XCOM: Enemy Within review
Rest in peace, Major Evan “Mad Dog” Lahti. You single-handedly killed a Muton with a scatter laser, saving the life of rookie sniper Wesley Snipes. It’s too bad there were two Mutons, but seriously, you died a hero, and we all know that last 82 percent chance shot should have hit—that’s just total BS. And hey, you also completed a secondary objective that was really important, so we appreciate that. Sorry you’re dead.
That’s just how XCOM goes. It’s about making hard decisions as you command earth’s front line defense against an alien invasion, primarily by nurturing squads of soldiers which you control in a series of turn-based assaults on the extraterrestrials. Unless you’re using save reloading as a crutch, your soldiers’ lives are in your hands. If they die, they’re dead forever. Not only do I attach emotional value to these customized troops—usually named after my friends or actors with appropriate names—I’m invested in their skills and how they fit into a well-balanced squad. Losing a great soldier can be devastating, and sometimes you have to lose one to save another, or bad luck smacks one down with a surprise critical hit.
Improving by adding
I love XCOM: Enemy Unknown. I love the base-building metagame, I love the tactical combat, and I love the permadeath. The Enemy Within expansion adds good stuff to all of that. My biggest criticism, however—and the reason it took me forever to play the original Enemy Unknown campaign to completion—is that the number of surprises drops off steeply after the first ten or so missions. Once all the aliens are introduced, the most common kill-all-aliens missions become route exercises.
I’ve solved those missions like this: Spotting a group of aliens by advancing a soldier into line of sight contact is dangerous, because it “activates” that threat and gives the aliens a free movement turn. But the aliens won’t advance until activated, so I keep my soldiers in tight formation and use my sniper’s Battle Scanner, which can be tossed like a grenade and provides two turns of remote sight, to activate alien mobs from a distance. Then I just patiently wait for the enemy to come to me, using the Overwatch ability to take shots whenever they try to move up. It works nearly every time, but feels exploitative of the mechanics.
Enemy Within tries to solve this problem by adding a secondary objective to each basic mission type—find and collect a new resource used in genetics and cybernetics labs, Meld, before the containers self-destruct—but it’s just a patch. It’s still a problem that moving my squad forward puts me at a disadvantage. For instance, in one mission, I immediately sent my sniper to a rooftop. She got line-of-sight of nearly the whole map, which activated three enemy formations simultaneously. When I reloaded the mission and moved more slowly—not using my sniper as a sniper should be used—I activated the mobs individually and the mission was much easier.
So that's not well-addressed, and Enemy Within only trivially addresses my other criticisms of Enemy Unknown: the action camera is still wonky, I’m still not fond of the base interface, and I want better visual soldier customization. And yet, Enemy Within is a fantastic expansion. Instead of solving Enemy Unknown’s problems, it adds so much good stuff that it buries them. There are great new objective-based missions, new maps, new enemies, and a crazy amount of new ways to customize and become attached to soldiers, all of which make the game better.
Human on human violence
The most significant improvement is Exalt, a human terror organization which is countered with covert operations and extraction missions. Funnily, XCOM’s tactical combat is much better against human enemies than aliens, and objective-based missions are immeasurably better than the more common search and destroy missions.
A few days after sending a soldier to infiltrate an Exalt cell, you’re prompted to embark on an extraction mission. The squad you send will be joined by the operative, who can only carry a pistol, and is required to complete the mission objectives. In one type of mission, for instance, the operative begins at the opposite side of the map from your squad and must hack into Exalt Comm Relays on the way to the extraction zone. Meanwhile, Exalt sends constant waves of reinforcements to harass you.
These missions generate the best of XCOM’s terrifying decisions. I have have to protect my agent at all costs, meaning that sending a soldier out as bait to draw fire is a reasonable maneuver. But in the interest of keeping my best crew alive, I want to keep them close to the extraction zone so I can get them all out after the agent makes it across the map. The alternative is sticking around to clean up all remaining Exalt forces, but the bastards are tough. They act more like I do, sticking to cover, sniping, using Overwatch, popping smoke, and healing themselves. They are much more surprising than Sectoids, Floaters, and the other extraterrestrial kin, and much scarier to confront—when one Heavy drops in with a rocket launcher, I have to completely reconsider my plan.
On the other hand, I appreciate the new alien types for the variety, but they’re as predictable as the original roster. Seekers, for instance, are flying tentacled creatures with invisibility cloaks which can latch onto soldiers and strangle them. They come in groups of two and cloak as soon as they’re spotted. Dealing with them is simple: keep your troops close and put them on Overwatch. When the Seekers reappear, everyone gets a shot. If one of the air squids manages to get a soldier in its tentacle death grip, one shot should do it in, and the affected soldier is disabled for a turn. Not too bad.
