Enemy Within is the first expansion to the XCOM remake, a game which was pretty well received on here over a year ago but which in the long run turned out to suffer from some fairly deep-seated structural issues – the aliens’ completely supine geoscape presence and an inverse difficulty curve being amongst the most prominent. A good thing, then, that it was made by Firaxis, since if there’s one thing Firaxis excel at it’s fixing critical flaws with comprehensive and well-designed expansion packs. After the success of Gods and Kings and the well-designed additions Brave New World made to Civ V (even if I didn’t particularly agree with them all that much) I had high hopes that Enemy Within would do the same for XCOM.
Unfortunately — and as I’ve mentioned several times on here — high hopes usually only lead to disappointment and broken dreams. So it goes with Enemy Within, which manages to be a solid expansion while only partially living up to its potential to turn XCOM from flawed gem into genuine classic. As with Gods and Kings the headline features – Meld and Exalt – fall kind of flat, and it’s left to the unannounced changes and additions to the research trees and game balance to pull EW’s soldiers out of the plasma fire.
Let’s talk about the expansion pack’s big failure first, because it involves the feature I was looking forward to the most: Exalt. Exalt is supposed to be a third faction in the game; they’re a sort of paramilitary anti-XCOM that wants to harness the alien technology to further their own end goal of taking over the world, which brings them into direct confrontation with your forces. This seemed like it might be a neat way of fixing up the static, unreactive nature of the geoscape segments: the addition of a human(ish) organisation that has many similarities to XCOM and who is working in direct opposition to you would have let them run a version of that parallel campaign structure I so enjoyed in the original X-COM. Potentially we could have had three-way fights with XCOM and Exalt both trying to carry off as much alien tech from a crashed UFO as possible, and Exalt running their own game in the background of the geoscape, setting up hidden cells within funding countries and – if unchecked – increasing their influence to the point where your funding is reduced or even stopped. Perhaps I was letting my imagination run away with me, but this is why the reveal of Exalt a month or two ago got me quite excited. I thought they’d listened to the criticism they were getting about the dull geoscape and were actively trying to liven it up a bit in the expansion. Doing what Firaxis do best, in other words. I certainly never thought they’d stuff such a promising idea up quite so badly as they have here.
Sadly as things stand Exalt are worse than a wasted opportunity – rather, they’re actively detrimental to the game and I really, really wish they’d been cut from the final product. And they should have been cut, because Exalt in their current form simply cannot be taken seriously as either a gameplay mechanic or a threat to XCOM. The way they work is that every so often you’ll get a message saying that Exalt have done something annoying – stolen some money, say, or slowed down some research. Then you get the option to send in one of your soldiers as a covert operative to infiltrate the Exalt cell responsible. They go in with no armour and armed only with a pistol plus gadgets, but this doesn’t matter because when you extract them you get to send a full squad into the resulting battlescape mission, which then becomes a simple matter of keeping the operative’s head down while your soldiers who actually have guns do all the hard work of fighting the Exalt forces.
Exalt soldiers themselves are clones of your own XCOM troop classes dressed in pinstripe suits and face masks. They have the same abilities and basic weapons as your men, but the AI is much, much worse at using them than a human player; given the inherent fragility of humans in XCOM this means that most Exalt missions are braindead turkey shoots, especially because they’re so heavily scripted. There’s two types of mission: one is a king-of-the-hill style fight over a satellite transmitter, and the other just involves getting your covert operative to hack some beacons and then back to the Skyranger. The latter type of mission is never not insultingly easy, since I twigged very quickly that there’d be 2-3 groups of Exalt already on-map and once I’d cleared those out I was free to set up defensive positions to slaughter the reinforcements that would appear once I started hacking beacons. The fights over the transmitters are almost good, though; there’s a constant stream of Exalt coming in from off-map to try and storm the transmitter location, and depending on where it is the battles between your soldiers and the Exalt operatives can become incredibly short-range and nasty as you all try to pile on top of the transmitter. The close-quarters fighting gets so brutal, in fact, that I found myself wishing they’d included dedicated melee weapons. As it was Exalt at least provided me with one of the most memorable XCOM battles I’ll ever have, an absolutely cut-throat encounter on a rooftop where the staircase access and ground floor were wrecked by explosives very early on and Exalt switched to swarming up the sides of the building, critically wounding both my MEC trooper and the medic I sent in to stabilise her and prompting a desperate attempt to kill off the last of the enemy forces before they both bled out. By the end of it the building was a ruin, the roof was covered in corpses and every single one of my troops was nursing a heavy wound of some kind, but I got everyone out alive.
