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XCOM Enemy Within video review: luck of the draw

Last year's XCOM: Enemy Unknown was a critical darling, redefining how a turn-based strategy game can look and play. A year later, Firaxis returns...

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Last year's XCOM: Enemy Unknown was a critical darling, redefining how a turn-based strategy game can look and play. A year later, Firaxis returns with a new Civilization-style expansion pack dubbed Enemy Within. Featuring the same aliens-are-attacking story as the original, this expansion remixes new missions and enemies into an already-existing framework. It’s about the "how" and not the "what" as Enemy Within leans on substance to make its case.

The core of the game still consists of taking a six-person squad through grid-and-turn-based strategy gauntlets with an emphasis on cover and sight lines. While it may look largely familiar, all the systems under the hood have undergone massive changes. Enemy Within expands upon micro-management significantly, making the original game feel rather shallow in comparison. There have been so many elements added to the game's already-complex design that it can almost be overwhelming.

Most of the tweaks have come to soldier development. Yes, permadeath is still essential to the game's design. However, you're given a lot more flexibility in soldiers are constituted. One of the big new systems is soldier augmentation, where soldiers can be turned into a cyborg capable of wielding one of the game's new mech suits. You can also alter a combatant's genetic code to provide super-human abilities. There are plenty of new weapons and ammo types, making research and alien autopsies even more essential when acquiring these new abilities and technologies. There's even new resources to collect, like meld canisters that appear in each mission.

The problem is that every last one of these new systems requires money to operate, in addition to the other responsibilities you have as commander. You still need to save copious amounts of cash to launch satellites and fighter jets to protect all the countries in the XCOM alliance. You also need money to build facilities to make blueprints a reality. All told, the new features result in a pronounced grind for cash, particularly at the end of each month as you await the scheduled money infusion. You can get to a place where all your high-level soldiers are injured and the only way forward is to replay each mission until you perfect it. Even more than before, the constant threat of worldwide doom makes every battle matter.

There are new foes to deal with as well, include cloaked creatures called seekers and a faction of traitorous human enemies called EXALT. Using weapons similar to your own, these 80s spy movie agents also utilize gene manipulation to alter their abilities.

It will take skilled players well over 30 hours to get through the campaign, and like many strategy games, it provides near-infinite replay value as you try out new augmentations, skill trees, and strategies. The head-to-head multiplayer across 13 maps is fun while trying out all the new toys against an unpredictable opponent. However, some strange camera decisions and a lack of information in the menus make it more of a struggle than it should be. It’s hard to take it too seriously when so much is predicated on luck.

Luck is something that comes into play no matter the mode. Missing a high percentage shot when you need it most can be absolutely maddening. Knowing that your plan can go awry at any moment, an air of uncertainty permeates the entire experience. From the sometimes-confounding fog of war to enemies that just randomly drop from the sky to completely foil a meticulously-laid trap, the game can come off as unjust. Some will say, “that’s XCOM.” And while that’s true, it doesn’t make it any easier to digest.

There are so many variables at play in any given move, that you can take 15 minutes thinking about each one and still immediately regret your decision. Altitude, line of site, destructible cover, movement, weapons, enemy type, buffs and more must all be considered. Knowing one misstep can foil everything imparts each click with equal bursts of anticipation and dread. It’s what makes XCOM so addictive, and Enemy Within spills over with it.

Firaxis hasn't done much to make the original story any more interesting. For example, the introduction of EXALT is largely cosmetic and is one of the expansion's flimsy new plot points. And in spite of the expansion's new maps, the late game nonetheless feels monotonous due to its marked cut-and-paste feel. Maps and environmental elements repeat, new enemy types are introduced at a drip, and the objectives rarely deviate from escort missions and killing everything in sight. EXALT missions have players extracting agents. It’s king of the hill, an escort mission, and hacking rolled into one, but it's not enough to alleviate the repetition.

