XCOM: Enemy Within hands on - meet Earth's new defenders

If this all sounds a bit easy, it is. But I'm rolling with an unusually powerful team to get a proper look at Enemy Within's new gadgets, and there are powerful new enemies that Firaxis aren't ready to show yet. It'll take a lot of work to afford two mechs and genetically modified soldiers in the same team in a campaign. Mechs are bought with a new and scarce resource called Meld that can only be retrieved by walking up to glowing yellow canisters in maps and slurping their contents before their turn limit runs out. Firaxis want to use these precious, time-sensitive resources to draw players into XCOM's maps a little quicker. They also serve as another design knot, pulling together the turn-based battles and the strategic overlay that governs base building. Pick up Meld in a fight, send the Meld to the Cybernetics Lab, buy upgrades and mechs that you can deploy in the next fight. It's loops like this that bring XCOM's various elements into cohesion, and the separate resource means you'll still have money to upgrade your ordinary humans as you see fit. Firaxis estimate that good players will be able to sustain two or three mechs during a campaign.

The two mechs in my uber-squad make a terrifying vanguard as they perform a final sweep of the area. The dark farmland zone, a throwback to the original 1994 game, is one of two new areas I've seen. The other was on the top of a dam, and showcased an impressive vista in the background. Enemy Within will add many, many new maps, and rework all of Enemy Unknown's to support Meld canisters. The number of extra arenas hasn't been finalised, but Gupta estimates that the odds of not seeing a new map in your first three missions are somewhere in the range of one in ten thousand.

I approach the entrance to the downed alien vessel cautiously with my flamer mech and move the rest of my squad up in support, sensing that the end is near. Yes! An Outsider – the alien pilots you find at every crash site – finally materialises, and makes to leave his ship. Sadly for him, I put a two-ton mech at the door on Overwatch. At the first sign of movement, my man lets loose a blistering railgun blast. The creature is dust. Earth is safe once more.

My people survived, this time, but Gupta tells me that if someone had popped their cybernetic clogs, the updated memorial would have recorded the date and cause of the soldier's death as well as their name. I mull over some of the losses I took in last year's campaign. 'Killed by incidental car explosion' doesn't sound quite as impressive as 'lasered to death by giant alien robot', which implies some significant progress in the heroic death department. Enemy Within will let you award medals to special squaddies for as-yetunspecified performance benefits.

Many more tweaks have been made under the hood. Firaxis tell me that one of the big advantages to doing a proper expansion, rather than incremental DLC, is that it's allowed them to delve deep into the codebase and devote the time needed to some serious rewiring. This has enabled them to fix the notorious enemy teleporting bug, and a few bugs that would deny soldiers their hardearned flanking bonuses. They've also made lots of what they call 'quality of life' improvements. Cover can be targeted by explosive weapons. Objects and enemies within blast radius now gain a red scanline effect that makes it clear what is and isn't being targeted by the attack. If you take a squaddie out of your lineup, their gear is placed into an easily accessible locker, so you won't have to check every squad member to see who has that arc thrower you need. It's a collection of small but significant changes that the community has been requesting since Enemy Unknown released.

All of these additions add up to a chunky and exciting expansion for XCOM, but there's definitely more to Enemy Within than I've seen so far. Gupta describes the campaign as being “like the director's cut, the ultimate version of the game,” but also alludes to “a few new story beats.” My questions about base invasions and a rumoured rogue human antagonist element were stonewalled. “There are some pretty big additions in terms of the strategy layer and the situation room,” Gupta teased, “but we can't talk about them yet.”

I suddenly envy the psychic soldiers of my Enemy Unknown campaign. I'd give up a percentage of my humanity to scan the room and extract all those hidden details. Come to think of it, I'd give at least an arm to have jet boots and a giant metal fist. That's the appeal of Enemy Within: the Devil has all the best toys.

Tom Senior

Part of the UK team, Tom was with PC Gamer at the very beginning of the website's launch—first as a news writer, and then as online editor until his departure in 2020. His specialties are strategy games, action RPGs, hack ‘n slash games, digital card games… basically anything that he can fit on a hard drive. His final boss form is Deckard Cain.