Author’s note: Due to the particular nature of the Enemy Within expansion, this review will be covering both the X-Com: Enemy Unknown reboot and the additional content with the Enemy Within expansion.
Ladies and gentlemen, this is how you reboot a beloved classic franchise that hasn’t seen a proper entry in nearly two decades. In the wake of the “year of the reboot,” PC game fans have watched with a mix of horror and apprehension as multiple companies announced their plans to resurrect classic franchises from yesteryear to bring them to a new audience. Not all of these experiments were successful, abortive failures like EA’s Syndicate reboot and “X-Com: The Bureau” (later renamed The Bureau: XCOM Declassified) were two particularly famous casualties that proved that reboots aren’t particularly successful if you forget what made the game stand out in the first place. And then there is X-Com: Enemy Unknown and its expansion Enemy Within. This is how reboots should be handled.
Enemy Unknown is basically a modernized retelling of the original X-Com released in 1994. Alien activity has increased dramatically in both frequency and violence, prompting the nations of Earth to retaliate by forming an elite military task force, the X-COM project. You as the player are thrust into the commanding role of this international agency, forced to direct the agency as a whole through dictating what topics to research and what gear your engineers will build for your soldiers as well as direct your troops on the ground as they go on various missions to confront the alien menace. It’s a hard, brutal game, and you will likely find yourself agonizing over many of the choices you will be forced to make.
Except not really, or at least not the difficulty is as brutally punishing as the original was in 1994. In the original, there is a laundry list of things that could bring all but the hardiest strategy game fans to tears. Items ranging from a lack of explanation or reminders for exactly how you were supposed to eventually take the fight back to the enemy on the global level, to situations where your entire squad of veteran soldiers gets wiped out because the transport pilot was too stupid to realize that landing right on top of a squad of aliens armed with plasma weapons was a bad idea. In the reboot, multiple difficulty options exist to bridge the gap between strategy grandmasters and the generation raised on Call of Duty and Halo, three NPC advisors help you figure out what to do next, and certain aspects of the global layer have been streamlined to make management easier while still maintaining the classic aspect of occasionally agonizing over every decision.
This is not to say the game is easy, not remotely. The player starts the game at a significant tactical disadvantage and must fight smart to negate their initial shortcomings. Modern firearms and Kevlar body armor is no match for alien plasma weapons while your starting Rookies have all the tactical flexibility of a cheaply made hammer. Eventually you start to turn the tide, the survivors of your initial forays with the aliens slowly transform into a company of hardened veterans with specialized abilities spread between four distinct classes (Assault, Sniper, Heavy, and Support) and your arsenal starts to include laser weapons and advanced body armors before finally jumping to powered armors and plasma weapons of your own manufacture. Yet even then, you are caught in a constant tug-of-war game with the NPC enemy. What starts as an opposing force equipped for infiltration and reconnaissance wastes no time bringing out its big guns once XCOM has successfully started to make a nuisance of itself. The result is a constant element of uncertainty as new weapons enter the playing field and gamers are introduced to an alien cast of characters that includes almost the entire roster of enemies from the original XCOM released in 1994 with some new faces thrown in for additional tactical complexity. Only the Snakeman from the original game is absent but odds are you likely won’t even notice thanks to the addition of the Thin Men and the armored variants of both the Floaters and the Mutons.
The result is a game that manages to be fairly accessible yet challenging, frustrating yet immensely rewarding once you figure out its secrets and strike back. Paradoxically, this is arguably the most fun you will ever have biting your nails and swearing at the computer screen. For strategy fans lamenting the genre’s shift to Facebook time management games and feverishly supporting the blossoming market of independent developers on places like Steam Greenlight and Kickstarter, this is your game. A game where by the time you get near the end, I guarantee you will find yourself craving one more item to research, one more subplot or wondrous item to unlock.
And then there’s the matter of XCOM: Enemy Within, a unique quandary in the world of video game expansion packs. On one hand, Enemy Within does very little to change Enemy Unknown. On the other, it changes virtually everything about the game. Impossible for it to technically stand on its own unlike most expansion packs, yet adds so much to the core game experience. In addition to two new enemies designed to try and shake things up for players focused on a slow, methodical, defensive strategy, Enemy Within adds two additional layers of complexity to the core game, Meld and EXALT.
Meld is a new wonder resource that can be harvested from self-destructing containers found on certain missions, a form of nanotechnology that allows for superior synergy with cybernetic or biotech augmentations. Research in cybernetics unlocks the MEC trooper class, a cyborg warrior capable of interfacing with a modular exoskeleton equipped with its own arsenal of powerful weapons. While the MEC conversion process requires commanders to sacrifice a soldier for a permanent class change, MEC Troopers are powerful heavy weapon specialists that can be leveled up into either living tanks or walking artillery platforms. Research in genetics on the other hand allows commanders to enhance their regular troops with alien genetic material, giving already lethal human soldiers with powerful abilities on top of what they can earn through training and equipment. And while the game implies that it is better to specialize in one or the other, you will ultimately acquire enough Meld to assemble an “A-Team” of MEC Troopers and Gene-Mod soldiers if you shop intelligently.
EXALT represents the other big change to the game and something rarely seen in the franchise, human adversaries. Billed as a transhumanist cult operating in an Illuminati-like fashion, EXALT’s ultimate goal is to stop XCOM from stopping the alien invasion so they can presumably take over the world. Clearly EXALT isn’t exactly big on brains if they presume there will be anything left after the aliens are done with Earth. Yet despite the questions surrounding their long-term strategy, they are a tenacious foe on both the global and tactical levels. On the global layer, covert EXALT cells are actively attempting to siphon funds from your treasury, hack your research programs to keep you from developing new equipment for combating the alien threat, and incite panic in the member nations contributing to the XCOM project. Yet any of these activities reveals a cell, allowing you to engage their forces on the tactical level, disrupting their operations and piece together clues to the location of their global headquarters.
Finding EXALT’s base is a high-stakes game of “Where in the world is Carmen Sandiego?” You can accuse any nation of harboring EXALT once you acquire enough intelligence to eliminate half of the possible suspects. But guess wrong and the insulted nation will leave the XCOM project in a huff, costing the program in monthly contributions. Do you take a risk and guess wrong or do you try to soak up the damage to your operations the best you can to narrow it down to the one country it absolutely, positively has to be?
On the tactical level, EXALT challenges strategists by forming a sinister mirror image of XCOM’s own forces. Despite differences in doctrine and access to scientific resources giving them different levels of equipment and genetic modifications, EXALT operatives are identical to XCOM soldiers. They use cover like XCOM does, have access to the same abilities and character classes as XCOM, and essentially function just like XCOM soldiers except dressed in “cool but impractical” business suits and pinstripe shirts. Considering the interesting dynamic this provides, it will be interesting to see if Firaxis does something similar again if they chose to do another game in this universe.
To conclude is it worth getting XCOM: Enemy Unknown? Yes, whole-heartedly. The success of this reboot can only herald the coming of good things for the strategy genre after a long drought of Facebook time-management games and “strategy games are not contemporary.” Is it worth getting a “game of the year complete edition” to nab Enemy Within as well? Yes but it is not completely essential for the full XCOM experience. You will have a great deal of fun with the new toys the expansion provides but they admittedly can throw game balance off in the player’s favor. Regardless, buy the game and join the army of people already pestering Firaxis for hints regarding a sequel. Because whether they choose to reboot Terror From The Deep (the next game in the original series) or take the story in a new direction, either will be amazing if they’re made with the same love of strategy as this one was. Five out of five stars for the complete edition of XCOM: Enemy Unknown/Within.