Visually, Enemy Within isn't drastically different from the original game, utilizing the same engine as its parent. On PC, mid-range cards and rigs can handle it fine on max settings. The action cams return and continue to give XCOM a visual identity most games in the genre lack--there’s nothing quite like a robot punching an alien through a train car.

The PC version requires Enemy Unknown, and includes the previous Slingshot and Second Wave expansions for $30. On consoles, it’s sold as a separate product for $40 and includes the original. The cost may seem a little steep at first blush, but the core of the game has been drastically expanded upon. Equal parts frustration and elation, XCOM: Enemy Within is a bonafide fist-pump producer, taking players through the same emotional peaks and valleys of the original. Like most expansion packs, Enemy Within is targeted towards the experienced. But Firaxis once again manages to balance XCOM's disparate elements, resulting in a challenging and satisfying experience. [7]


This review is based on early PC code provided by the publisher. XCOM: Enemy Within will be available on November 12th at retail on Xbox 360 and PS3, and downloadable on PC for $29.99-$39.99. The game is rated M.

From The Chatty

  • reply
    November 11, 2013 4:00 AM

    Shane Satterfield posted a new article, XCOM Enemy Within review: luck of the draw.

    Last year's XCOM: Enemy Unknown was a critical darling, redefining how a turn-based strategy game can look and play. A year later, Firaxis returns...

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      November 11, 2013 4:45 AM

      Only question then becomes, where do I get it. PC or console-cousin. I'll think about it. Thanks for the review. I was never concerned, but it was a nice read in the morning.

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      November 11, 2013 4:50 AM

      Bring it on! sounds like a great expansion

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      November 11, 2013 5:30 AM

      Sweet, I'm finally getting round to playing EU, glad this thing seems to be good too. How far am I in Shack? I encountered my first Ethereal 2-3 missions back, have EMP Firestorms in every continent, Gollop chamber built... The game is still throwing new stuff at me so the ending still a ways off I guess?

      This playthrough is at 30 hours, I may want to play something in between EU and EW.

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        November 11, 2013 5:53 AM

        If you have the Gollop chamber built, you're almost done.

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      November 11, 2013 5:41 AM

      One thing I don't get about these new XCOM games. Everybody says permadeath is so cool, but if you are losing soldiers you will never be able to fully upgrade them, right? And this pack adds a lot of upgrade options. So how does that make sense?

      I remember that I have barely managed to fully upgrade my squad pretty late in the game, and I did not lose a single soldier and did as many missions as was possible. So why to have all these upgrade trees when on ironman you have to start with a rookie time and time again and may well never be able to get enough experience in soldiers lifetime before the game ends.

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        November 11, 2013 6:42 AM

        There are a lot of masochistic gamers out there that feel that the more artificially harder a game is, this somehow makes for a better and more skilled player. Not sure I subscribe to this. I like difficulty, I like to think about my decision, there should be repercussions for my actions, and if death is one of them, I am fine with that also. However there should be a mechanic in place to accommodate for late game win scenario in the event where bad decision making has been costly to the campaign.
        Say a vita chamber (or something) whereas you pour an ungodly amount of resources in a last ditch effort to revitalize 1 agent maybe 2 with 2 upgrades to assist with a final assault. or 1 uber-agent, a smart bomb of some kind, or something to still give you a win and not just have you go through the paces with no real hope of wining. I just felt that after a certain point there was no real point in continuing, if you had made bad command decisions.

        That was uncharacteristic of Faraxis games.

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        November 11, 2013 7:27 AM

        So I played through the game on normal and certainly lost a number of soldiers but I still had more than enough that I could field an almost completely leveled up squad by the end. It actually adds a bit more emphasis on making sure to have a stable of soldiers that is beyond just your top 6. Almost like how a hockey team or a basketball team have a bench available.

        Also, you can always be a punk and reload if you lose an entire team which I admit, I did at least once while playing through EU.

