Several hours into XCOM: Enemy Within, pumping bullets into extraterrestrials and sending aircraft to chase UFOs, I found myself thinking of Dragon's Dogma: Dark Arisen. Rest assured, there are no dragons here, but Firaxis' beloved tactical shooter follows much the same model as Capcom's role-playing game in offering what some may call an "ultimate" edition of 2012's turn-based strategy hit. In this latest jaunt, hours filled with the same cutscenes of Dr. Vahlen and Dr. Chen bickering over the same priorities rush by. The enemy is known now, at least for those of us who played XCOM: Enemy Unknown before, and thus some of the mystery has passed away. But as I ventured deeper into alien bases and terrorist cells, I found myself thinking of XCOM: Enemy Within more as an alternate reality. It's an approach that makes facing the alien menace exciting all over again.
The key to these changes lies in the game's opening quote. Whereas before you were presented with Arthur C. Clarke's famed quote about being alone in the universe, Enemy Within greets you with a more ominous message penned by R. Buckminster Fuller: "Those who play with the devil's toys will be brought by degrees to wield his sword." By slow degrees, easing through the same missions and viewing the same spaceships and alien bases, it's clear that the enemy lies just as much among our fellow humans as it does beyond the stars. XCOM: Enemy Within sees Vahlen and Chen pushing the moral limits of technology and running the risk of smudging forever the line between humans and aliens. Beyond, a rogue organization named EXALT seeks to thwart XCOM's efforts, believing that a better future lies with the very aliens you fought.
With so much smudging of the lines between human and machine, it's surprising that XCOM: Enemy Within does such a good job of emphasizing the humanity of its soldiers. No more do heavies from Argentina chat in the same vernacular as Illinois car salesmen; instead, French and Polish units bark announcements in the tongues of their respective countries if you activate them in the customization screen. You don't have to play match-two with languages and the flags on soldiers' backs; it's a pleasure to switch out between French, German, Spanish, Italian, Polish, and Russian, but it's a shame that the available voices never move beyond the European sphere and into languages like Japanese and Chinese.
Other touches add a bit of swagger and even light humor. Enhanced customization options now let soldiers venture forth in fedoras as well as combat helmets, and a handful of different armor types helps distinguish soldiers from one another on the battlefield. As a result, much more than before, soldiers feel like people. You feel your losses even more now, particularly when you've already awarded a soldier with one of the new medals using your (permanent) choice of two buffs.
But nothing changes the game quite like meld. Meld is a new resource in XCOM: Enemy Within, and while you could theoretically finish the game without using it, doing so means you'll miss out on some of the expansion's greatest goodies. Even the resource itself augments the experience. The realization that you have only a limited number of turns to reach it depending on the difficulty, for instance, almost immediately shatters the careful inch-by-inch tactics so commonly employed in the first game. The intent here is speed, and the occasional need for recklessness adds an extra dose of tension to most missions. That's not to say the changes don't properly mesh with the returning tactical mechanics; on the contrary, you usually have to move your main force to objectives while sending out a party of one or two to snag the meld.
Back at the base, meld reveals itself to be a Prometheus' fire of sorts that allows both genetic modifications and cybernetics. Gene mods are the comparatively mundane choice of the two, and using them is a little like playing the original game with superhero buffs. Some are fairly simple, such as pupil implants that grant a small boost to aim; others are almost godly, such as a skin augment that makes your soldier invisible if she's in full cover. It's cool stuff, and it's most noteworthy for making Dr. Vahlen's dissections more meaningful.
It's the same game through a twisted mirror, revealing an alternative world where humans strive to win at any cost.
MEC troopers are something else entirely. They're exactly what they sound like, MechWarrior fans, and you can sacrifice any of your team members to go the way of Robocop as long as they've progressed past rookie. The short wait is a smart move, particularly since leveling now lets them retain at least one ability associated with their previous roles. A support character, for instance, might throw up a huge shield that boosts defenses for surrounding combatants. On the battlefield, they come into their own, possessing the ability to take as much damage as they dish out with flamethrowers and plasma rifles, forgoing cover and sometimes acting as cover for each other.
MEC troopers sound as badass as they do game breaking. Thankfully, Firaxis went to great lengths to ensure proper balance. For one, the aliens now have their own "mectoids" to counter yours. Any fears that MECs have made XCOM easier tend to vanish before the sight of mectoids wiping out entire poorly placed squadrons. Brazenly venturing ahead of the team also gets your MECs killed by drawing too much fire, and devastating MEC weapons such as flamethrowers usually have no effect on other MECs.
New enemies also pepper the landscape, although they're not as effective as they probably could be. Take the seeker. It may look like the fearsome metal squid monsters from The Matrix, complete with a stealth skill that renders it invisible, but in practice, it's scarcely more dangerous than a horsefly. After it breaks stealth and latches on to a soldier, it's little more than handy target practice for other troops.
More worthy of note is the traitorous group EXALT, which brings some memorable new missions and story twists with it, although EXALT is more dangerous in the metagame than when you're fighting its members while trying to extract your spies in a series of new covert missions. Crafty buggers, they hack into Vahlen's research, disrupting her progress. They steal from your money reserves, and they spread panic through propaganda. Before, it wasn't hard to master the metagame's system of checks and balances, but EXALT ensures that managing panic levels and a steady cash flow now present greater challenges than before.
In some ways, however, all these additions act merely as frosting on a cake we've enjoyed before. It's the same game through a twisted mirror, revealing an alternative world where humans strive to win at any cost. In the process, it embraces science fiction with greater gusto. Before, it was easy to imagine XCOM as a fanciful take on how we'd fare if aliens attacked the world today. Enemy Within, on the other hand, sometimes ventures far into the theatrical, such as when you watch two MECs clobber each other as though in homage to Pacific Rim.
Enemy Within is great, but its greatness comes with qualifications. Players who have never played XCOM: Enemy Unknown will find their best entry point here, since it remedies some of the concerns of the original and manages to keep others from taking their place. Not only does it enhance replay value by expanding the Second Wave content to include options such as Training Roulette, which randomizes abilities while leveling, but it expands the multiplayer mode, adding squad editing, squad saving, and the inclusion of new units such as mectoids and seekers.
It also seems to avoid many of the pitfalls of the original. I saw not one bug in my hours with XCOM: Enemy Within, and the whopping 40 new maps ensured that even the usually humdrum UFO crash investigations of the original were replaced with tense excavations into cities and pleasant farms. All of that is certainly enough for PC players to fork out the $20 for the upgrade, but unfortunately, console players face the more daunting task of buying Firaxis' new creation for almost the price of a new game. Fortunately, there's enough new content here to justify it for players looking for another spin in Firaxis' gripping tale of alien invasion.
That seems to be the pattern of XCOM. The tale always grows in the telling, and with this entry, you find yourself in a world richer and more enjoyable than the one you experienced before. With a world this finely crafted, it's fitting that we should get to save it all over again.