XCOM: Enemy Within is an expansion to last year’s excellent XCOM: Enemy Unknown, bringing the usual bevy of features one associates with a competent expansion. There are new story beats, new units, new technology, new maps, new resources, new weapons, and on and on. In fact, the thing that strikes me as interesting about this expansion is how, for as many new things Firaxis has thrown into the mix, Enemy Within still feels almost exactly like Enemy Unknown.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Enemy Unknown is an outstanding game, and at times the concern seems well founded that the new tools and toys of the expansion might unbalance the expertly crafted game. Early on as I began to gain access to the new whizz-bangery of Enemy Within, I genuinely worried whether those toys might outpace the natural curve of the game. Fortunately, my impression didn't match my concern, or at least no more or less so than I got with the original game.
Enemy Within feels fundamentally like a classic Firaxis expansion. In Civilization, Firaxis' signature franchise, the developer has always done an admirable job of walking a fine line between bringing enough new mechanics to make their expansions like Beyond the Sword and Brave New World feel like solid evolutions, if not genuinely new experiences, without losing the soul of what made the game great in the first place. Firaxis pulls off that same light touch here, creating an expansion that justifies itself consistently as worthy of your dollars and time without ever sacrificing the core soul of the game.
However it is worth noting that Enemy Within can burn slowly. It doesn’t really announce itself in the way that a lot of other expansions do, by immediately unleashing its arsenal of features at you. To understand Enemy Within you have to think of XCOM more like you would a game of Civilization than a narrative-driven game.
In a Civ game, the expansion simply asks you to restart a new game, and then exposes you to the new concepts as they become relevant to the structure of the otherwise familiar game. Enemy Within does the same. It puts you right back at the beginning of the original game, follows the same general path of progression, and just delivers the new story beats as they become appropriate. To be honest, it was a full fifteen minutes or so after starting into the expansion that I was confident I had not just accidentally started a new non-expansion game.
However, as the new features and elements become more pronounced, the game increasingly deviates from its original experience. You are quickly exposed to the new resource of MELD, which drives your ability to research the key new areas of squad development in genetic enhancement and MECs, which are a kind of powerful exoskeleton you can equip your soldiers into. Fortunately, you can dive into these technologies very early in the game, permanently enhancing the skills, stats and abilities of your squad with everything from grenade launchers and flamethrowers in MECs to automatic healing and better vision with genetic manipulation.
In addition to scientific breakthroughs that allow you to craft the perfect alien-fighting super-soldier, the expansion also delivers a new mechanic that allows you to award medals to your team members, each medal conferring a certain stat boost. It’s just another cool way that you can specialize your sniper into an aim-boosted killing machine, and your shotgun-crazy assault guy into an effective bullet/laser sponge.
The game also delivers new story elements, including more council-driven missions that introduce unique mission goals beyond simply landing in the woods and shooting aliens. For example, one mission asks you to set an elaborate trap for an incoming alien battleship. Another sees you calling in an airstrike and running for the extraction points as waves of aliens spawn and close on your position.
Along with an expansive library of new maps upon which to fight the alien menace, what this expansion delivers in spades is diversity. The occasional drudgery and familiarity of the Enemy Unknown experience — where more than once I wondered what the alien’s obsessive fascination over this one gas station was — is dramatically less here, though not entirely absent.
As you move through the game, you also come face-to-face with a new threat that gives the expansion its name, a mysterious counter-organization working in opposition to XCOM and known as EXALT. The rogue enemy is an occasionally interesting diversion, and allows for even more diversity in both the enemies you face and the kinds of missions you send your teams to accomplish, but somehow these encounters tended to feel more like distractions than engaging firefights to me. It is where the expansion seems to run the furthest afield, and where I more than once wished I could just go back to shooting down alien spaceships and firing lasers at Sectoids.
Overall, the easiest thing to say about Enemy Within is that if you’ve had any inkling to go back and replay Enemy Unknown and you’ve just been waiting for a good excuse to make it a priority, then this is your chance. While I did encounter a few game-crashing bugs, overall the actual experience of playing synthesizes smoothly and effectively into the familiar game. Enemy Within reminded me what an excellent game Firaxis had made in their XCOM reboot, and a trip back into the role of the Commander was a welcome diversion.