XCOM: Enemy Unknown was a far riskier proposition than history would have us believe. A remake of an iconic – some might even say sacrosanct – PC classic coupled with a modern design ethic could just as easily have alienated the franchise’s longtime fanbase as it might fail to interest newer audiences.

The combination of punishing tactical turn-based combat and a multifaceted strategy meta-game may not scream blockbuster to a gaming generation mainlining multi-million dollar adrenaline-laden action spectacles. But Firaxis deftly walked a knife's edge between old and new expectations, and delivered a game that married the depth and difficulty of the original with the accessibility and immediacy necessary to engage modern sensibilities.

Enemy Unknown was a flawed masterpiece. In its quest for accessibility it lost a number of finer details that stopped it from achieving its fullest potential. With its upcoming add-on, Enemy Within, Firaxis has followed its own “one-third, one-third, one-third” expansion design philosophy (one-third new stuff, one-third modifications of existing systems, and one-third fan-service fixing) and has sought to provide a more robust and rewarding experience.

XCOM: Enemy Within hands-on

What’s new comes down to the introduction of two features. The first is Meld, an alien resource that can only be collected during combat missions, and that requires the player locate and collect it before its inbuilt self-destruct timer runs out. Meld is a real game-changer that makes the decision to risk life, limb and mission failure to acquire it a complicated one as it opens up two new progression paths: genetic modification and cybernetic augmentation.

Genetic modification is available to all non-mechanically augmented XCOM soldiers via the new gene lab facility. It allows the commander to give soldiers new abilities and traits such as limited health regeneration, stealth capabilities, or improved reflexes and eyesight. There are 10 available modifications, and like all technology in XCOM these are unlockable through research in the science labs.

XCOM: Enemy Within hands-on
XCOM: Enemy Within hands-on
XCOM: Enemy Within hands-on

Cybernetic augmentation is equally valuable and fun to play with. Engineers can now augment soldiers, amputating their arms and legs and replacing them with robotics, as well as build MECs (Mechanised Exoskeleton Cybersuits). Each MEC has three tiers of upgrades and specialised weapons available depending on the base class of the augmented soldier, meaning there are tons of customisation options. Improving MECs requires more Meld, and damaged MECs can only be repaired with it. As with everything in XCOM, there is always a tradeoff.

These new soldier types slot perfectly into the game, and offer more tactical depth to combat missions. MEC Troopers provide raw power, crowd control and even moving cover. Being able to go toe to toe with a Berserker and pummel it to the ground after mini-gunning down a Muton is immensely satisfying. Genetically modified soldiers are no less effective to play with. Their improved survivability and new capabilities can turn the tide in any encounter.

It’s a good thing too, because encounters can still be punishing despite these new abilities and technologies. XCOM isn’t the only faction with new toys. The aliens have added to their ranks as well, and at least two new enemy types are a bit of a nightmare to deal with. The first I encountered is The Seeker, a flying enemy that shares more than a passing resemblance to the Sentinels from The Matrix. The Seeker can enter stealth mode and hunt down isolated soldiers completely undetected. It makes going on a Meld run even chancier because if it latches on, that soldier it is rendered immobile and useless, and will slowly be strangled to death unless a squad mate can come to the rescue and shoot it off. More than once I was caught off-guard as a Seeker appeared next to one of my squad and proceeded to choke the life out of it. Worse still is when they appear at the tail end of a mission and kill weakened soldier or two, a surprise that can completely change the balance of an encounter.

XCOM: Enemy Within hands-on
XCOM: Enemy Within hands-on
XCOM: Enemy Within hands-on

Next to the stealthy Seeker is the new tank-like Mechtoid, which as the name indicates is a Sectoid in Mech Power Armour. Much like XCOM’s MECs, the Mechtoid is a hulking monstrosity and will take a lot of beating before going down. Armed with twin pulse cannons it’s more than capable to decimating an entire squad on its own. Oh, and it can also be Mind Meld with other Sectoids to further increase its defenses and combat effectiveness.

Combat in Enemy Within is a much more challenging prospect, and it’s not just these new aliens making it so. The second core feature and additional threat added in Enemy Within is EXALT, a clandestine terrorist group either working for or working with the alien invaders. The preview build played by Gameplanet didn’t offer a lot of insight into who EXALT is, but the organisation quickly proves itself to be a significant threat. It is more surreptitious in its approach, and far more insidious as a result.

Uncovering EXALT activities necessitates sending covert operatives to investigate suspected EXALT cells across the globe. These missions are played out behind the scenes, with the player’s only input being the extraction mission whereby XCOM secures the information and the operative. Keeping abreast of EXALT activities and crushing cells as they're uncovered is vital, as failing to complete these tasks will result in increased panic, lost resources, or the outright withdrawal of a nation’s support.

EXALT isn’t just some spectral entity harassing from the shadows either, it will also engage XCOM in direct combat, and in many ways EXALT can be more deadly than the alien menace it aids. In combat, the EXALT squads tout adapted alien technology and genetic modifications similar to those used by XCOM soldiers, and they fully utilise their arsenal with wanton abandon. Be prepared to lose many squad members to laser sniper fire as well as grenades and rocket attacks. The actual makeup of each EXALT squad varies slightly, but each is equally as well armed as XCOM.

Unlike typical XCOM alien missions, EXALT missions usually require XCOM to hold or take a specific area of the map and also to ensure the safe return of the operative. This adds another layer to the combat, and some palpable tension to proceedings. The addition of these alien sympathisers ramps up the conflict in game and makes managing the global threat more engaging and more difficult, but it doesn’t feel like Firaxis is hitting players over the head with the difficulty stick just for the hell of it. These changes add to the game in a very tangible way, and going back to the vanilla version now would make for a much shallower experience.

There are numerous smaller additions and tweaks included in the expansion that further refine the final product. Included are more maps, the ability to use the native language of a soldier’s home nation, a number of additional weapons and technologies, as well as a more responsive UI and some of the clunk removed from the engine in general. It appears to be a far more polished product overall, and even this preview build felt solid and refined. Sadly, the Second Wave options were not included, but they too promise to add some additional challenge and flavour.

Enemy Within doesn’t radically alter the core gameplay mechanics, and some sorely missed features are still absent while other less than desirable ones return. The inability to kneel or go prone hobbles the combat slightly, and the Move/Fire mechanic still feels restrictive. The spot-and-run bonus move all enemies have makes a particularly unwelcome return. Still, these are minor irks and the game is hardly less compelling due to their inclusion or omission. Firaxis has expertly added choice new compounds to the formula and has enhanced an already great game to make it something truly exceptional.

Roll on November, there’s a world in need of saving.