I have to admit right from the start... I did not buy XCOM: Enemy Unknown when it launched. In fact, I didn't buy it at all. An alien-invasion game with the usual fodder of gun-wielding soldiers as your characters? I wasn't sold. Then I activated my PlayStation Plus membership and took advantage of all the free games available for download. So I gave XCOM a try. Now, with over a hundred hours clocked on the game and several campaigns completed, I'm still hooked. With the reveal of the first expansion pack at Gamescom, titled XCOM: Enemy Within, November can't get here soon enough.
On paper, you wouldn't think XCOM's story and gameplay would be a recipe for success. As a remake of a 1994 title, the story isn’t very original, with clichéd alien invaders bent on taking over Earth and conducting probing experiments on the human race. Then there's the gameplay–a turn-based tactical system with a handful of classes and emphasis on cover. It all seems very antiquated. But under the skilled hands of developer Firaxis Games, a game that many thought would fade into the background floored critics and became an engrossing experience that everyone should try (especially Plus members, since it's free!)
The combination of tactical combat and strategic base management is executed almost flawlessly. Your underground base has a limited number of chambers that can be excavated and turned into facilities, but it requires more than simply choosing eeny, meeny, miny, moe. Do you install a power generator so that you can manufacture powerful upgrades or build a satellite link to gain more monthly income? Multiple facilities of a certain type adjacent to each other can also provide bonuses–just one more thing to consider. Acquiring sufficient materials and resources for the upgrades is a mental note you must bring to the field of battle: launching rockets and grenades all over the place could damage useful salvage materials.
Then there's the combat itself. With a maximum party of six, forming the best combination of classes is essential for victory, especially on the game's harder difficulty levels. With the promotion system, you'll quickly become attached to your troops, making the game's permadeath all the more gut wrenching. Never have I played a game where cover and tactics must be considered on every turn and are dismissed at your own peril.
As much as I've bragged about the mechanics, it still isn't perfect. But Firaxis has done an exceptional job taking gamer feedback into consideration while putting together XCOM: Enemy Within. With a massive infusion of new maps (47 in total), the complaints of map redundancy in the original will be quickly silenced. Multiplayer will be more accessible and varied with the ability to create squads offline and "copy" them to be quickly loaded for multiplayer (a BIG timesaver). Of course, there are plenty of new weapons and equipment to customize your team. There's also a new resource called Meld to collect in the field, though the snag is that it's unstable and will explode if not contained quickly enough. There's also a new enemy type called Mechtoids as well as variants of the current alien roster.
But perhaps the most intriguing additions are the two new soldier classes. After building a cybernetics lab or genetics lab, you can turn any non-rookie soldier into an MEC trooper or a genetically modified soldier, respectively. The genetics lab allows you to perform invasive augmentations on soldiers that will enhance five different parts of the body: chest, brain, eyes, skin, and legs. The cybernetics lab allows the soldier to upgrade their body with robotic limbs, sometimes at the cost of amputating the existing limbs. It definitely adds a heap of new customizations to tailor your team perfectly for any mission, but it does bring me to a key issue of the game that is both exciting and disturbing.
While making my way through the campaign of XCOM: Enemy Unknown, after interrogating and torturing captured aliens and perverting their technology to be used against them, an interesting facet of the story developed. All the different alien types were themselves victims of invasion, subjugation, and experimentation, ultimately turned into weapons to be used to further the domination goal of the Uber Ethereal (the alien leader). So by using this technology to enhance humans, though voluntarily, are XCOM and the human race on the same path as the aliens? There is a moral crisis that seems to be dismissed by XCOM simply because the ends justify the means. And as a player, you have the choice to not spend resources on these unethical procedures, but it’s at the expense of ultimately being defeated by the invaders. It is a fascinating twist in both the plot and gameplay that may present itself in the expansion. It's possible that the title XCOM: Enemy Within could refer to an infiltration of the XCOM base by the aliens, but I think it would be far more interesting if the title suggests a moral red line that could have consequences on the ending depending on the choices the player makes.
All in all, XCOM: Enemy Within is an expansion pack that should have fans just as excited as any new game being released in November (or possibly even new consoles?). With an already great foundation, and additions that clearly show Firaxis has listened to our feedback, the series will do nothing but gain acclaim and help me lose another hundred or more hours of time—time well spent.
Senior Contributing Writer