Do the milkshake the milkshake do the shake
XCOM: Enemy Within has been a hard game to review. A simpler sentence would read: "XCOM: Enemy Within is a hard game." After slipped deadlines and numerous unsuccessful playthroughs, I have finally conquered the game and sat down to write my review, just days before the game's release.
Enemy Within doesn't just add some new features and new play modes to the original XCOM: Enemy Unknown. It is significantly harder than the original. Part of this comes from the new enemy: EXALT, and part comes from the new resource: 'meld'. But most of all, it is harder because the game includes many more scripted subplot missions, and they vary between 'challenging' and 'hell no'.
One on the 'hell no' end of the spectrum was so hard it wasn't fun - and featured endlessly spawning Chryssalids. Thankfully the game seems to have incorporated some random elements as to which subplots it spawns and when it does so. I'd go so far as to say that I only managed to finish the game because that particular level didn't spawn.
When the subplots work, though, they bring far more life to the world of XCOM. They feature custom cinematics, tailored objectives and specific voice acting content. If you rescue a VIP, they will join your squad with whatever special talents they exhibited in their introduction mission. They may be a particularly gifted psionic warrior, or a tough as nails soldier who outranks all your early troops. These missions drew me into the world and made me care about what went on there.
The new meld resource gives you access to MEC soldiers and to Gene Therapy; allowing you to augment your puny human warriors. But the method by which you gain it - capturing canisters during normal gameplay - does a lot to add life to the standard mission types that may otherwise have felt stale alongside the new content. Because the canisters are time sensitive, you're forced to make decisions about whether to be gung-ho and claim them at all costs, or to play it safe and risk losing out.
I generally found that I could walk the line here, but I do have to admit to losing more than one soldier from a greedy decision to claim that last meld canister before it expired.
After acquiring enough of the substance - and building the required facilities - I loved experimenting with the new options available to me. I only ended up with 1 MEC soldier, but fully upgraded she was a force to be reckoned with. She had so many bells and whistles tacked on for specific scenarios, I didn't even end up using all of them. But her flamethrower? I definitely could have used more of those.
I made a much more thorough use of the Gene Therapy options. All my best squad members ended up enhanced in some way. My sniper could leap tall buildings in a single bound, which was great for getting height bonuses to Aim. An Assault trooper had a second heart, which helped him stay alive when I sent him running into danger. And my best Heavy emitted pheromones in an area of effect to boost his comrades' skills every time he got a kill.
The only tradeoff is that in either of these processes, you're going to be down a soldier for up to 15 days while they're augmented. You'd better have some backup soldiers ready!
In addition to losing soldiers for long periods while they undergo augmentation, Enemy Within adds covert operations where you attempt to uncover the location of the mysterious 'EXALT' movement. EXALT are heavily modified humans attempting - for reasons I never really understood - to help the aliens. You'll send an operative undercover, which takes him out of action for the duration of his mission, and then send a squad in to recover him and his new data.
I loved these missions. You're fighting what amount to enemy XCOM squads, and you will need a completely different mindset to successfully do so. The missions increase in difficulty as you go, and even though the story isn't great, the new gameplay makes up for it.
Between Gene therapy, EXALT operations and wounded soldiers, I found my A-team was more consistently unavailable than in Enemy Unknown. My first playthroughs ended in disaster after losing the better part of a squad at exactly the wrong time. I'd then be asked to send an agent undercover, and a new mission would pop up before my best troops were healed. I'd have to send new recruits on a difficult mission, and they would invariably die before they ranked up.
The slippery slope nature of this difficulty curve was a huge problem, but really represents the experience I feel Firaxis is trying to create. It's tense, it's scary and just barely manageable enough to get you involved and keep it real. One piece of advice: Invest in 'Rapid Recovery' at the Barracks as soon as you can. It felt far more necessary than I remembered, and one or two days less time spent wounded was a big deal.
Playing press builds of Enemy Within, I often had progress stopped by nasty bugs that corrupted my save or left me unable to complete basic functions in the tactical map. Thankfully, I received an early copy of the final game, and all of these problems seem to have been fixed. There are always going to be bugs in a game, but having a team working hard to fix them is a welcome sight.
In fact, XCOM: Enemy Within hasn't just added new content to the original game. It has also done a lot to improve the general play experience. Playing Enemy Unknown on a PC with a keyboard and mouse was an exercise in frustration. I could never get troops where I wanted them, and throwing grenades I missed more enemies than I hit. This 'bad port' feel is absolutely gone in the expansion, and the game controls like a dream. There are also new level opening cutscenes, new environments and new level layouts to keep things feeling fresh and encourage new tactics.
XCOM: Enemy Within really made me happy to be in the world of XCOM again, in a way that The Bureau earlier this year did not. In fact, once I'm done here I'll probably go back and try out some of the new 'Second Wave' options - ways to alter the core gameplay after your first playthrough to make things even more difficult the second time round (as if Iron Man wasn't enough).
The new mechanics, new troops and new missions pulled me deeper into the world than before. It's definitely hard - harder, even - but the feeling of mastering the game and its systems is all the sweeter because of this. If you enjoyed Enemy Unknown and want another taste of that great tactical gameplay, you can't go wrong with Enemy Within.
I design games and enjoy thinking about how they work. Shorter opinionated blatherings can be found on my twitter.