I like the alien design, but the fun of making decisions on the fly is lost when they follow flowchart tactics that are best countered with my own flowchart tactics. I’m especially curious as to why they almost always appear in the same groups—three Sectoids, three Floaters, three Thin Men, and so on. Why not a Thin Man riding a Floater?
That’s why I prefer fighting human enemies, though that’s not to say the standard anti-alien abduction missions are easy. XCOM remains brutally hard on Classic and Impossible difficulties—though if you don't lose any high-ranking soldiers and are smart about your research and engineering progression (I'm not...I just want everything), they can become extraordinarily powerful in the end game. Too powerful, even. Still, a streak of bad luck or a few bad decisions can cause serious consequences.
Many of XCOM’s toughest decisions don’t even happen in the battlefield, but in the metagame played at XCOM HQ between missions. Prioritizing and managing resources can be exhausting—with Enemy Within’s additions, there’s so much to take care of it feels like I’m the CEO of a multinational company staffed by three temps and a cat.
Here are some of the vital things I need to do: maintain a worldwide fleet of interceptors to shoot down UFOs, build a global satellite array, research technology, build new weapons, armor, and facilities, upgrade existing technology, balance my finances, seek out Exalt cells and use clues to try to guess at the location of its HQ (guess correctly, and I can take down the whole operation), keep tabs on injured soldiers and recruit new troops, and award commendation medals which come with new stat bonuses.
Having that much to manage with limited resources forces decisions I often regret. Because I desperately wanted to play with Enemy Within’s new genetics and cybernetics labs, I forgot to recruit new soldiers when I was running low on healthy veterans. That led to me running a vital mission with only three soldiers, two of them rookies. One made it out alive. Oops.
The botched mission was totally worth it, though, because we brought home lots of fresh Meld with the bodies, and the genetics and cybernetics modifications which use the resource are great. If you thought you were attached to your soldiers in Enemy Unknown, wait until you mutilate their bodies in the name of saving humanity, but at the cost of their own humanity, and then send them into combat where they might die in five turns anyway. My gene-modded sniper, Lt. Lewis, is the most prized member of my army, capable of jumping to rooftops in a single leap and using superhuman depth perception to gain an aiming bonus from high ground.
On other side of the ethical gray area, the cybernetics lab fuses flesh and machine, permanently throwing soldiers into giant MEC suits to become mechanical bipeds. Major Cory Banks volunteered to have his limbs amputated and replaced with metal, and is now a flamethrowing, jet-boosting human tank. He just can’t, you know, relate to other humans or feel the warmth of their touch ever again, but he knew what he was getting into.
Given her advantages, I naturally send Lt. Lewis to high ground. Maj. Banks and his MEC suit are my tank—I use him to draw fire and panic enemies with his flamethrower, which sends them out of cover so that Lt. Lewis can pick them off from the rooftops. I once sent just the two of them on a mission to challenge myself, and that kind of harrowing self-imposed drama helps XCOM’s basic missions stay fun into the last stretch of a playthrough. The aliens rarely force me to go outside my small stable of cautious maneuvers, but Enemy Within does more to encourage my creativity. I try new tactics because I want to tell a story with my soldiers’ strengths.
My biggest issue with all these additions is how complex my mental database has to become to cope with the amount of statistical information. I don’t count that against the game, but the mental tug-of-war it causes is worth noting. On one side, I just want to make a decision and get on with it, because there’s always the chance a lucky alien plasma round will just blow a hole in Major Lahti’s chest anyway. On the other side, I know that if I take it slow and consider each of my soldiers’ bonuses before making a decision, I might save a life. The latter is always more rewarding.
XCOM is a game of resource management and tactics more than a game of chance. I can pretend it’s the dice roll that decides who lives and who dies, but it’s my decisions. Because I decided to spend money on laser rifles instead of body armor, I had to send an under-equipped soldier on a difficult mission, and I pulled him out of cover to collect Meld for my laboratories. And now he’s dead. In that respect, it’s more vitally a game about sacrifice, ethics, and responsibility.
Enemy Within muddies up those ethical waters with even more excruciating decisions, requires more complex tactics, and promotes an even deeper connection to the soldiers I dearly want to protect. It doesn't significantly address Enemy Unknown’s shortcomings, but adds more great, challenging experiences to an already great game.
The fantastic Exalt missions, gene mods, and MEC Troopers are an excellent reason to play more XCOM.