That’s very much the exception, though. For every encounter like that one you’ll have four where the transmitter is in some ludicrously defensible position where you can just dig in and gun down the Exalt as they spawn in from the sides of the map. Their AI for these missions doesn’t help, either, as they suicidally run forward to try to cram into the transmitter zone and turn themselves into prime targets for the much-increased quantity of explosives your squad can now carry. Exalt soldiers are also very much outclassed after the mid-game; they upgrade once to tougher Elite versions who carry laser weapons and have some interesting gene-mod abilities, but they have no answer to Titan armour and plasma guns, and even in the early game you’ve got the ability to bring a giant robot suit to this particular gunfight. In general the Exalt missions suffer from a particularly acute case of the level janitor feeling I get towards XCOM’s endgame, where I know clearing a mission is going to be fairly easy but I still have to go through the motions in order to avoid casualties, and this just compounds the overall feeling of pointlessness that afflicts the whole of the Exalt feature.
Exalt are given almost no explanation, you see. The aliens are inscrutable (at least until that godawful end mission) but you at least get to find out a little bit about who they are through the eyes of your scientists and engineers as they research alien biology and technology. They have backstory, even if its not related to the player through direct means. Exalt on the other hand have no backstory, no context and no point. Except for a few throwaway lines from Vahlen, Shen and Command Guy their motivations remain completely unclear; and their presence on the geoscape is almost maddeningly incidental: each covert operation you complete gives you a piece of information about where the Exalt HQ isn’t (this is a not-even-barely-disguised ripoff of Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego?, and I really think Firaxis can probably do slightly better than that for inspiration) but the cells come and go at random and their only purpose is to give you the opportunity to smack down some more Exalt in one of those dull and repetitive shooting galleries. Even once you’ve found and stormed the HQ you’re none the wiser as to who the fuck these people were or why you had to expend so much effort clearing up after them; they’re so insubstantial and compartmentalised from the main gameplay that you could remove them from the expansion entirely and it wouldn’t suffer at all, and in fact would probably be massively improved. I really don’t know how this headline game feature was botched so completely, but the end result is that everything to do with Exalt is textureless, flavourless and an almost colossal waste of time.
Then you’ve got Meld. I had my doubts about its effectiveness from the moment it was announced; the idea is that on most regular missions two containers of Meld will spawn somewhere on the map with a timer countdown, and in order to get to the Meld before they self-destruct you have to abandon the super-cautious tactics that maximise squad survival and play somewhat more aggressively. The incentive for getting Meld is that it’s used as currency for buying the other two headline features of Enemy Within – the gene-mod upgrades and the MEC troopers, which I’ll get to in a minute – but sadly I have to say that my doubts were well-founded for two reasons. The first is that even if you’re playing very cautiously you can still scrape up enough Meld to upgrade some soldiers and manufacture a couple of robot suits; as long as you don’t want an entire squad of genetically-engineered badasses this is a sufficient amount to get you through the whole campaign. The second is that if you offer me a choice between “a gene upgrade for my Assault trooper” and “a squad that’s alive at the end of the mission” I’m always going to pick the latter. The potential for failure cascade and the severe consequences of such mean that risking your squad’s well-being for a measly ten points of Meld just isn’t worth it.
(An aside: we have now finished the bitching part of the review. It’s probably going to turn out to be much longer than the good part largely because I find it much easier to pillory something than I do to sing its praises, but I would like to say up front that there’s at least as much good in Enemy Within as there is bad or mediocre. It’s just that the good parts are a lot subtler and harder to describe.)
