XCOM: Enemy Within: The Kotaku ReviewS

Few things fill me with dread like the first terror response mission in XCOM. Kidney stones, for sure. The DMV. But that terror mission—which costs you a nation on the spot if you flunk it—comes when your force is young and underpowered. I know I'm gonna lose someone. I'm probably gonna lose two someones.

Not in XCOM: Enemy Within, I didn't.

I was barely scratched by those awful chryssalids and the zombies that rise from their murder victims. For once, I panicked them, thanks to the flamethrower of one of my MEC troopers. The nasty bug fled around the corner where it met my other MEC, who blasted it with her kinetic strike punch like a rock-em-sock-em robot.

XCOM: Enemy Within's value proposition to a gamer is hard to label. It's not necessarily DLC because it wholly remakes the game. It's not necessarily an expansion because the story is largely the same. You can buy it off the shelf for $40 ($30 on PC) if you don't have the original. I can't say something like "this is the XCOM we've always wanted," because that implies last year's game wasn't, you know, our freaking GOTY.

Let's just call it the Ultimate XCOM Experience, then. The game already was endlessly replayable, even by strategy-genre standards, thanks to its difficulty settings and the Second Wave modifications that arrived about a year ago. Enemy Within both deepens that experience for longtime fans and makes it more accessible to those who may be wondering why everyone throws a fit over this game. There's never been a better time to try it.

Having seen Enemy Within at PAX a couple months ago and talked over its concept with designers Ananda Gupta and Garth DeAngelis, my principal concern was where this package would fall, in terms of slapping on a bunch of fan service versus overhauling the game. Gupta said he was peeled off even before Enemy Unknown's release to begin working on what became Enemy Within, delivering things XCOM fans loved about the original PC series—like a base defense mission.

That monkeys with XCOM's most precious asset, though—its taut balance, which puts death on the table even on the easiest setting. Though Enemy Within gives you a new—and hellaciously fun—toolkit for fighting aliens (and bastard-ass human traitors) it's impossible to use all of it to overwhelm your foes. Some mission types are easier, and as you develop the game's officially-not-effing-around components, like plasma weapons and jetpacks, the endgame edges toward anticlimactic. But the diversity of mission types works for and against you, spreading out the operations where you recover MELD, the new critical upgrade asset, so that you can't go crazy with robot troopers and roided-out assault specialists. Bread-and-butter snipers, supports and heavies still form the backbone of your fighting force.

XCOM: Enemy Within: The Kotaku Review

The upgrades, and the story surrounding them, are the biggest change delivered by Enemy Within. MELD is basically alien gene goo that Drs. Vahlen and Shen use to create genetically modified soldiers and MEC troopers. MELD is a honeypot asset on alien crash investigations—two canisters will be available but they'll blow up after a set number of turns, and the number you get depends on how late in the operation you discover them. The ultraprudent move/overwatch crowd will need to take more risks or miss out on new toys like "mimetic skin" (an active camo, terrifically useful for snipers) or "adrenal neurosympathy" or self-repairing MEC suits.

Even if those first milestone missions were easier my casualties went up noticeably on the run-of-the-mill operations because of this. Enemy Within also seems to have ramped up the panic—I started my playthrough on Easy just because I didn't want to go down a rabbit hole from which I couldn't recover long term, yet Argentina was still at full-scale, DEFCON-five panic before my first monthly council evaluation. You need to be super proactive with your UFO investigations—stun an Outsider as soon as you have the ARC thrower, forget the Sectoid—to avoid losing a nation before your first laser rifle is built.

This is where the more subtle balancing of Enemy Within lies. You simply can't do everything to create the perfect force. I was well overdue on plasma weapons because I wasn't stunning aliens to bring back their rifles intact, for example. That's because I was too invested in MEC development—which became a priority over gene-modified soldiers because of the way my base laid out in the strategy layer. The MEC workshops have an adjaceny bonus next to regular engineering workshops (and I prize engineers, because they get satellites in the air and keep panic to a dull roar.) Likewise, genetics labs have an adjacency bonus to regular scientist facilities. It's possible in the next playthrough I'll go with a gene-mod approach because of the opportunity presented by my facilities.

A covert extraction mission, from a preview build of the game. We dropped the video settings to avoid mammoth video sizes.

