XCOM: Enemy Within - Staff Review  

The Satellite Comes and Goes
by Scott "Fowl Sorcerous" Wachter

Click here for game information
Xbox 360
20-40 Hours
+ Classic feel.
+ Tense tactical action.
+ Accessible.
- Weak characterization.
- Buggy.
- Bland environments.
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    Long ago, when gamers wanted their computers to kick them in the balls with obscene difficulty they played X-Com, in which the Earth's "best" forces were thrown in small numbers against the threats of an elusive extra-terrestrial threat — whereupon they died horribly and were revived by the power of the 'quick load' key. Firaxis rebooted the franchise under the title XCOM: Enemy Unknown for more modern sensibilities in 2012, and has later launched a stand-alone expansion pack with all the bells and whistles downloadable content has to offer in XCOM: Enemy Within. The final result is satisfying for both old and new schoolers alike.

    Gameplay most resembles a gridless turn-based tactical game with a few mechanical elements borrowed from the Tom Clancy family of games. The player directs a team of commandos from cover to cover, making use of positioning, specialized gear, and class-specific perks to fight a variety of different alien enemies. Controls in the field are fluid, but can stutter when drawing a movement order into an indoor environment. Action is surprisingly tense for TRPG as the fog of war is very tight and enemy turns, whether the player can see them or not, are given a sinister edge with eerie music and sound effects. Missions tend to come in a few flavours: either hunting down alien threats, rescuing hostages, or securing particular points on the map. The re-release has added enough new maps and pre-scripted scenarios that the limited game types still feel fresh mission after mission.

   A new gameplay wrinkle for this re-release is MELD. This alien nano-goop is scattered about the 'random encounter' maps in canisters that must be tagged by a team member in order to stop a timed self-destruct. Once claimed, the MELD can be used to buy either genetic mods for troops or to pick upgrades for powered armour. The canisters force players into new gameplay styles in order claim the valuable resource, as they are often positioned in inconvenient locations, putting troops out of the game entirely to hunt for cans or into the thick of the bad guys to claim it before they blow. The new upgrade tracks are a welcome power-up and the power armoured troops spice up the more typical line-ups.

    This franchise is famous for its difficulty and this new version lives up to that, with options to turn on various gameplay modifiers, including randomized stats, random class progression, single save file mode, and several levels of difficulty. Normal mode forces the player to consider every move for the safest, smartest option, but is manageable barring difficulty spikes in a few pre-scripted missions, while easy is practically a cake walk.

Everything is better with robots. Everything. Everything is better with robots. Everything.

    The game also has a very strong research and development component back at base. Players can build new equipment, improve existing tech, and customize all aspects of their squad members. In many games of this type these elements can quickly become boring spreadsheet work, but the presentation of research and base building is satisfyingly Skinner box-like. There's always some little carrot to look forward to. Whether it be shiny new laser guns or surveillance satellite coverage over Canada, it all feels like it is critical to being a better defense force. I found myself actually enjoying long-term budgeting.

    The story in XCOM is thin. There are a handful of pre-scripted missions that form a plot arc about discovering the aliens' motivations and developing the technology necessary to defeat them and then saving the day by blowing up the mothership in true cheesy sci-fi fashion, but that is it. The few named characters back at base exist only to spout expository and procedural dialogue, which is done ably by the actors, but there isn't much in the script that grabs the player and makes them care. However, there is an emergent story. Throughout the game, players are tasked with managing the XCOM Project's relations with the international community by allocating resources and response teams, affecting worldwide fear of alien invasion on a nation-by-nation basis. Also true is the emotional well-being of soldiers in the form of their willpower score, which can be raised by small amounts with perks, awards, and level ups gained from field experience, but drops substantially with severe injuries and psychological trauma. Players will see tough choices about where to send rescue missions result in nations pulling support from the project as they collapse into panic in the streets, or a character named and modelled after an old friend become a basket case as too many trips to the sick bay leaves him incapable of staring at a little green man without a post-traumatic episode.

   The revamp also brings in a brand new series of missions in which the player hunts down a secret human organization called EXALT who find themselves at odds with XCOM. It fleshes out the setting a bit more, grants some gameplay variety and introduces a new mechanic in which openly accusing a nation of harboring terrorists and being wrong about it harms the organization's reputation. Also included is the Slingshot DLC in which a triad enforcer joins XCOM in the hopes of preventing an invasion of Shanghai. It's all right, netting players a new, well-statted heavy weapons specialist and a few unique missions, but it wasn't worth the price of admission on its own. As part of the bundle it's a nice bonus.

Exalt, the most dapper of terrorist groups. Exalt, the most dapper of terrorist groups.

    Visuals have a pulpy style to them, very reminiscent of 50s sci-fi. It's not strictly in keeping with the overall franchise, but it works well in this title and acts as a good companion to the period-piece shooter that joins this game as a franchise revival. Creature designs are very strong in the same pulpy vein, and monsters are readily identifiable across the map and at any angle or degree of zoom. Human characters, however, are kind of bland. Players can choose between a dozen different faces and tons of hair options, but they all come on top of the same meaty, armour-clad bodies. Most of the time squadmates will be differentiated by armour colour and hat choice more than anything else. Environments are kind of generic, and while there are now a great many maps they all feel interchangeable. Art assets are pretty heavily recycled, so that all the urban environments feel samey and UFOs may as well have all crash landed in the same forest as far the art direction is concerned. This is supposed to be a worldwide organization, but everywhere has that Vancouver-y feel to it.

    Sound-wise, the soundtrack is very good, very much in the action movie score feel. In the field it keeps everything tense even while trudging through another a bug hunt through woods. Voice acting comes across flat. The dialogue is all very clipped and loaded with military jargon with occassional outbursts of fear or pain, and all the voice options sound very similar. A pleasant surprise from this release is that it ports the European dubs back in to this release, meaning that troopers can chatter in half a dozen languages, adding an air of verisimilitude to the international task force premise.

   The first time around this title was a buggy mess, and in the year to patch and port the software it has improved somewhat. The game never froze out on me, but the camera has stuttered, missions have started without enemies spawning (rendering them unwinnable), and I even lost half a squad on an enemy turn that happened during a victory cutscene. There's a lot to like about the game, but the QA team makes it hard sometimes.

    Many of the great franchises of the 90s have burned out or faded away. But now, XCOM is back in a way that plays like a love letter to the original. It may not be stellar, but it has everything to make it feel right with the old fans while at the same time welcoming the newbies with tentacular appendages. That is a rare and wonderful thing.

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