You'd think being given not one, but two hulking mecha-soldiers, for whom cover is a moot point because they can't use it, would at least reduce the relentless battlefield tension that distinguishes XCOM. It doesn't.
When you can't take cover (but you can provide it), and you have a flamethrower, a re-usable super punch, a big gun and health up the ding-dong, your decisions with the MEC trooper -- one of several new toys delivered by the Enemy Within expansion coming in November -- should be pretty simple, amirite? Stompy-stomp, shooty-shoot, smirky-smirk. Nope. In my playthrough at PAX I lost both my MECs, thanks to upgraded enemies that still present a harrowing threat no matter how much tougher you think you are.
Though Firaxis says we've only seen a portion of what's on the way, plenty already has been revealed for Enemy Within which, true to Firaxis' M.O., will layer on a ton of extras to lure you back to yet another playthrough of last year's game, which itself was one of 2012's biggest award-winners. You can catch up on the specifics in Kirk's preview here. I'll tell you how it all worked in combat.
My mission was a garden-variety alien abduction, taking place in about June on the game's calendar, set on one of the new maps, a farm. I had a full squad of six, two of them MEC troopers and the other four all "gene-mod" soldiers of each standard class.
Straight away I managed to dash into a flanked position with my assault, and in the turn that followed discover a nasty surprise in the barn, the Mechtoid, which is basically the aliens' answer to your MECs. A Sectoid Commander out in the dirt field buffed a Mechtoid there with a psionic shield, which is a perk they get and you don't. It makes enemy mechs a constant problem until you can take that little bastard out, and they're either well back of the mech or parked right next to him, meaning eliminating him is usually a multi-personnel operation.
Ananda Gupta, the lead designer for Enemy Within, was next to me, offering some advice but, I suspect, secretly judging my missteps. (I couldn't see if the three others behind me also were stifling laughter.) The MECs' skills are blatantly obvious, not the least of which is the "kinetic strike" that does 12 damage and comes with some hellacious animations. A flamethrower that burns around cover (but may be exhausted) is also a perfect weapon for a mech. Out in the open, you can position a mech, lock them down to provide cover for other soldiers, and still put him on overwatch.
Gene-mod soldiers, for whom some talents are innate, use their perks a little more subtly. In a few cases Gupta had to point out how these mods, available to all classes, build upon class-specific perks and traits to help me turn the tide in my favour. For example, super-legs on a gene-mod sniper will get a lot of attention -- they can propel him to the roof of a building without any climbing access -- but do not overlook the "mimetic skin" -- a fancy phrase for invisibility. There's a specific way to use it.
For example, a sniper with mimetic skin who remains in full cover for one turn goes invisible, and remains cloaked if he moves to full cover (reasoning: there has to be something for his chameleon skin to mimic). He's revealed only when taking a shot or moving into partial (or no) cover. Firing from a cloaked position delivers an enormous crit bonus, and this advantage is one way to keep you from parking a sniper atop an elevated position where cover, if it exists, is usually partial. (The new "Seeker" enemy also is meant to discourage camping with a squad-sighted sniper, but I did not see that enemy in my playthrough as Firaxis had yet to announce it.)
The other classes all have their modifications, ranging from improved vision (granting you a better shot after a miss) to a mind-control counterattack that shreds an alien attempting to take over a soldier. The assault class can be fitted for something called adrenal neurosympathy, which is a science-y way to say "roid rage." This one-use characteristic is a real treat when paired with the class's rapid-fire and close-and-personal traits. Now called "Up Close and Personal," an assault with this perk gets a free shot on any enemy within four tiles. That came in handy inside the barn, after my first MEC was wasted by the Mechtoid, who may fire twice. With both arm cannons.
I'd sent my assault in there to clean out the Sectoid commander and his buddies, and when my roid-fuelled double attack exhausted my shotgun ammo and still failed to bring down the Mechtoid (to hoots of "That's XCOM, baby,") I finished the job with a pistol. In fact, I got two pistol kills on Mechtoids with the assault. Ultimately, I prevailed (in "Operation Forgotten Skull,") losing three soldiers (one a gene-mod support), killing 10 enemies, and capturing one canister of Meld.
Meld, of course, is the game's performance-enhancing drug. It's the resource needed to create genetically modified soldiers and MEC Troopers. As said before, the canisters will explode a certain number of turns after their discovery. This is another way to hustle you out of move/overwatch tactics. Unless you don't actually want to create badass troopers and MECs.
You could go through Enemy Within playing with unmodified human soldiers, Gupta said, though it will be tremendously difficult, as the aliens will still bring their Mechtoids, in addition to their dreadful Mutons and Sectopods (which, considering your strengths with MEC troopers, have been buffed to out-tough the Mechtoids. Oh, great.) Internally, some players at Firaxis have been able to win with this kind of racial purity. Gupta admitted he considered offering an achievement for doing so, but decided against it because he didn't want to give a disincentive for trying the new creations.
Of particular concern to me was how early we'd be able to build MECs and Gene-Mod soldiers, what that would cost, and whether it would force a choice between them and developing other critical resources. Gupta said the initial research starting MEC and gene-mod projects would be low-cost and fast, the same as experimental warfare or alien materials, two research projects begun early in the main game. As Meld, and not engineers or scientists, is the resource prerequisite, a player won't have to choose between developing super-soldiers or putting critical satellites into the air to keep council nations calm.
Gupta said the game's strategy layer -- the geoscape where you're constantly excavating, researching recovered materials and building aircraft and weapons -- has not been overhauled. Nor has the game's conclusion, which Gupta acknowledged some have found anticlimactic. I won't spoil it here, but I'll share his reasoning in the comments below.
But even if the geoscape hasn't been overhauled, the addition of gene-mods and MECs provide more cutscenes in which Drs. Vahlen and Shen express their bickering rivalry. Vahlen wants you to build gene-mod soldiers, Shen advocates MECs, which is interesting considering his morally outraged comments after you discover the Floater.
Enemy Within isn't just several new maps (50 per cent more in singleplayer; and an increase to 13 from 5 in multiplayer) and pieces to play with on them. Of course there is the community-requested local language feature, in which your Chinese heavy weapons soldier won't sound like an Iowa farmboy anymore. It's also an opportunity to squash bugs, Gupta said. The game's infamous teleport bug will be patched out. The inability to fire around a corner from an elevated position also will be addressed, Gupta said (by, frankly, removing the cover.) And little aggravations, like a ladder on a wall providing cover for an enemy adjacent to it, will also be patched.
By the time it drops on Nov. 12, Enemy Within will have been under development for more than a year. Its features, paired with the buffet of options in the main game and the Second Wave title update that followed, should extend the replay of XCOM so much that, even if its story remains the same, you feel like you're getting a new game. Speaking as console gamer converted to turn-based strategy by XCOM, I'm very much looking forward to learning more about this expansion, and playing it when it arrives.