All missions end up offering some kind of asset, but with the new operations (and the integration of the Operation Slingshot story missions) there's now a good stretch between UFO investigations, which do the most to advance the story early on. One of my strategies in this game is to use a bunch of short-term research projects so that when I go to the command center to scan for activity, the Earth rotates a couple times and I can build carapace armor instead of, you know, fight aliens at a gas station in Lagos. As I was really trying to see the new mission structure I didn't do that here. You really do need to work methodically through the research projects available early on before tackling the priority tasks that move the story, otherwise you can end up with a force that has great gene mods but lacks the weaponry you'd expect after a couple council reports.

Where Enemy Within feels most like a new game is in the new map types, and even the reuse and repositioning of some old ones. They are a godsend. It took me at least 16 missions (not counting tutorials and major story operations) before I saw something that reminded me of the old XCOM. UFOs now crash in cities and there is a baller map, involving a very large spacecraft, taking place atop a couple of skyscrapers. One of Enemy Unknown's biggest shortcomings was the repetition in its maps; Enemy Within would be worth it for the new playsets it offers.

One of those is your own HQ, which gets invaded early on and provides you with the chance to use hunker down and overwatch and force the aliens to come to you, instead of the other way around. I still lost a veteran MEC soldier—she'd made major—and it was agonizing. The modifications and upgrades available to you now don't remove the threat of permadeath—they just make loss that much more profound. When you lose a gene-modified Sniper who can leap to the top of a building with squadsight, you will mourn like never before. A three-medikit Support with bioelectric skin—this senses enemies without alerting them to your presence—is practically more valuable at sergeant than any other soldier of any rank.

XCOM: Enemy Within: The Kotaku Review

Modifiying soldiers is another way the game keeps you from overwhelming the opposition, as it takes them out of action while the upgrades are applied (typically for three days). Couple this with the usual sick bay of wounded fighters and you will end up in a lot of scrapes where you're hauling three rookies to the front. (I highly, highly suggest taking the New Guy perk, which starts recruits at Squaddie, once someone makes Major. Sell whatever you can to the gray market if you don't have the cash, but pick that up immediately.) MEC troopers, after modification, still need MEC suits—though the good news is you can build, say, two suits and rotate them among four troopers. The Foundry facility also delivers you the opportunity to carry two pieces of equipment instead of one, meaning low-level teammates can carry both the medikit and chitin plating or the super underwear that adds hit points. I discovered that too late, because I was busy throwing out satellites and aircraft to keep panic low and splash UFOs so I could slurp up that good, good MELD.

New enemy types also change the game but not drastically. The Mechtoid upgrades the shit-upon Sectoid into a fearsome beast, beyond the usual menace of a Muton. Seekers—a kind of floating invisible mecha-squid—aren't as frightening as they sound, though. Once you see them disappear, bunch up and put everyone on overwatch. As to that, the smug satisfaction of killing something on reaction fire is so much more sophisticated when your soldier is speaking Spanish or Italian. Your international force now has language customizations—though Asian or Arabic languages are, regrettably, not among them.

Humans also present a new threat to you, in the form of EXALT, a traitor outfit that seeks to exploit the alien invasion for its own purposes. EXALT soldiers fight the way you do—and man, does the guy with the medikit heal himself. A lot. Once you see the dude spray himself, direct your efforts at him. EXALT offers two types of missions—"target extraction," in which one of your soldiers goes undercover, gathers up intel and then must be rescued, and an onslaught where waves of EXALT soldiers come after you. Covert operations, which trigger the target extraction operations, require you to send a soldier, taking him or her out of action until the operation completes. It's another way in which the game forces you to use a more diverse rotation of troopers.

I highly recommend XCOM: Enemy Within, which both serves longtime fans and makes the cerebral strategy genre appealing to everyone. It is, as I said last year, simply a great game. We're four days from a new console launching and a year after Enemy Unknown launched and XCOM is still the only thing I want to play right now. Battle hardened commanders will probably have to bump the difficulty up a notch, or fudge with the Second Wave options, to create a real challenge. Newcomers will be delighted by all of the new toys it offers, while still finding entertainment in the tension, consequence, and loss that makes XCOM unique.

To contact the author of this post, write to owen@kotaku.com or find him on Twitter @owengood.