Last year’s XCOM: Enemy Unknown was amazing. It kept me enthralled for over 60 hours. I even managed to save humanity a few times, and while I was having fun each time, my campaigns always followed the same arc: tech up to laser weapons, tech up to carapace armor, capture and research plasma, research ghost armor, discover psionics and save the planet. Things didn’t always go according to plan, but when they did, that was the order of operations. XCOM: Enemy Within shakes things up quite a bit, and it makes every aspect of the game feel fresh again.
The big addition, and what you’ll notice first upon starting an Enemy Within campaign, is Meld. Meld is what the aliens use to augment their soldiers. It gives Thin Men their ability to jump from the ground onto a rooftop, and it’s what allows floaters to be the top half of a muton combined with a jet engine. And now it’s a time-limited collectible found on abduction, UFO landing and UFO crash maps for XCOM operatives to collect. After collecting and researching Meld, you can build a cybernetics lab and a genetics lab which allow access to Enemy Within’s new units: MEC troopers and augmented soldiers.
MEC troopers, after having all of their limbs lopped off, ride around in giant, stompy robot suits. MECs can take a ton of punishment, but can’t take cover. They’re going to get shot, but they’re more prone to shrug that hit off. MEC troopers have their own skill tree as well. As they rank up, instead of taking feats like Lightning Reflexes, you’ll improve their performance with abilities like One For All, which allows the MEC to act like high cover until it moves or fires a weapon, and Repair Servos, which allow the MEC to regain two HP per turn up to six HP per battle. MEC troopers also get access to a feat specific to the trooper’s original class, so each MEC trooper retains something of their old role: ex-assaults take less damage at close range, ex-heavies intimidate the nearest enemy to reduce its effectiveness, ex-snipers are better shots and ex-supports make their cohorts harder to hit by way of a constant distortion field.
Augmented soldiers aren’t as drastically different as MECs, but dumping some R&D money into them makes for some interesting possibilities to the tactical gameplay. Any soldier that you haven’t turned into a MEC is eligible for genetic modification. Each of Brain, Eyes, Chest, Skin and Legs can be modified in one of two ways. Adaptive Bone Marrow (Legs) allows the soldier to heal a preset amount of HP. Bioelectric Skin (Skin) provides immunity from strangulation, which is great against the new Seeker enemy which is always cloaked and tends to go after solitary units. Neural Damping (Brain) grants immunity to panic, and increased defense against psionic attacks.
Along with new soldier types come new enemy types. Seekers show up in pairs, are almost always cloaked and go after lone units. When you’re already moving faster than is safe to pick up Meld canisters, Seekers serve to slow you down and burn turns on overwatch when you might not otherwise. Taking out Seekers before they can strangle a soldier is best, as strangulation only ends when the Seeker is dead or the strangled soldier is. If a Seeker does attach and then gets killed, its target is incapacitated for a turn to catch its breath. It’s an interesting new enemy that radically altered how I played every time they showed up on the map.
Mectoids are the other new alien unit, and they serve two purposes: they make it possible to continue collecting Sectoid corpses for Raven and Firestorm consumables, and they make Sectoids just as scary in the mid-game as they were in the opening mission. Your MEC troopers hit hard. The Mectoid does, too. They’re not quite as scary as a Sectopod, but every time I saw one they became the top priority target.
A third faction, EXALT, also makes its debut in Enemy Within, and while it isn’t working with the aliens, its aims are different from XCOM’s. EXALT, in an attempt to further its own goals, will attempt to slow your progress and steal your money. The only way to take down EXALT is to engage them in covert operations, find its base and eventually shut it down. EXALT operations feel like a little slice of multiplayer mixed into the main campaign, and that’s why I love them. It’s exciting to go up against an enemy that can heal, shoot rockets and snipe from across the map like I can.
Enemy Within also brings some quality of life improvements to the table. Grenade and rocket spheres of influence now cause enemies and potentially-destroyed cover to be shaded in red. I can’t stress how welcome this change is as it means, assuming the rocket doesn’t stray off course, I don’t have to sit and agonize about whether I really have all three enemies covered by that shredder rocket. There’s a “make available” button on the squad selection screen, so you don’t have to go looking for your alien grenades, medkits and first-ever light plasma rifle, making decking out a squad a much more enjoyable task.
There are also new toys to make, like gas grenades, flashbangs, reaper rounds which make ballistic weapons viable for longer and sit great on a heavy waiting for heavy laser research to complete, needle grenades, respirator implants which confer poison and strangle immunity and new foundry projects like tactical rigging that give all soldiers access to the support’s old Deep Pockets perk. Deep Pockets has been retooled to allow for additional uses of items, making grenades a much more attractive option in the late game.
If Enemy Within falters anywhere, it is in the integration of Operation Slingshot and Operation Progeny. Slingshot is a previous add-on, and Progeny was planned to follow but was scrapped and retooled for inclusion in Enemy Within. Both mini-campaigns are tied to toggles outside of the campaign. That’s a ton better than how Slingshot integrated originally (a clunky choice on the first council mission). Neither feels appropriate when injected into the campaign, however. Both ramp up too quickly to be fun, and while the rewards are worthwhile, postponing them a couple of months and spreading out the included missions would make each feel like an organic part of the campaign.
As it stands now, you’re playing a campaign, then every council mission received is Progeny until you win or lose followed by Slingshot until you win or lose. Sprinkled in with standard council missions, and one another, would make them feel longer, and allow players to be better prepared for the more challenging missions. Normally when I fail in XCOM (and I do fail, a lot), it feels like it’s my fault. When I fail in Progeny and Slingshot it feels like it’s, at least partially, due to poor design choices.
I can toggle both operations off on new playthroughs, though, and Enemy Within is exactly what I wanted it to be: a great reason to return to an excellent game. The fact that I can now make snipers jump like Thin Men and send RoboCop out to punch Chryssalids off the map just makes the whole package sweeter.
Pros: MECs and gene mods inject freshness into the campaign, EXALT are fun to fight, improvements make the whole experience better
Cons: Poorly-integrated and balanced mini-campaigns