XCOM: Enemy Within
The Good: New adversaries, new technologies and upgrades.
The Bad: Many missions seem too highly scripted.
The Ugly: Difficulty level very uneven over the course of a game.
Without a doubt, the whole XCOM series embodies the love/hate relationship I have with video games. Games that are too easy often leave me without any feeling of a sense of accomplishment. Games that are too hard, those that have me banging my head against a single level or a single fight too long, I eventually give up on. XCOM is by turns both of those things, some missions so easy that I run them almost on autopilot (helped along even further by the turn-based nature of the gameplay), and some rife with waves of enemies coming at exactly the wrong moment when everyone is out of ammunition and my assault soldier manages somehow to miss not one, but three 80% probability shotgun blasts from less than ten feet away – I feel cursed. Oh, what alien God hast forsaken me? And just when I’m about to throw up my hands and walk away, some rookie manages the reaction shot that snatches victory from the razor-fanged, poisoned-saliva-dripping jaws of defeat.
I’m not going to spend a lot of time delving into the gameplay of XCOM. If somehow you’ve found yourself reading this review unaware of XCOM, a series that has spanned at least 25 years and 6 or 7 sequels, you’ll have to locate a wiki to bring yourself more up to speed. The basic idea is you’re the leader of a secret organization dedicated to fighting an invading alien menace. After receiving a report on alien activity, you send a squad to the scene. The majority of the game is played out in these scenes in a turn-based isometric-viewed squad combat fashion, allocating each soldier’s action points to moving, shooting, taking cover, watching for alien activity, healing, reloading, etc. Overarching this turn-based game, is a base building game in which you manage the finances of the XCOM group, monitor alien activity worldwide, research new technologies, purchase equipment to outfit your squad, hire and promote soldiers, construct base facilities, and the like. And while this describes the game pretty well, it doesn’t in any way get into the vast complexity and tension it offers.
XCOM: Enemy Within is an expansion pack similar to, say, one of the Civilization expansion packs. It doesn’t offer a completely new single player campaign, but instead adds more meat to the existing campaign experience. The biggest chunk of this is the addition of a human faction which is against the XCOM group called EXALT. EXALT, like you, is busily adapting alien technology to make weapons, and while they end up with very similar weaponry, their tactics are surprising. When I came upon my first EXALT mission I had honestly been expecting nothing more than just another alien mission, but with the alien graphics replaced by human ones. Wrong! At a point in the game where I could handle almost all alien encounters with at most the loss of a single squad member, the EXALT crew exterminated my entire squad. And I can’t even put my finger on what makes them different. They’re a little more aggressive, and more geared towards ambushes, but I don’t think that alone explains why my tactics were initially so ineffective. Perhaps the structure of the EXALT missions, in which you must protect a soldier you have sent to infiltrate an EXALT cell, is different enough that it required some adjustment on my part. Whichever, an adjustment was necessary. Consider yourself warned.
The second big addition is a material known as Meld. Meld is alien goop that you can use to perform genetic enhancements on your soldiers or implant cybernetic devices. You can even, ghastly as it sounds, perform a full mechanized conversion of a soldier, turning them into sort of beefy Robocops called MECs. Not all soldier types make a good MEC conversion. Snipers who are converted to MECs lose their sniper rifle, exchanging it for high armor and a shorter-range minigun or flamethrower. Sure, MECs are devastating (and pretty much necessary when the enemy comes up with their own MECs), but in many circumstances the sniper’s standoff range is key. Choose your MEC conversions carefully, because the mechanized beast you end up with is no the solder you had, and they’re not going to fill the same roll after the conversion.
I think veterans of the XCOM series will find my complaints familiar. Many missions seem almost painfully over-scripted. For example, the moment your undercover operative cracks an EXALT uplink, EXALT agents literally come raining down from the sky. The tactic of waiting until you’ve killed all the agents currently on the field, then taking an extra moment to reload everyone’s weapon and arrange your squad so it has good cover and sightlines before cracking the uplink really disconnects you from the rushed and under pressure feeling that the mission is trying to create. Other missions feature little clusters of enemies scattered around the map that don’t become active until you move into a certain range, so it behooves you to inchworm forward and take out aliens in groups rather than rush forward and find yourself activating more alien clusters than you can deal with at one time. Artificial. The game tries with some success to pull you out of the cautious turtle approach by putting the Meld canisters on timed self-destruct, forcing you to rush forward with a little more risk than you might like to retrieve them. Other missions have civilians caught in the crossfire, and if you don’t hustle they’re going to end up dead. Still, I would have rather the game use time-based instead of event-based triggers on the enemy reinforcements.
Early in the game, very early, it goes pretty easy on you at most difficulty levels. Enemies are weak and use poor strategy, and world panic is low. Somewhere in the first third, things take a serious turn for the worse: you’re short of money, world panic is on the rise and countries are withdrawing from the XCOM project, you often find your veteran soldiers wounded and are forced to rely on rookies who more often than not come home in coffins. Those are the XCOM dark days. Then (provided you survive the dark days) you get a few key technologies into play, get some MECs on your squad, and start to turn the tide of panic, and somewhere near the halfway or ¾ point everything becomes much easier. Money loosens up. You no longer need to race for Meld, so beyond losing some civilians you can take levels at a cautious pace. MECs have so much armor and their weapons are so devastating that you can kind of sit back and unleash holy hell on anything that pops up.
Repetitive elements limit, at least for me, how many times I can replay XCOM in a way that somehow doesn’t seem to impact games like Civ V (I know, an entirely different type of game 4X vs turn-based squad, but somehow they end up on the same niche in my gaming brain). Every game you’ll find yourself doing the base building in more or less exactly the same way after you’ve figured out a good order for yourself, and even missions themselves become repetitive as you can only have so much variety in a shootout at a shopping center. The most recent incarnation and this expansion pack both do a much better job than the previous titles in varying mission goals and pacing, and in throwing enough stuff in the mix to keep you from learning the perfect way of doing things quickly.
But as I’ve said earlier, I think all of these complaints are not surprising to the series veterans. The aliens are widely varied and very different in their strengths, weaknesses, and strategies. The EXALT faction is a good addition to them. The technologies are interesting. And though there have been a lot of turn-based squad games across the years, I have never found another one that really gets under my skin the way XCOM does. I’ve found more memorable moments in any given hour of gameplay than in the entirety of any other game I can mention. You find yourself caring about your veteran solders, grinding your teeth in frustration when the odds go against you and you lose one of them, and basking in success when a risky strategy pays off. Those characteristics in a video game are rare indeed.
Reviewed By: Phil Soletsky
Publisher: 2K Games
This review is based on a digital copy of XCOM: Enemy Within for PC provided by 2K Games.