X-COM: Enemy Unknown was a game you could literally lose yourself in for 8 hours, realize it’s 4AM, then turn back to the screen and mutter to yourself “Just one more mission”. The depth and replay value of the original were so staggering that it put fear in my heart when I heard Firaxis was releasing not a one-off DLC, but a full-blown expansion of the undisputed strategy king of 2012. How many more hours of my life were about to vanish into the abyssal black hole that is X-COM? Read on to find out.
The new expansion offers a litany of additions, improvements and balancing that make an already superb game even better. Fueled by a resource salvaged on missions called meld, you can now invest into two powerful new technologies for your soldiers to wield against the alien threat. Gene modification can imbue your soldiers’ with amazing combat enhancements that just make you feel warm and fuzzy inside when you see them in action. Such enhancements include things like the mimetic skin upgrade which allows them to blend into their surroundings like the predator (particularly useful for snipers) or muscle fiber density to leap onto building rooftops for a better vantage point without the use of ladders or a skeleton suit. Other upgrades gift your squad with increased accuracy and regenerative health on the fly. My personal favorite is a mod that upon making a kill releases a pheromone that increases the combat abilities of all nearby squad-mates that I’ve lovingly coined “The Kill Stench”. Brain, eyes, chest, skin and legs can all be upgraded with associated mods but the catch is you can only install a single one into each so choose wisely.
The mechanized augmentation side of the coin replaces everything below your soldiers neck with cybernetic implants. Doing so allows them to interface with and pilot what can only described as rampaging metal behemoths of death; MEC Suits. Mechanized soldiers are just so bad-ass and neigh unstoppable that at first it makes you rethink spending resources on gene mods at all. They’re packed to the gills with firepower, tough at nails to kill, can be used by squad-mates for high cover and work incredibly well as front-line fighters. The drawback is they have almost zero utility or support offerings aside from causing carnage and destruction, so I’ve found fielding one is usually enough unless I’m expecting the need for some heavy lifting. In addition to a standard issue mini-gun you are given access to a choice of either a flamethrower or rocket fist. The flamethrower has two charges per mission that can bathe a large cone-shaped area in front of the MEC in beautiful, panic-inducing flames that cause widespread damage. Alternatively, the rocket fist is a reusable single-target weapon that can obliterate not only its intended victim but all the environmental cover surrounding it. There’s more weaponry to choose from as you advance like a long-range grenade launcher and rail gun, but I haven’t had enough time with either of these to comment on their effectiveness.
Two new creatures join the cast of aliens you’ll be fighting this time around; the Seekers and Mechtoids. Firstly, the squid-like floating creatures known as Seekers are equipped with stealth capabilities. When you first encounter a pair of these things and they vanish on you, it’s terrifying. Unfortunately they don’t live up to their own hype and turn out to be fairly easy to dispatch as long as you keep your squad together. The Mechtoids on the other hand represent a truly unique and legitimate new threat on the battlefield. The alien equivalent of a MEC Suit piloted by Sectoids, these things can wreak havoc on your squad in a hurry if you don’t deal with it properly. Bolstered by the fact that any surrounding Sectoids can throw a hefty psionic shield over it at any time, your forced to deal with the lesser threats while simultaneously putting damage on the Mechtoid.
Along with new types of alien units, Enemy Within will also have you fighting against your fellow man. A pro-invasion group known as EXALT are constantly trying to thwart your efforts by sowing unrest and siphoning credits from the X-COM project coffers. Since they’re a secret society, your forced to meticulously root them out by uncovering hidden cells in different nations one-by-one. Special missions called covert operations involve sending a single soldier with only a pistol to gather intelligence on the uncovered cell. After a few days a prompt will appear that your operative is ready for extraction and you’ll send your team in.
These missions normally involve two nodes that need to be hacked before you can high-tail it out of the area while fending off waves of EXALT soldiers. The catch is only your lightly armed covert operative can perform these hacks and must be protected in order to successfully complete the mission. Aside from dressing like they just stepped out of the roaring twenties, EXALT soldiers use highly aggressive tactics to wear down your soldiers as quickly as possible. Their reckless behavior acts as a great counterbalance to the way your forced to carefully escort the operative between objectives, checking corners and methodically covering all possible angles of attack with your squad.
As you take down individual cells, you’ll gain clues to narrow down the possibilities of where the main EXALT headquarters might be located. Think Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego but instead of Carmen, it’s the Illuminati your after. If your feeling confident about where their headquarters might be located you can accuse a nation of harboring the organization. If you choose right you can skip hunting down more cells and go for the jugular by launching an assault on their base. But be warned, accusing the wrong nation will result in them immediately pulling out of funding the X-COM project for the rest of the game.
Enemy Within brings the veritable cornucopia of map variety it was so badly hurting for. Despite the original game having near-infinite replay value, the small pool of map types it pulled from eventually began to stagnate the experience. About a third of the way through the campaign you would start seeing the same handful of forest and gas station crash sites being recycled. This time I must have burned through about 25 missions before I saw anything that came remotely close to resembling a duplicate. Even better is that estimate doesn’t even include any of the new story or special mission scenarios for Enemy Within.
The base defense mission makes a return from its fore bearers, forcing you to fight tooth and nail to keep your organization standing. I have a nasty habit of cycling a smaller collection of gear between my numerous squad members to cut down on expenses. This corner-cutting bit me in the ass hard when the aliens came knocking. Because the invasion came between missions, my most powerful weapons and life-sustaining gear was stacked high on a group of rookies while my battle-hardened vets had to fend for themselves with standard issue garbage. The outcome was a Pyrrhic victory and a lot of good men dying needless deaths. Despite managing to survive by the skin of my teeth all efforts after that have been severely crippled moving forward. I paid the price, learned a valuable lesson and have been limping on since the aftermath of the devastation; it was fantastic.
All the new technology helps to push that feeling of attachment to your soldiers and the grief of losing them even further. It all culminates in that same X-COM experience of enrage-joyment we all know and love, only richer and more complex. Building a diverse team of meld-infused super soldiers and hulking mechanized brutes is a blast and losing them is an even more dismal affair. Resource allocation is even more of a challenge with the introduction of the always in-demand Meld. But the added micro-management of gene mods, MEC advancements, equipment and abilities on top of the usual decision-making thankfully doesn’t become an overwhelming experience. The new aliens add more flavor while EXALT breaks up the pacing nicely between UFO crashes and story line missions. Although I haven’t finished it yet, I’ve probably sunk about 20 hours into the glorious Enemy Within campaign so far and I can’t wait to get back to it. If your new to the series or a strategy masochist starting your fifth iron man run on classic difficulty, you definitely want to pick up the enormously satisfying expansion to one of the best strategy games ever created.