Now, as to what the Meld buys you: I have mixed feelings about the gene mod upgrades since the whole process and most of the upgrades themselves are incredibly underwhelming, offering boring stat bonuses like +10 to aim after a miss and no visual changes to your gene modded soldiers except that they now look like Arnie in Predator. However there’s a significant minority of upgrades that make the feature worth including; I particularly like the leg upgrades that gives your troops super-jumping abilities and the anti-psi brain upgrades, while Mimetic skin (a sort of semi-permanent cloak) is arguably overpowered. Gene mods aren’t a bad idea, they just aren’t explored to their fullest potential. MEC troopers, on the other hand… well. MEC troopers do this.
MEC troopers can punch aliens through cars. MEC troopers can deploy flamethrowers to burn out Chyssalid infestations. MEC troopers can fire a ludicrous number of long-range grenades and proximity mines. MEC troopers can turn themselves into piece of High Cover and still fire their explosive weapons. MEC troopers are, in short, where a lot of the good design is hiding in Enemy Within, not to mention a lot of the content since once a soldier is converted into a MEC trooper (through the not-at-all creepy process of chopping off all their limbs and replacing them with bionics) they lose their old speciality and get access to a whole new class tree, with different additional abilities depending on which particular mech suit they’re piloting. Having a MEC trooper come along on a mission is a lot of fun, but you don’t get to have all of it since the aliens get their own version – the Mechtoid – that appears fairly early on and gives the Sectoids some much-needed punch.1
The aliens in general has been subtly rebalanced so that waiting around to research everything before attacking the alien base doesn’t tilt the scales quite so heavily in your favour, with the appearance of certain advanced enemy types no longer tied to your hitting certain points in XCOM’s “plot”. I still think it’s better to bide your time since there’s still some scripted appearances and replacements that can be avoided until you’re ready, but it’s no longer the guaranteed free ride it used to be. Certainly I felt much more pressured in the mid-game, even losing some experienced soldiers in bloody, visceral battles with Mutons and Berserkers. Hell, I’ve even had to retreat from one or two missions because the squad got too beaten up to continue. As far as the battlescape goes this rebalancing has done a lot to shore up that inverse difficulty curve, and while there’s still a point where you’ve got such a tech and experience advantage that clearing missions becomes a triviality it at least occurs a couple of months further into the game than it used to.
As for the geoscape we’ve already established that Exalt is irrelevant, and the way panic management has gone in my EW game has matched my experience in vanilla XCOM: everything seems like it’s going to hell in the first three months, and then suddenly you get on top of it and all your remaining countries are at one panic. Thanks to the new game features, however, there’s a lot more to do in the base management part of the game, with new avenues of research, new base facilities and new Foundry projects all competing for your limited resources. Some of these are very badly thought-out – I’d like to meet whoever on Firaxis’ design team thought a Needle grenade would be a worthwhile inclusion to the game – but most have at least limited utility and some are ridiculously useful, like the Foundry upgrade that gives all of your soldiers the ability to carry two items into combat instead of one. Like the alien rebalancing these new base management features don’t fix the core problems that the geoscape has, but by bulking it out a little they at least allieviate the symptoms.
The last two changes in particular are what turn Enemy Within into a worthwhile expansion. New content like the MEC troopers is always welcome, but these are the areas where Enemy Within does a half-decent job of tackling the issues that turned the original XCOM into a two-playthrough game. Along with the non-expansion Second Wave mutators they provide at least a semblance of replayability to a game that sorely lacked it, and whatever else you can say about Firaxis they do listen to feedback (even if they then take that feedback and make something like Exalt) as evidenced by the much-requested cosmetic improvements like new armour skins, helmets and voice acting for the multi-national XCOM soldiers in languages other than American. As with Gods and Kings there is actually far more content in this expansion than what’s written on the tin, and it’s the hidden stuff that ultimately makes Enemy Within well worth picking up – at least, if you liked XCOM in the first place. If you hated it, well, I very much doubt it’s going to change your mind since it’s still the same game, for better or worse. On the balance of what’s here, though, I do think it is better. Just.
- The other new alien type – the Seeker – is a stealth enemy which can be rendered almost totally irrelevant by simply pairing up your soldiers so that you can shoot them when they emerge from stealth to attack somebody. ↩