Better, stronger, faster
A little more than a year after its release, XCOM: Enemy Unknown remains one of the best tactics games in recent memory. As I wrote in my initial review, developer Firaxis did a phenomenal job taking the themes and mechanics of Julian Gollop’s humans-versus-aliens classic and modernizing them without betraying the punishing nature of the franchise. Enemy Unknown had the comfortable UI, flashy visuals, and production values of a brainless action game, but its heart and soul were pure hardcore strategy.
As an expansion, XCOM: Enemy Within doesn’t do much to change that bottom line. It’s obvious that it comes from a much more confident place—success seems to have made the team less hesitant about exploring some of their zanier, more original ideas—but in the end, it’s fundamentally a tweaked, slightly improved version of the same phenomenal experience, not a dramatic evolution.
There are new maps (dozens), new story missions (around 10, if you count the included Slingshot DLC), and new aliens (just two, but they’re doozies). There’s also an entirely new subplot centered around taking on an organization of alien-sympathizing terrorists known as EXALT. These missions are a particularly interesting change of pace, since they feature less conventional objectives and human enemies that behave in unexpected ways, relying on gadgets and positioning in a way that lends sharp contrast to the mostly blunt-force tactics of the aliens.
This section of Enemy Within happens to be home to the single greatest mission in XCOM history, a marathon base defense that assigns you a much larger but completely randomized squad of soldiers and redshirt guards. In a game that’s infamous for keeping you on your toes, this gauntlet takes it to a whole new level. I’m a little disappointed it was just a one-off, rather than a repeated random occurrence, but it’s definitely something to look forward to on future replays.
The biggest changes, though, are reserved for soldier progression—and, really, it’s only one of the three headline additions that has a dramatic effect on gameplay. The new genetic enhancements and medals, though neat, are really just minor buffs to help make your best soldiers even better on the battlefield. Only a couple open up new tactics. The mech suits, on the other hand, will likely change your entire combat strategy from the ground up. They’ve got more health and firepower, but they move slowly in the early game and can’t take cover, so you really need to tailor your entire approach to their specific pros and cons to make the most of what they have to offer.
If you’re worried that bringing walking tanks into the battle will dull XCOM‘s infamously sharp teeth, you’re partially right. With that great big pool of hit points, they’re certainly lower risk, and even with a more challenging set of enemies, they can make the combat on Normal noticeably easier—albeit at the expense of a more complex strategy layer that requires careful resource management early on. What’s more, Firaxis has tweaked the higher difficulties to make them even harder, so you’ll almost certainly need that extra boost to prevail. Knowing that, I actually think it’s a masterstroke to make the lower difficulties slightly more approachable; as someone who’s been too scared to delve into Classic or Impossible, my smoother Normal playthrough has me itching to finally make the jump up.
But even with all these changes, Enemy Within doesn’t lose sight of what made the base game a joy to play. This is an expansion in the truest sense of the word—not an epilogue or a side story, but a more robust version of the same core experience. A playthrough of Enemy Unknown and a playthrough of Enemy Within have the same beginning and end—the latter is just blown out in the middle, offering more to do while you gear up for the endgame and a greater variety of ways to get there.
That makes the decision to release as a standalone expansion both the best and worst thing about Enemy Within. On the one hand, anyone who missed out on last year’s game can and should make this their entry point. On the other hand, if you’ve already bought and beaten it, it might be hard to justify repurchasing the same game all over again. If you’ve already picked up all the DLC, it becomes an even thornier prospect. The $40 pricetag—cheap for a brand-new disc-based game but a little up there for any DLC or add-on content—certainly doesn’t help matters.
Still, even if the release strategy might raise a few eyebrows, there’s no question this is the definitive version of Firaxis’ stellar reincarnation of XCOM. All too often, expansions and re-releases can seem like a collection of disjointed, tacked-on content that’s only there to pad out the main game. Enemy Within takes the opposite approach, focusing on interesting ideas that feel like natural extensions of the already rock-solid design—and that’s precisely why it succeeds.
|Developer: Firaxis Games • Publisher: 2K Games • ESRB: M – Mature • Release Date: 11.12.2013|
As far as expansions go, Enemy Within takes a relatively safe approach, opting to flesh out Enemy Unknown with new maps, enemies, and upgrades rather than redefining its core. Thankfully, it works, because the additions are every bit as smart and enjoyable as the main game.
|The Good||The best tactics game of the decade gets better.|
|The Bad||Having to shell out another 40 bucks for the game when you already own it on consoles.|
|The Ugly||Making your favorite soldier a quadruple amputee just so he can squeeze into a mech suit.|
|XCOM: Enemy Within is available on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC. Primary version reviewed was for Xbox 360.|