XCOM: Enemy Within Review
Crop circles abound and mysterious rectal probes commonplace in the day’s news, the world would undoubtedly be a different and difficult place to be. Extraterrestrial gunslingers loosing their wares upon our concrete jungles as eagerly and thoughtlessly as young boys might fire their pellet guns at tin cans in vaguely troubling yet pale imitations, with faux John Wayne swagger and knock-off Eastwood smirk.
The grays are here, but the question of whether they’re here to stay remains shrouded in mystery. And in lieu of more qualified operatives, it appears that you and I are the last defenders of humanity. This isn’t a game to roll out of bed and, grabbing limply with flailing arms for a pad, dive into without forethought or consideration. Here’s a title that demands great things, but one that will offer great things in return. Here’s XCOM: Enemy Within.
Where its predecessor, XCOM: Enemy Unknown destroyed the boundaries of console strategy, Within seeks to rebuild, but far beyond any prior expectation. A tightly honed title, all kinks caressed into smooth curves, it’s grown on me, and it’s grown into perfection. As if almost universal critical acclaim wasn’t enough for them, the devs have weighed in heavily and crafted a beautifully full-bodied and rewarding tactical strategy game that achieves complexity without sacrificing accessibility.
The premise briefly: an invaded earth, poisoned by an extraterrestrial menace; economies in collapse; cities in ruin. The player swiftly leaps into the position of ‘Commander’ and is tasked with the protection of the globe and the elimination of the alien threat. In the context of games gone before, this seems like a relatively standard task, but the level of involvement demanded by Within sets it entirely apart from the regular stock. You’ll need to consider budget, base design, resource distribution, whilst also keeping a careful eye on time, as there’s always an unidentified threat waiting just around the foggy corner of time.
A brilliantly executed element of XCOM is its utilisation of permadeath. Whilst a seemingly innocuous quirk to the standard strategy recipe, this factor completely erases the anonymity of your units, and after a few hours of play there’s an undeniable sense of bonding between you and your favourite (in my case Colonel T-Bone Jones, master sharpshooter extraordinaire), there is a sobering sense of loss when an overwrought tactical overture goes belly up in the crosshairs of some pissed-off foe.
Since Enemy Unknown the adversaries have been amped up a little. Instead of squaring off against the aliens alone, you’re now tasked with a war on two fronts, the alien threat coupled with a stirring from the inside. A faction known as ‘EXALT’ have sprung up amongst the human settlements and are bent on wreaking havoc and dissent amongst the already shattered population. This new enemy (one aspect of the ‘Enemy Within’ moniker) creates a dichotomy of unavoidable gameplay styles, the standard search and destroy holding for your UFO landings and abductions, and more covert, objective based play in your dealings with EXALT. This serves well to maintain a fresh and reasonably varied game experience.
The second important feature referenced by the new title is Meld, an alien resource giving access to expansive new realms of advancement for your units. Meld is only recoverable through risky in-mission jaunts out of cover and to time-sensitive capsules, which expire after an unpredictable number of turns. This extra pressure on your decisions can (and oh, how it has for me) cause miscalculations and devastating losses to your squad, but if pulled off safely it can offer great bonuses to the combat efficency of your team. This resource finds its way within your squad through two possible routes, either through gene modifications which can offer stat bonuses to your units or through MEC-augmentation, in which one of your guys takes one for the team, sacrificing their limbs to err a little towards the side of the cyborg, allowing them to man an armoured robotic battle suit. The latter has proved the favourite for me, because at the end of the day, whilst nicely padded stats are all well and good, and perhaps the strategically valid decision, nothing beats a heap of metal letting loose a ‘Kinetic Strike’ and tearing gray limb from limb in a flurry of gore and victory. How you balance your progression and resources will depend heavily on your style of play and your choices when it comes to base development and resources, and the game clearly has a useful build for every kind of player, but I’m a sucker for big guns and damage, so the MECs were always going to be the obvious choice.
The graphics are serviceable from the birds eye view, and though they look a little haggard when the close-ups come into play, this fails to detract from the experience, and in the mix almost sinks into irrelevance. The playability of this title entirely obscures any aesthetic hiccups.
The squad-based interface, carried over much the same from Enemy Unknown, is as functional and efficient as ever, finally offering a feasible strategy option on console, and after an hour or so’s play becomes second nature to the budding Commander.
If you want to get your soul destroyed and faith in existence questioned, there is an online mode, presumably populated entirely by tactical behemoths. I failed to make any ground, but if you’ve the nouse for it, I’m in no doubt that taking your tactics onto the online stage could offer a further platform of rewards. As far as my word goes, I think I’ll skulk in the relative safety of single player…unless perhaps I can take T-Bone, my battle-hardened brother-in-arms, along for the ride.
The only issues I can find are mere niggles, and niggles have no place here, conjured only in relation to the level of brilliance offered. Any improvements I might suggest, such as rank-progression within the scientific research and engineering staff, or a dedicated hospital wing to check in on your wounded units (get well soon T-Bone) are utterly superficial. Instead I should focus on the tremendous work that Firaxis have put in here and honour a game that deserves a place on any strategy gamer’s shelf – along with anyone looking to enjoy one of the best games of the last decade. Hours of fun await and many tales to be told remain to be found within Enemy Within.