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The X-com project

5 December 2013 No Comment

X-Com: Enemy Within is the new definition of how to make a game expansion. They didn’t just add 40 maps and make up for the one cloud in the sky of Enemy Unknown (a repetitive lack of maps), they didn’t just add a new storyline filled with missions, they went even further than just adding two new classes of soldiers that change the game; they did all that and they took the time to tweak almost every other area of the game while weaving all this new content into the original storyline rather than just tacking on the levels at the end. This expansion can even keep the veterans with hundreds of hours of gameplay under their belt busy.

The new maps add much-needed variety to the mission lineup, but the game is changed even more by the addition of Meld; an alien artifact that now gets dropped at random places around the mission map. Soldiers will have limited turns to pick up the Meld, forcing players to take more risks with their already fragile lives. The Meld is then used in genetically-enhancing soldiers and amputating soldiers to become MEC (Mechanical Exoskeleton Cybersuit) soldiers. The moral lines no longer matter when aliens invade and the world governments get together and authorize the shadowy X-Com Council. The soldiers seem willing at any rate.

Genetically-enhanced soldiers can gain aim bonuses and protect themselves from mind attacks while leaping to tall places: though many of their bonuses are designed to keep them alive rather than enhance their attack. The MEC soldiers take over from the unmanned SHIV (Super Heavy Infantry Vehicle) as the front line of assault. The SHIVs can still be manufactured, but MEC soldiers have a wide variety of attacks from a flamethrower to grenade launchers and even powerful claws that rip through cover and send the weaker enemies flying. SHIVs no longer seem as important to keeping the squad alive when there are MEC soldiers to stand on the front lines.

On the base side of things this means two more labs to take up space and drain power, adding a new element of strategy in base design. During the play-through for this report, the alien containment, genetics and MEC labs were all available at once and hard choices had to be made about which important facility had to be built first, all while satellite uplinks were still the highest priority for the base. Once the facilities were built there were more choices to be made about which enhancements and MEC out-fittings were the priority with limited amounts of Meld.

Two new aliens were added, the Mechtoid and the Seeker. The Seeker is a mass of tentacles that will attack soldiers left on their own, choking them. They aren’t much of a threat, just one soldier set on “over watch” will dispatch them with ease if he or she hits. The Mechtoid is one of the small Sectoids (think small classic “grey” aliens) in a MEC suit, often with a Sectoid or Sectoid Commander hanging around the corners shielding it with their mind. They are more of a threat than the Seekers but once a X-Com squad has more than one MEC unit they are fairly easily dispatched. MEC units get lots of health but they can’t use cover so if they are used too recklessly they won’t survive despite their advantages.

Having soldiers survive from mission to mission is still as important as ever: rookies tend to fall apart in the field and the new customization features make it easier to tell soldiers apart in the field at a glance. Soldiers can now be given gear of various colours and the voices have been updated to suit the multi-national nature of the X-Com squad. The soldiers’ names can still be changed, and the mission equipment selection screen now gives players the option to strip all unused soldiers of gear, saving players from the frustrating process of going through the solider list to find who has that Med-kit or Plasma Rifle as they had to in Enemy Unknown. Soldiers can now also receive medals that further enhance their abilities.

The graphics of Enemy Within work well for the game and look nice, but they (wisely) aren’t the high-end graphics that push systems to their limits. This allows for X-Com to be multiplatform with ease, with ports for Xbox 360 and PS3, Enemy Unknown was even available for tablets, though there seems to be no word on when and if this expansion will appear there as well. A couple of glitches with the sound also seemed to be fixed. While playing Enemy Unknown on this reviewer’s rig whenever a soldier yelled “They’re falling back!” it was a sure sign the squad was about to be rushed. There is also a bit more tension while shooting, as not all kill shots will trigger the kill shot animation.

If all this seems a bit daunting, worry not, there are plenty of tutorials that explain all the new additions and the missions start easy, even the EXALT missions. Oh yeah, by the way, aliens aren’t the only enemy anymore. As the expansion name hints, a group of humans calling themselves EXALT have been taking alien technology for themselves and have started their own little war against the X-Com Project across the globe. Also, the aliens will mount an attack on the X-Com base itself leading to a highly tense mission that starts in the mission control room.

All of this together is an impressive addition to an already densely-packed game with UFO vs. X-Com fighter craft attacks, base planning, research and engineering, and turn-based combat with all sorts of perks and funding hanging in the balance. The difficulty levels are varied from Easy up to Classic and even Impossible, and of course Iron Man mode which automatically saves all your decisions on and off the field on one master save file without the option of making another save file in case of a drastic mistake. The game is customizable to every player level and with the new expansion all the levels except easy seemed to be ramped up just a little bit more.

Another nice feature to the game is the option to continue playing Enemy Unknown without the new expansion even after installation for new players who want to dip their toes into the franchise without jumping straight in the deep end.

The team lead by legendary Civilization head designer Sid Meier did a fantastic job in making this a unique and exciting game experience with lots of different options and surprises throughout the story of the game. The only cloud in the sky with all the new soldier enhancements is that by the time the squad is ready to assault the alien mother ship at the end of the game, they are mechanized and genetically enhanced to the point that they can steamroll over most opposition. With the addition of two inventory slots for each soldier they can also all be equipped with mind shields (except the MECs) making even the bridge of the alien mother ship slightly toothless.

X-Com: Enemy Within is a worthy addition to an already highly-praised franchise and would make the perfect gift for any lover of strategy games, young or old. The franchise may have been away for a few years, but no more. X-Com is back and it is still improving on itself every time they stick to their strategy roots.

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