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XCOM: Enemy Within (PC) artwork

XCOM: Enemy Within (PC) review

"EW's sense of "difficulty" assumes you’re familiar enough with EU to handle the unfair hurdles."

I'm at an impasse whether or not I enjoyed Enemy Within. Ultimately, I can recommend it as XCOM 1.5 as it's an entirely new game if you had played on Normal difficulty for Enemy Unknown.

There are qualities that improve upon EU's faults. The late-game problem of rookies is counter-balanced with gene-mods. EW adds the AI behavior from Classic (EU) to the Normal difficulty. There are more unique missions and a new mission type, espionage, and it provides a nice thematic middle-half to the game. In many ways, I would like to say Enemy Within is the definitive version. However, there are some changes that ruin whatever sense of fair challenge Enemy Within that I wouldn't trust this game with an Ironman setting.

MELD Resource: MECs and Gene Splices

One new game-changer is the new resource, Meld. Its usage is specifically for the new class (MEC soldiers) and for the gene augmentations. You obtain this resource solely from capturing Meld nodes on the battlefield before they turn off. It's never explained why these resources are now available or why the aliens litter them everywhere. However, I do understand it's to punish overly defensive players by baiting them to move. It's a simple change that goes a long way.

With my time of EW, I never found myself over saturated or scarce on Meld.

The upgrades for the troops are cheap and they do various benefits like offer auto-regenerating health, extra time for bleeding out, boosts for aiming, sensing enemies from afar, etc. I've found enhancing the sight/aim boosts for rookies useful in avoiding many missing shots, and it only takes three days to implant them. The MEC Suits and their upgrades also don't need much Meld, yet they cost a lot more of the basic currency. It also requires that you amputate your soldiers. These units cannot use gene-mods; however, they have one ability that is influenced by their past class.

These new changes appear to have created some balancing issues. Aliens send out harder enemies faster which demands you have at least one MEC soldier, so you should get on the power-creep. I don't think the change is game-breaking. It means some missions, specifically EXALT, can seem easier than they are. However, I think that's intentional to get you to lower your guard.


Based on the trailer, you would expect an answer to what exactly the new threat is. In gameplay, the EXALT are a new way to spread panic to the world, to harm XCOM's finances/research and to add a new type of mission to the game, Espionage. (They also combine these new missions with the other three types: Escort, Extract and Exterminate). The only explanation you'll get is they're alien sympathizers who may or may not have been mind-controlled. There is no face to the group to give them any more personality. In all honesty, it more often feels like XCOM is the morally grey organisation when you overpower them. I think that is what Firaxis had in mind when they designed these missions. However, I think they didn't go far enough to punish/incentivize players to NOT kill the Exalt, and they ultimately just create another enemy type to kill.

There are only two types of Covert-Ops: Extract 2 signals with your covert-operative--whom you must send for 6 days to scout, and then rescue him/her--and then leave with as few casualties as possible, and then you have a intel defense mission where you have to kill all Exalt. (There is also a base siege mission and a base-defense mission tied to them.) In the first mission case, you are rated poorly for killing the Exalt in great numbers. HQ emphasizes that you be discreet; however, there is no real punishment for treating them like aliens. In the other mission's case, you're just fighting humans with gene-mods. The emphasis on not killing could've been a real game-changing inclusion to EW

Thankfully, there is a suitable punishment for not undergoing a covert-op (more panic) as well as falsely accusing a country of harboring an Exalt base. The country will immediately pull out of XCOM if you falsely accuse them. Securing intel or taking care of a base will also help lower the panic levels of that region. In the end, I don't find the Exalt inclusion boring or too innovative, but they add something to change up the game from fighting aliens over and over again. They're probably the most disappointing new feature of EW for many fans, but my major disappointment was how EW goes out of its way to make the game unfair at certain points.

Difficulty Does Not Mean Unfair

Expect to be frustrated with your first playthrough.

EW's sense of "difficulty" assumes you’re familiar enough with EU to handle the unfair hurdles (i.e. Base Defense & Site Recon) that would otherwise be enjoyable if you knew what to expect. It's quite telling when the most memorable/best missions are also the ones I find to be the most broken. Site Recon, for instance, is admittedly not a bad mission, but it's placed so close to the beginning (which happens only on the 1st playthrough) it feels like a cheap ploy to kill off your team if you're not prepared. Two words: Infinite Chryssalids. At this point in the game, I had received my first MEC soldier. No laser weapons, no high-tier armor, not even a full squad of 6. Even with saves to help me out, I had to sacrifice two of my A-Team units to save the rest--the MEC and my only two medics--by pure luck.

You can argue that it was my fault for not playing well or being better prepared. Or that "It's XCOM, it's supposed to be unfair!" But why make an unfair mission like that mandatory for ALL first-playthroughs without some suggestion to the player that they'll most likely lose. There is no cinematic to emphasize neither its threat level nor warning of a difficulty spike.

That mission, however, pales in comparison to the unfairness of Base Assault.

In some indeterminate time after the Alien Base Assault--regardless whether or not you take down the EXALT base--the hologlobe will act up and XCOM will be under attack. The game will then take your 6 best operatives (on the roster list) and send them into battle. Worse, you don't get to choose who is on your team. You do not get to choose which three you need first. You don't even get to change up their load-out. The only compensation is that you get more than a squad of 6 (rookies) with no specialized weapons or perks. If that wasn't enough, the mission consists of spamming you with 42 randomly generated enemies. And on the very last ambush, you must fight a Sectoid Commander, two Beserkers, two MEC Sectoids, a Cyberdisk, two lackeys for the MECs and a Sectopod. You don't even get your 6th squad member at that point.

This mission is so unfair that if you fail with Ironman enabled, then the game will restart the battle rather than give you a game-over. How is this acceptable? This mission happens in every game of EW, and there is the chance you might even fight harder enemies like Ethereals. It comes across as another ploy to kill off your A-Team.


EW could've been so much better had they resolved balancing issues and committed more to the EXALT conflict to separate them from the aliens. However, the game, as a whole, is so refined you won't be disappointed.

Brian's avatar
Community review by Brian (March 25, 2016)

Current interests: Strategy/Turn-Based Games, CRPGs, Immersive Sims, Survival Solo Games, etc.

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