In these days of quick-fix DLC it is rare to encounter a proper expansion pack, one that takes an original game and builds on it in new ways, creating an experience greater than the sum of its parts. Enemy Within is such a product, adding a new layer of complexity to the already stellar XCOM: Enemy Unknown.
At heart this complexity comes from the newly discovered Meld resource, which plays a big part in the turn based strategy combat of Enemy Within. On most maps you will come across Meld containers. Once spotted, these have a limited number of turns before they decay, and you want to get your troops to them as quickly as you can. This adds a new degree of pacing to the game, forcing you to take chances, and occasionally rush long distances to secure the meld, unsure of the enemies that await.
Once researched, Meld can be spent in two major areas. It can be used to genetically modify your soldiers, or to turn them into giant hulking mechs. The sheer brilliance behind this mechanic is that, due to its limited supply, you can’t have it all – you’ll effectively need to choose a path and stick to it, or you’ll find yourself out of meld and with severely reduced options.
Meld also adds another level of tension over your soldier’s rate of survival. Unlike normal troops, who solely level through experience, your genetically or mechanically enhanced soldiers are an investment. Mechs are tough, and are often at their best wading into the middle of a room and opening fire, but despite their bullet-soaking abilities, losing one is tough, with both the enhanced soldier dead and the mech frame in need of repair. That all means spending more Meld, so if you are too reckless you’ll run out of supply.
Alongside this mechanic is a new secondary storyline that has you combating a shadowy group of humans called EXALT. Your run-ins with them involve sending out covert operatives, and then providing an extraction with your team. These human enemies provide a great change of pace from the usual roster of aliens, and adds greatly to the variety of experiences delivered by the game.
We were really quite stunned at how comprehensive the additions are in Enemy Within. From these new mechanics through to a much greater variety of maps and environments, it is enough to provide a fresh experience for even the most played-out of Enemy Unknown fans.
While the game is still, at heart, the same, Firaxis has managed to revamp the entire experience, while also focusing on increased replayability rather than just a short-lived new bit of story. Deciding which path to take your soldiers down when spending meld is a decision that lives with you throughout the game, and more than ever this feels like a game of managing decline, of holding on against inevitable failure just long enough to turn the tide.
Not only does it have this effect on the macro level base management side of the game, but it dramatically changes your tactics and gameplay on the ground as well. Mechs play quite differently to a SHIV heavy weapons platform for example, being much more agile and packed with more strategic options like the ability to deliberately destroy cover. Genetic modifications, on the other hand, change the way in which you deploy existing classes, with options like stealth skin and the ability to leap onto roofs having a huge flow-on into the way in which you combat the alien threat.
XCOM: Enemy Within is just plain wonderful. It takes a truly great game and makes it better, adding depth and complexity without ruining the core concepts that made Enemy Unknown such a standout. Firaxis has yet again demonstrated that it is a developer at the top of its game, and we can’t wait to see what comes next for the XCOM brand.