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          November 11, 2013 11:35 PM

          my experience was similar to this. It made the whole roster valuable instead of your top 5 hotshots.

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        November 11, 2013 10:47 AM

        Because that gives the upgrades real weight. If you just want to stroll through the content and get all the upgrades (playing it like an RPG), you don't get the same flavor as a classic ironman playthrough.

        It's kinda like playing through a long game of Civ on easy. Sure, you'll see all the units and get all the upgrades, but I'm not sure you're getting the complete experience until the game pushes back at you.

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      November 11, 2013 5:56 AM

      I'm disappointed to hear they didn't change up the strategic gameplay to rebalance resource generation with all the new mechanics, augmentations, upgrades, and things you need to do. Sounds pretty cool, but building in even more pressure to have "Perfect" missions is the wrong way to go IMO. :(

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        November 11, 2013 10:38 AM

        I just want the AI to come after you so that you can't just stay in one spot indefinitely

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      November 11, 2013 7:19 AM

      Has the final mission map been changed at all?

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      November 11, 2013 7:51 AM

      Not entirely sure if I agree with this review. At some points it seemed like it was treated as a sequel, at others an expansion.

      Either way, most of the criticism doesn't apply to me as a player. Such as the luck issue. I want these games to revolve around chance. Not have it be an exact science. The second I know for sure something will happen, is the same second I can be declared the victor in advance.

      While 'easy' isn't necessarily a bad thing, it isn't what I want out of XCOM. Also, while beefing up the story would have been nice, I wasn't expecting it to do so. I am more looking towards breathing more life into the game I played for hundreds of hours, than I am looking for more backstory for instance.

      As I read in another review: this is aimed towards the experienced XCOM player who wants to continue playing it. It wasn't meant to attract those that weren't drawn to the base game. This is exactly for me.

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      November 11, 2013 10:18 AM

      One thing I can't tell from the reviews: Is this a new, 30-hour campaign? Or is it the original campaign with the new mechanics and maps plugged in?

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        November 11, 2013 10:37 AM

        the latter

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          November 11, 2013 11:34 AM

          Aww, so it's not all new stuff?

          I don't know if I want to spend $40 for that. :(

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      November 11, 2013 10:26 AM

      I had a chuckle at this part of the review, "Enemy Within expands upon micro-management significantly, making the original game feel rather shallow in comparison. There have been so many elements added to the game's already-complex design that it can almost be overwhelming."


      First I laughed at the idea that the first game was terribly complex - anyone who'd played the original copious amounts ::: raises hand ::: could see how they'd made this newer version a lot less complex with a bit less control and depth to the game. Of course X-Com: Enemy Unknown was always going to reveal which reviewers out there were younger or from the console-background. The ones who had never played the original, deeper (and for my money, more enjoyable) X-Com thought this new one was amazing, just a fantastic all-around experience - and from that background, I could see how they'd feel that way.

      For those of us who had played the original, this newer X-Com was fun but somewhat shallow and simplistic at times, though that's not necessarily always a bad thing, either. However, in X-Com's case, I think it was.

      I chuckle again when I think of how badly console game design has permeated the modern gamer's mentality and adjusted their capabilities when faced with a deeper, more PC-style game. It doesn't seem unusual for a reviewer who might do more of their gaming on a console or who may have grown up on a console background, to find a game with real genuine gaming depth to be "complex" or daunting.

      For me, it's completely welcomed. One of the reasons I didn't play much of X-Com: Enemy Unknown was that I wanted more depth from it and decided to wait for this specific expansion because it adds that missing layer of depth I was hoping for, originally. :)

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      November 12, 2013 10:50 AM

      Whats up with all the 7/10s in here?!! this is like the 6th one this past month

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        November 12, 2013 3:04 PM

        Poor reviewing skills? Jaded reviewers who play too many games? It could be any combination of things.

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        November 12, 2013 4:18 PM

        Until we're gaming on the oculus rift, I think everyone is bored.