XCOM: Enemy Within Preview — More of What Fans Want
Chill wind whistled through the frozen harbor. My troops just touched down in the whaling station — a ghost town, now — in Newfoundland, Canada. At my command, my unit fanned out to scan the docks and fishing huts in search of survivors.
Rotting floorboards creaked under armored boots. Something happened here, and we had to find out what.
Then, movement from the shadows — a figure lurched to and fro. My sniper’s trigger finger twitched. He called eyes on the target and leveled his barrel.
Just a dead shark, tied by its tail, hung upside down from a post.
Lieutenant Green rounded a corner. “Zombie!” she called out, then opened fire.
This weekend, I logged some serious hours into the press preview of XCOM: Enemy Unknown’s upcoming expansion, XCOM: Enemy Within, and it reminded me of all the things I loved about the 2012 series reboot. Better still, it improves upon the experience with a new resource, new upgrades, new weapons, new maps, and even new plot elements.
Fans of customization will be pleased with the new armor, helmet, and tint options, and fans of congruity will be happy to learn that you can now have your Russian soldier speak Russian. Firaxis put to use the voice localization packs by allowing you to customize your soldier’s language: French, Italian, and Spanish are just some of the other options available.
The major game-changer in Enemy Within is the new resource, Meld, which you can use to either enhance your soldiers genetically or transform them into MEC Troopers. Found in canisters, Meld is acquired on field missions. But there’s a twist: every Meld canister comes with a countdown timer, and if you don’t reach it in time, it explodes. This adds a great sense of urgency to missions — race to grab the Meld, or lose it forever. I’ll admit to a degree of save scumming when I outright fail a mission, but the optional Meld objectives are incentive enough to add tension without making me want to replay an entire mission just to grab a canister I missed.
In order to make use of Meld, you can construct two facilities: the Genetics Lab and the Cybernetics Lab. The former allows you to apply genetic modifications to your troops, such as health regeneration or circumstantial aim bonuses, while the latter lets you transform them into giant cyborgs called MEC Troopers. The gene mods are useful, but the MEC Troopers are downright awesome. When my first MEC Trooper was released from the Cyber Lab with his amputated limbs replaced with robotic prosthetics, I couldn’t help grinning like an idiot. Ben Kenobi’s voice echoed in my mind: “More machine than man now, twisted and evil.” MEC Troopers retain their level, but lose their class abilities, gaining instead a new ability based on their previous class. They continue to level up according to their new MEC ability tree.
A new mechanic has you periodically earn medals, which you can bestow upon the soldiers of your choice to confer different bonuses. The awarding of these medals is met with the cinematic pomp and circumstance you’d expect from Enemy Unknown: a brief cut scene in which your soldier stands at attention and salutes, her medals proudly pinned to her chest.
Now, it wouldn’t be fair if the players were the only ones to get new toys. Enemy Within adds a little something to our alien rivals’ arsenal as well, including the Seeker, a new enemy that employs hitherto unseen tactics. My first encounter with one of these flying, squid-like monstrosities was one of my most unnerving experiences I’ve had in a video game. Once you first spot a Seeker, it turns invisible… only to re-appear a few turns later with its tentacles wrapped around one of your soldier’s throats, strangling him. While you can eventually develop technologies to detect nearby cloaked units, Seekers still remain a lurking threat. When you know there’s one around, it’s not a question of if it will strike, but when, and the anticipation adds a delightful level of horror to the experience.
That’s something that Enemy Within succeeds in capturing even more than Enemy Unknown — the slight horror vibe. There was a powerful moment, depicted in my opening vignette, in which I genuinely felt like I was playing a horror game. A mixture of mood music, sound effects, new maps, and new and varied mission objectives allowed me to immerse myself in the dread of facing an unknown enemy.
I look forward to many more hours spent with XCOM: Enemy Within. While experiencing the expansion effectively means playing through Enemy Unknown again, there is enough new content to keep the playthrough fresh, and I can’t wait to see where the new storyline goes. Firaxis seems to know what its fans want and is evolving the game in that direction. Now, if only multiplayer could be made into something worth playing more than once….