Ripple effect: XCOM Enemy Within’s small tweaks add up to big improvements
Firaxis has a certain way of making expansion packs. Rather than completely revamping the game and creating a whole new scenario or suite of missions (a.k.a the Rockstar method) they tend to introduce a few new, seemingly small, concepts that add up to a re-envisioning of the original game.
It's most common in the Civilization series where an expansion may only introduce a handful of new characters and a new gameplay mechanic, but it has a ripple effect that reaches every corner of the game. It renews the experience for hardcore fans, and hones the already great game for the first-time player.
This week we sampled a preview build of XCOM: Enemy Within, the first expansion pack to XCOM: Enemy Unknown, one of the best games of 2012, and found that classic Firaxis ripple effect in a new resource called Meld.
The Melding Pot
In a way, Meld is a bit of an awkward addition to the game. It appears during most missions as a sort of cannister of nanomachines that has to be collected by your troops. Why is it on the battlefield, and why does it self-destruct after a few turns? There may be some flimsy narrative justification, but it's a little silly no matter which way you slice it. Even the XCOM wiki doesn't bother to go into the reason why this mechanic exists.
It's easy to ignore though, because the impact it has on the game is worth a little awkwardness in the lore. As a presence on the battlefield, Meld has a big effect on how you approach the game. You need to collect the resource in order to pursue the new genetic modification/power armor character abilities, but in order to collect it you need to divert from the mission plan.
In XCOM: Enemy Unknown, the goal was almost always laser-focused on killing all the enemy aliens in a stage. In Enemy Within, Meld forces you to consider ulterior objectives. You're not just focused on killing all the enemies, you're focused on extracting the maximum worth from the level while incurring minimal harm. You have to think on-the-fly about whether it's worth it to go after a container of Meld while a pack of aliens is breathing down your neck.
In the early game it's usually very simple. Aliens come at you slowly in small groups. But by the middle of the game it becomes a daunting choice to divert manpower away from stopping the oncoming alien horde. Meld keeps you moving forward, and it gives the level a more dynamic feel. This is the same style of gameplay as XCOM: Enemy Unknown, but renewed with more interesting choices.
That's not the only benefit though. Meld continues to change up the game once the mission is over and you get back to base. Players now have two new facilities that can be built in the base which give them access to all-new character upgrades using Meld.
Cybermech Nanomachine Gene Augmentations
I'm not particularly concerned with exactly what each augmentation does, but they tend to be pretty neat. You can get bone augmentations which help you heal during missions, or cybernetic limbs, or neural implants which harm any alien that tries to mind-control you.
Those will go a long way toward mixing up the gameplay on the battlefield, but for me it's more significant that it mixes up the way we view our characters. Your characters have always been the heart of the XCOM experience, and Meld shines another spotlight on them.
In Enemy Unknown, the only real lasting aspect of a character was his/her rank. Once they died, all their equipment magically came home and you could simply gear up the next highest ranking player. You'd take a hit, but in a couple missions you'd be mostly back to full-strength.
The Meld-powered augmentations give more weight and customization to each character. They're more powerful in life, but they're also resource sinks. When they go down, you stand to lose a lot. The entire XCOM project isn't going to be derailed by the loss of a single soldier, but this feels like Firaxis' way of bringing the pain back to character death for experienced Enemy Unknown players who figured out that character death wasn't that big of a deal.
This is a recurring theme in Enemy Within. It's not just about augmentations. Firaxis has also introduced a new “medals” system whereby you earn medals for performing in battle. In classic XCOM fashion, once you've earned them you can rename them to whatever you like (e.g. “Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Badassitude”) and then choose between two buffs that character will get. It's all about making sure your characters have lasting worth and importance.
It feels strange to focus so heavily on these seemingly small tweaks in light of the fact that Enemy Within introduces a new faction into the game, EXALT, a human group that works against the XCOM project and toward its own gains.
Ultimately, this isn't the side of the game I find most interesting though. Introducing a new faction with new mission types is fun and exciting, but it's heavy-handed. It's content creation. On the other hand, letting a small addition (Meld) feed naturally into every corner of the game is a much more elegant and interesting move.
Meld is Firaxis at its best, and I'm looking forward to seeing how this and EXALT affect the later stages of the game when XCOM: Enemy Within releases on November 12, 2013. It will be offered on Steam as a seperate download for $29.99, but will only be released on console as a bundle with XCOM: Enemy Unknown and its DLC for $39.99.