XCOM: Enemy Within PC Review: Same Game, More Pain

XCOM: Enemy Within PC Review: Same Game, More Pain

Bob Mackey checks out the new expansion to the perfect digital board game.

When XCOM successfully rebooted last fall, Enemy Unknown struck me as the perfect board game to exist exclusively in the form of ones and zeroes.

After all, it offers everything you'd want from a boxed collection of tokens, figurines, maps, and cards: an easy-to-learn, hard-to-master ruleset, the thrill of going for broke on the back of a fickle dice roll, and the incentive to jump back in with a clean slate (and some much-needed hindsight) after one of many devastating losses. So when Firaxis Games set out to expand upon Enemy Unknown, it only makes sense the team approached Enemy Within with a board game mentality similar to your Catans and Carcassonnes: present the same basic experience, but with some twists that bring a new layer of strategy for those tired of the vanilla version.

The biggest change for XCOM can be found in its new resource, slyly indicated by its title. Each map now features two canisters of the mysterious substance known as "Meld," which self-destruct if left unopened after an indicated amount of turns. Typically, acquiring one of these canisters involves one of your invaluable soldiers going solo to reach its out-of-the-way location, so building up a healthy supply of Meld requires a certain degree of risk -- or the mass reloading of saves. Back at the base, Meld can be used to give your soldiers a number of permanent bonuses -- once you research these upgrades and build the proper facility, of course -- but doing so will put them out of commission for a handful of days. Or, if you'd like your loyal soldiers to lose even more of their humanity, Enemy Within offers the new MEC Trooper class: half-man/half-machine instruments of death which require costly repairs if damaged. In typical XCOM fashion, Meld gives players an advantage with the caveat of making some of their resources temporarily unavailable when they might be needed most.

While it's always been tough to watch one of your XCOM soldiers perma-die, the super-specific customization options brought on by Meld couldn't help but make me feel even more attached to my garishly colored, behatted little warriors. XCOM still offers a bottomless pool of rookies to recruit, but after you've sunk several missions and multiple enhancements into a single character -- not to mention Enemy Unknown's new medal system, which confers permanent bonuses without the need for genetic modification -- you may find yourself using Enemy Within's liberal save/load options with reckless abandon. An ability to rewind through and replay turns a la Ogre Battle could do wonders for incorporating XCOM's saving meta-game into the actual ruleset, but for now, you're still on the honor system.

"Enemy Within" also refers to a new, non-alien threat in the world of XCOM: EXALT, a human-run group that doesn't necessarily agree with your militaristic tactics. So along with staying ahead of the alien menace nipping at your heels, snuffing out EXALT sleeper cells also becomes a priority, especially since this group can undo a lot of work done to keep humanity afloat. Keeping EXALT at bay requires a healthy amount of resources, though, since XCOM places the onus on you to find their sleeper cells, send one of your soldiers to infiltrate it, then a team to extract him or her a few days later. In the high-stakes world of XCOM, where, at bare minimum, a handful of things have gone beyond the point of recovery, EXALT has a way of making you question whether or not humanity is truly worth saving.

While Meld and EXALT make for Enemy Within's most notable additions, this XCOM expansion contains a number of tweaks and refinements that would only matter to veterans of Enemy Unknown, but still lend to the immaculate and friendly design Firaxis has made their trademark. If there's something about the game that bothers you, odds are, you can turn it off completely, or alter it to suit your play style; and Firaxis even offers some incredibly specific options that have the potential to completely transform the game -- for instance, if you're feeling guilty about save scumming, Enemy Unknown provides an option that resets the random number generator every time you reload a save, making things a little fairer in XCOM's favor. (As if it didn't always have the advantage.)

I've always viewed XCOM: Enemy Unknown as a nearly "perfect" game, and one wholly thorough in its execution. Despite its predecessor's completeness, though, the content of Enemy Within meshes well with the neat and reliable rules of XCOM and never feels superfluous, though it's important to note that newcomers to the series may be a little overwhelmed with the many new demands of this expansion. If you spent a good chunk of 2012 parked in front of your PC and cursing the critical hits that wiped out some of your finest soldiers, Enemy Within provides a wealth of new opportunities to lament your poor planning.

The Details

  • Visuals: Essentially the same as the first game, Enemy Unknown's graphics aren't flashy, but they get the job done.
  • Audio: Enemy Unknown's soundtrack doesn't offer a whole lot of variation, so I used my time with the game to cut through my hefty podcast backlog.
  • Interface: Firaxis' initial take on XCOM offered one of the cleanest, most readable user interfaces I've had the pleasure to experience -- one that hasn't changed with Enemy Unknown.
  • Lasting Appeal: The added features and options of Enemy Within make for an incredibly varied amount of experiences, and you'll likely restart the campaign multiple times until you pin down a strategy tailored to your specific strengths and weaknesses.

Enemy Within doesn't fundamentally change the XCOM experience, but it does add a number of new challenges and strategies for veterans of Enemy Unknown. This expansion may be a little too much to handle for newcomers, but the XCOM faithful will find a whole new series of important decisions to obsess over.


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