Monday, 13 April 2015

XCOM: Enemy Within

XCOM EW

In retrospect, waiting nearly a full year between getting my copy of XCOM: Enemy Within and actually playing it feels rather silly. I do think I know why I held out so long, though.

The challenges of vanilla XCOM are well mapped, its enemies not so unknown any more – but the game is still about as difficult as reading a Thomas Pynchon novel translated into Latin. So the idea of an expansion introducing more moving parts, parts that I don't know how to deal with, was frankly intimidating.

But I shouldn't have waited, because XCOM with all of Enemy Within's additions is pretty much a perfect game. Yeah. Stick that on the front of your game box, Firaxis-of-18-months-ago.

XCOM Enemy Within (5)

As an expansion, Enemy Within does everything right. Every new addition pushes and pulls at what was already there in the base game, and at the other new features. So, the introduction of collectible Meld capsules scattered across most levels, each of which expires after a set number of turns, encourages you to push forward and explore. But on the flip side, the squid-like 'Seekers' – with their ability to sneak up to your soldiers unseen, then reappear and strangle them with their horrifying mecha-tentacles – punish you for letting a single member of your squad get too far from their teammates.

The missions themselves are a little more varied than the standard bug hunts of the original – including one memorable effort to stop a zombie-spawning infection at a boatyard that ended with the last survivor calling down an air strike on his own head.

The smaller details get a little extra colour too, right down to the tiny posters on the walls of mission location, which help sell the idea that these are real, lived-in places torn apart by XCOM's cast of ETs. There are new customisation options for your individual soldiers too, including stat-boosting medals you can award for valiant conduct, plus some cosmetic tweaks. The latter is just a cupboard's worth of helmet designs, some paint jobs for their armour and a handful of foreign languages, but it's more than enough to cement each character's personality.

The big back-of-the-box selling point, though, is augmentation, which comes in two affront-to-God flavours. Cybernetics lets you saw off the arms and legs of your infantry to create hulking MECs, while Gene Mods use alien technology to transform them into super soldiers.

XCOM Enemy Within (9)

Like the the Meld canisters and Seekers, MECs help to re-shape movement around XCOM's battlefield. You can push them out in front to draw fire, while your infantry stays in the rear, but they can't be relied on to soak up bullets without exploding. They're basically tanks in any given WWII game, but with tiny yelling faces.

There's a nice mirror to the MEC in the aliens' 'Mechtoid' unit, almost identical but for the swollen head of a Sectoid popping out, the Area 51-style greys that traditionally filled the role of early cannon fodder. Even non-iron-clad Sectoids can now lend a psychic hand to a Mechtoid pal, transforming it from healthpoint-endowed nuisance to a wall of utter mechanical bastardry, in a relationship reminiscent of TF2's classic Heavy/Medic romance.

None of your units fill such an explicit support role, but having to pick off the vulnerable Sectoids hiding in the distance before you can make any dent in the Mechtoid barrelling through your squad is likely to give you some tactical ideas of your own.

It probably wouldn't be a revelation to anyone who hadn't avoided Total War-style strategy games their whole life, but manoeuvring MECs into position then withdrawing when it gets too hot, with the cover of less iron-clad infantry? That leaves me feeling like the General Patton of alien invasions, the Sun Tzu of plasma rifles.

XCOM Enemy Within (1)

Genetic modification, meanwhile, offer yet another way to further tweak and personalise that infantry.

The original XCOM featured a bonsai tech tree of special abilities afforded by a character's class. As a sniper rises through the ranks, for example, she can take a perk to expand her view of the battlefield, or to target and disable enemies' weapons. The Gene Mods allow you hang extra baubles from that tree. So that same sniper might have the muscles in her legs modified so she can leap entire buildings in search of a good vantage point, or get her eyes augmented to improve her aim once she's up there.

Along with the medals and the languages and the paint jobs, GMs are another way to encourage you to build an attachment to individual soldiers. While these Captain America-a-likes are capable of superhuman feats on the battlefield, they're still as fragile as the rest of their fleshy comrades – and they're more of an investment. So, fair warning: when your favourite modded-up-to-the-literal-eyeballs Assault unit ceases to be, it's going to sting.

XCOM Enemy Within (10)

Holding up a dark mirror to these GM soldiers is EXALT, the terrorist cell which introduces human enemies to XCOM for the first time. Made up of alien sympathisers, EXALT is toying with a more the same gene tech as you but, based on their scaly skin and sickly glow, on a considerably more DIY basis.

It's a reminder of the dangers of playing with alien genes, and of the humanity being sacrificed on both figurative and chopping-off-your-men's-limbs levels. In all senses, EXALT embody the 'enemy within' of the title.

Unfortunately, EXALT don't slot into the game's mechanics quite as neatly as they do thematically.
There's no real explanation of how to deal with the gene-altering bastards, or what the repercussions of their attacks are, until a new menu pops up to further obfuscate XCOM's base management game.

When the time comes to deploy your squad against EXALT, though, it's thrilling. The missions provide a chance to throw down with a mirror image of your own squad which evolves throughout the game, like a genetically-modified version of Gary/Red/Blue/That Nob-end From Primary School You Named Your Rival in Pokémon After.

XCOM Enemy Within (6)

Enemy Within might have been gathering dust on my shelf for the best part of two years, but I've more than made up for that lost time over the last few weeks. I won't share my Steam stats here, for fear of dislocating your jaw, but suffice to say I'm now deep into my third game, having seen the world end twice, once with a bang and once with a whimper.

There are no two ways around it, XCOM is a timesink. I've written before about how the game's interlocking systems work to keep you constantly hooked, and I've neglected other games, and commitments, and loved ones to keep playing Enemy Within.

Maybe that's the real reason I waited to unlock the shrink-wrapped Pandora's Box – the knowledge that, the second it was open, I was committing dozens of hours of my life. But I don't regret any of the time I've spent exploring the curves and dips of Enemy Within. It's never a grind, or a meaningless number-chase. Perfect game, remember?

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Videogames, film, music, comics: feed them into the Alex-Spencer machine and out come neat little articles. Like the ones you're looking at here.