Preview: XCOM: Enemy Within

I find it fitting that, after bringing back one of the most storied franchises in PC gaming history last year with XCOM: Enemy Unknown, developer Firaxis Games is bringing back another PC staple in 2013: the expansion pack. More than just piecemeal DLC, XCOM: Enemy Within, due for release on PC, Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3 in November,adds several narrative and mechanical changes that reinvigorate one of 2012's best games. Enemy Unknown devotees who boot up Enemy Within for the first time will note strange orange "Meld" canisters peppering the landscape of their favorite UFO crash or alien abduction missions. Meld is a resource that makes all of the most exciting changes in Enemy Within possible. Once players collect Meld and research it back at the lab, the ability to augment soldiers with surgical implants or mechanized warsuits becomes available. It seems like something too awesome to be made available early on, but I was able to build mechs and augment my soldiers before I undertook my first alien terror mission (about 2 hours in to an average XCOM game). All mechs come with a minigun and one secondary weapon. Players start with the choice between a flamethrower, and a rocket-powered "kinetic fist" move that packs a 12-damage wallop. These weapons are not freely interchangeable, so players will need to build more mechs for their mechanized soldiers to pilot as they progress through the game. Having mechs on the field is, obviously, a game-changer in many substantive ways.

Players starting over from scratch upon Enemy Within's release will be able to breeze through the early game with soldiers that can soak up damage and dish it out real fast. The awesomeness of a hulking robot complete with flamethrower attachment doesn't come without a few tactical caveats, though.

Being mechanical as they are, mechs cannot be healed during a mission. They also can't use cover. I found myself carefully using my mechs to blaze a trail, without performing unintentional kamikaze maneuvers into a group of alien foes. If a mech runs headlong into enemy territory without a plan, it will still get killed (it might look awesome doing it, though). Also, while the minigun can certainly dish out some punishment, it can only be shot three times before the mech needs to take a turn to reload. Augmented soldiers are a bit more subtle. Tactically, they play exactly like regular human soldiers. But augments allow for a variety of passive bonuses that can benefit a human soldier's existing role in combat, rather than the complete overhaul the mech provides. In the screenshot above, I have given my crack-shot sniper "hyper-reactive pupils," giving him increased accuracy after he misses a target. Eventually, I also gave my sniper "superlegs,"(my term, not XCOM's) allowing him to bound up to most rooftops without needing a ladder to climb.

I found augmented soldiers to be useful, but not quite as exciting as the mechs were. That's not just because of my affinity for Mechwarrior, though. Viewing the passive bonuses of individual soldiers on the battlefield in XCOM is cumbersome. A gigantic popup window obscures the entire screen to list every single thing affecting the soldier's combat ability at that moment. As such, I knew that I was sending augmented soldiers into battle, but often forgot the exact bonuses I applied to them 2 or 3 hours prior. That said, it is a fun additional layer of planning to undertake back at base. There are a boatload of other changes and enhancements coming to Enemy Within, only some of which I experienced in my 12 hours with the preview build. Soldiers can now earn medals, something widely requested when Enemy Unknown released last year. Players achieve medals in combat, choose the bonus earned by wearing it, and then award it to a soldier of their choice. Yes, it actually appears on their uniform. I know!

Medals, along with the Meld enhancements, offer greater depths of personality to the player-assembled squads, which also strengthens the inevitable tragedy of permanently losing your ace field medic. Meld enhancements and medals are both instances where the player is dumping money into a single soldier. None of the augments or medals will be regained if they are killed in action. This makes the tense battles -- a selling point of the original game -- that much more unbearable in the long run.

There are two new aliens in Enemy Within, only one of which I encountered in my hands-on time. "The Seeker" is a flying alien with long tendrils that can enter stealth mode any time. While invisible, Seekers will wait until one of your soldiers is separated from the rest of the group and strangle them. Fun! Their low health (and inability to re-cloak, when injured) doesn't make them too difficult to dispose of, but the psychological effect of having invisible aliens in my midst was profound.

I can't even touch on most of the new story in Enemy Within, which sees XCOM soldiers fighting against a human group of alien sympathizers. It's no Telltale game, but the addition of more cutscenes and story content may make players' second romp through XCOM more exciting. My time with the Enemy Within preview build reignited my love for XCOM. New maps freshened things up a bit, and the collecting of meld and the investments I made with it changed how I approached combat situations that were routine in my Enemy Unknown days.

XCOM: Enemy Within does just what an expansion pack should set out to do. For less than the price of a full game, players can reinvigorate their love for one of their favorites, and defend earth from the alien menace all over again.