism, though. After all, it’s like going to an all-you-can-eat buffet and being blown away by all the options you have. It’s annoying, and maybe even a little uncomfortable, but it’s a good pain.
My second criticism is also kind of laughable. The game still glitches. Now allow me to explain, because all the glitches I’m referring to were present in Unkown. These glitches are small grievances, like walls refusing to disappear when you zoom in to see inside a building or troops shooting away from the unit they’re aiming to hit. Yet they’re still there, and that bothers me a bit. I guess I expected Within to be a bit more polished, a bit more aired out since it’s not the first game in the series. Perhaps my expectations are bit high. After all, Within adds so much content that it’s pretty obvious that the designers were busy doing other things, and honestly I can’t blame them, seeing as how those other things were awesome, minigun toting mechs that can scale buildings in a single bound.
Other elements are added, too, that look like they were probably intended for Unknown but just never made the cut. Autopsies for the aliens you encounter offer up more technological bounty, meaning old gameplay tropes from the original game are given a new spin. It added little spice to tide you over while you make your way to the big spice, if that makes any sense. It takes time to get to EXALT, mechs, and genetically modified soldiers, but in the meantime you can entertain yourself with little gadgets that shake up the old, like poison grenades and oxygen breathers.
XCOM: Enemy Within is just more XCOM. Put simply, that’s not a bad thing. Enemy Unknown already had a nigh infinite source of replayability, so making the game even more replayable is an excellent idea. The multiplayer is also vastly improved, too. One of my biggest gripes with the multiplayer in Enemy Unknown was its lack of maps, but both units and maps get added to this addition. I’m really looking forward to where the XCOM franchise goes from here, but as for its latest addition, it’s a solid piece of gaming creativity.