The hardest part of XCOM: Enemy Unknown wasn’t the strategic combat or the money management. It was watching people you had grown attached to die. You had to save the Earth from an alien invasion in tense battles that often had high body counts. These were soldiers that you had led through countless missions and whose true potential you helped discover. Then they died because you made a careless choice. It happens. Humans are only humans after all. It’s what makes us such easy targets.
It’s why you feel a sense of relief in XCOM: Enemy Within. It assuages that fear of watching your soldiers die by letting you turn them into super soldiers through genetic modifications and cybernetic implants. It’s the next logical step in the XCOM franchise. You still fight using patriotism as your secret weapon, but now you have the opportunity to give everybody superpowers. As you research alien autopsies, you can unlock special abilities such as health regeneration, improved eyesight and others that help your recruits in battle. Gone are the weak human beings that become casualties of war. After putting them through the process in the gene lab, you have new walking weapons that you could only dream of producing in the past. There’s also the option to turn people into cyborgs, mostly robotic beings that you can attach to mechs. They can still die in battle, but with the right upgrades, they can last throughout the entire game.
Enemy Within makes you wonder if that’s truly for the best. Another feature in the expansion is the introduction of the Exalt, which isn’t any different physically from your squad. It’s full of humans with similar genetic enhancements and fighting them feels like going up against your own kind. The game treats them like just another group of aliens that you’d encounter on missions, except they’re more threatening. Additional pursuits have you sending soldiers undercover in possible Exalt bases, which act like typical escort excursions, but add another danger for the XCOM project to research.
If you continue to enhance the humans employed with you, will your feelings for them remain? Will you mourn their deaths if the only remaining body part is a head on top of metal limbs? I put one of my Heavys in a giant mech in which she goes around burning down buildings and spouting computer-based phrases. When she finally dies, will I feel as bad? Overall, I feel less sympathy towards my soldiers, especially if they are enhanced. Emotionally, Enemy Unknown feels more dramatic thanks to that emotional connection that Enemy Within diminishes. Your choices also fuel consequences that are missing in Enemy Within.
On the other side of the coin, I also feel more powerful in Enemy Within. It’s a more complete game than its predecessor based on these extra features. My cyborg soldiers aren’t as sympathetic, but I fist-pump the air every time they use the flamethrower or take enemy fire without a scratch. They’re not indestructible, but their metal bodies do lend a new line of defense and help create new strategies for familiar missions.
There are also more customizing options for soldier uniforms, including colors that can help you recreate your favorite characters. Ever wanted an Iron Man soldier? A team based around your favorite heroes, real or fictional? Just want to fight in all pink (you know, for awareness)? Other new options include medals that give your soldiers small bonuses, a memorial for those killed in action and new missions that can yield recruits.
The new features also mean you’ll need to plan out new approaches to money management. My funds run out a lot quicker than in Enemy Unknown thanks to the expensive gene mods and implants. That gives me less to spend on satellites, weapon upgrades and other useful items. It can be overwhelming how much there is to keep track of in Enemy Within. You’ll feel forced to focus on a couple aspects of XCOM over others. If you decide to utilize the soldiers to their full potential, be prepared to lose a lot of countries’ support.
Other than those features and the added missions, this expansion doesn’t change much of the original’s story mode or the multiplayer. The difference comes from your distinct reactions to what amounts to the same story. At its surface, the old-school XCOM franchise is about stopping an alien invasion with turn-based tactical strategy. With Enemy Unknown we discovered that there was an emotional attachment and subtle complexity to that strategy, where the expendability of the soldiers increased the fear you felt while playing. The games are more about how you take care of your base than about defeating aliens, and about how we handle the lives of others.
Enemy Within not only expands on the game’s mechanics, but changes this emotional attachment, lessening the fear of death for your soldiers while making you feel more powerful. The extra-terrestrials don’t stand a chance.
Carli Velocci is a freelance journalist in Boston, Massachusetts. She has written for DigBoston and Gameranx and isn’t afraid of anything. You can find her on Twitter @revierypone.