New to the world of XCOM, I definitely had some large boots to fill in my playtest of the upcoming expansion to Firaxis’ critically acclaimed 2012 sci-fi strategy title Enemy Unknown, packaged wonderfully for Xbox 360 together with the original game, titled XCOM: Enemy Within. For the nitpickers or those fond of participatory self-aggrandisement, it’ll be dubbed the ‘Commander Edition’, making those of you who play it commander, at least in name, although Armchair Commander might be more apt.
Going in blind with no prior experience with the series beyond my brief affair with The Bureau: XCOM Declassified, a foolish reliance on my ability to pick up a new game and adapt to it which was swiftly proven such, the midday session in Central London proved to be a bit of a battle, but also an eye-opener.
‘So…’, I mused, ‘This is how they can do strategy on a console’. The fluidity, the charm of the animation and the much lauded character attachment formed by players, it was all there and blatantly self-evident. The praise heaped on Enemy Unknown all began to make sense to me now, and all I could do was hang my head in shame at not having been initiated until now. I swiftly picked myself up, dusted myself off, downed a Red Bull and dived into the new stuff.
The new features are much talked about, and with good reason, adding further layers to what is already a great, stinking, beautiful onion of a game. The Gene Mods will allow for genetic customisation and augmentation of your units. The scope for such features is endless, and while it could throw up some perturbing monstrosities, I’m sure the developers have it all under control.
The MEC class of upgrades is another significant addition, allowing you to transform your fleshy squad of blood bags into tooled-up metal wrecking balls that would have Michael Bay and his Transformers quailing like babies in prams. On fire, presumably, as these ‘Mechanised Exoskeletal Cybersuits’ can be upgraded with a host of destructive goodies, including the eternal, transatlantic, trans-game favourite – the flamethrower. Things are undoubtedly about to get cooking.
The aforementioned MEC weaponisation and Gene Mods rely on a brand new alien resource, which promises to add a new angle and pressure point to the original formula in Enemy Within. Branded ‘the Meld’, this resource will appear as crashed canisters on the map that need to be retrieved. These canisters, however, will have self-destruct timers, making their requisition a time sensitive matter. Obviously this has the potential to create strangle points and establishes a context ripe for ambush scenarios. After all, what sort of self-respecting alien relinquishes their precious technology go willy nilly? And the budding Meld hunters amongst you will have more than the infantile Sectoids to deal with, the new title promising enemy MEC capabilities to match your own. To keep up with these extra-terrestrials, Meld will be absolutely vital.
As if Earth wasn’t in enough trouble, there’s also new trouble brewing, and as the subtitle suggests, its origins lie on home soil. Enemy Within’s new enemy faction are the EXALT, and whilst they’re far from allied with the aliens, they’re definitely not aiding the XCOM cause, disrupting your activities through subterfuge, guerrilla tactics and the establishment of sleeper cells in countries around the world, increasing the feeling of panic there. How much of a thorn in the side they’ll prove remains to be seen, but looking back into history, a war on two fronts never seems to have worked out so well.
There are also 47 new maps, and for those of you with an unhealthy attachment to your underlings, nationality-accurate accents for your characters, just for realism’s sake. XCOM: Enemy Unknown really shook the industry, let’s hope Enemy Within can maintain the levels of quality and dedication we’ve already seen. From what I’ve seen it’s showing no sign of slowing. Eyes up, lock and load. Let’s keep it human.
XCOM Enemy Within releases November 12 (US) and November 15 (UK/Europe).