The subtitle for XCOM’s latest DLC expansion, Enemy Within, is sort of a pun that refers to three things: first, the introduction of two new game mechanics, gene mods and MEC troopers, where your XCOM soldiers make use of the alien technology in order to become superhuman soldiers. The former refers to genetic modifications that grant interesting new abilities, while the latter refers to the new Mechwarrior-inspired class of cyborg soldiers.
By the end of my successful C/I playthrough, I had three MEC troopers (but only two MEC suits — I wanted three pilots so that in case when one of them gets severely injured, the third trooper can cover for them while they are recovering), and two soldiers with Mimetic Skin. Mimetic was an absolutely vital gene mod: it made the mid to late game missions much easier, and the final Temple Assault was a piece of cake with an invisible scout on the frontlines. It’s very ironic that in order to win the game, in order to end the alien invasion for good, we had to sacrifice a little bit of our humanity and incorporate the enemy’s technology for our own. The game’s opening quote sums this up perfectly:
“Those who play with the devil’s toys, will be brought by degrees to wield his sword.”
– R. Buckminster Fuller
The second Enemy Within refers to EXALT, the new top-secret, anti-XCOM organisation made up of humans who somehow have access to roughly the same resources and gene mods as XCOM. I have read many threads on Reddit that EXALT might actually be remnants of the Bureau from XCOM: Declassified. I’ve not played that game yet because it sounds like a mediocre game from many of the reviews I’ve read. But I’ve spoiled myself on the story and it does have an interesting twist that ties into Firaxis’s XCOM games.
The developers of Enemy Within once stated that they wanted to give players a taste of what it feels like to be fighting against yourself (i.e. what the alien AI felt) when playing against EXALT. And they were right. EXALT enemies are somehow more aggressive (probably because of the control point mechanic), and their Snipers and Heavies (the most dangerous classes in XCOM) are absolutely tense opponents. Their Medics also have the ability to throw smoke grenades — the exact same tactic that players use. Defeating EXALT requires you to not only understand the game well, but to understand yourself well: how do you defeat an opponent that is fighting on the same level as you?
The final Enemy Within refers to the player themselves. It forces you to get rid of bad habits, and you have to completely change the way you play the game. Getting into full cover and exchanging pot shots with the enemy is an absolute no-no on Classic difficulty and above: you will still die, because full cover is not enough.
Squadsighted Snipers, once the game-breakers from vanilla Enemy Unknown, have been slightly nerfed in EW but they are still essential members of your squad. They are needed to initiate fights against enemies that have not been triggered yet, and if your Sniper has access to Double Tap, they have a good chance of taking out two enemies in one turn (or killing one with Headshot and disabling another enemy with Disabling Shot). Support classes play a crucial role with their smoke grenades: if you absolutely have to finish your turn within the enemy’s line of sight, tossing a smoke to increase the defence of your entire team could be a lifesaver. MECs are not invincible, but they do have a lot more starting HP than your soldiers, allowing them to tank two to three hits and still survive, something that would normally kill a soldier.
There are many more examples, but these are some of the new bread and butter tactics that all C/I players are forced to learn in order to survive. When I completed my C/I playthrough, I only had four soldier deaths the entire game. The first death was a Rookie on the first mission due to some RNG misfortune, absolutely nothing I could do about it. But the next three deaths were all due to very bad careless mistakes:
i) Early on, a Captain Heavy died because he ended his turn next to an exploding car. I was not paying attention and didn’t realise the car was about to explode. Fortunately, I still had Zhang, another strong high-ranking Heavy, and by the end of the game I managed to train up another Colonel Heavy who ended up becoming the team’s Mimetic scout in the final mission.
ii) On Deluge, the second mission of the new Operation Progeny Council Mission, I lost a Captain Assault because I made a horrendous noob mistake: I moved her while two Mutons were still alive and on Overwatch. She had height advantage and Overwatch reaction shots give a -20 aim penalty, but both Mutons still hit her anyway and she died instantly. It was sort of the game’s way of saying: “You crazy man? Moving during Overwatch? Okay, say goodbye to your Assault.” Boom. Boom. And she was dead. All because of one dumb error.
iii) The final death was an absolute gut punch. It was a Sergeant Heavy, a character I wanted to train up to be backups for Zhang and my Mimetic Heavy in case they needed time off to heal from injuries. The mission was an EXALT defend-the-control point mission on one of my new favourite maps, the one where the first control point was on the roof and the second one was below with an overlooking balcony. This was actually the very first map that I played my very first EXALT mission in a previous playthrough. Each time, I managed to complete the mission easily because I knew exactly what to do. So it should be a piece of cake, right?
Wrong. I became greedy and moved my MEC through the doorway on the bottom floor in order to lob a grenade through. This gave line of sight to another EXALT Operative who was camping slightly further away. The next turn, an EXALT Heavy launched a rocket from the first floor shop at my MEC by aiming at the wall in front of her. This destroyed the wall, hurting the MEC, my Sgt Heavy, and my Col. Sniper (!!) who all took 6 damage each. Two more operatives came up and took flanking shots against my exposed soldiers, killing the Heavy instantly and leaving my Sniper with 1 HP. I had training roulette turned on and she had unusually high HP for a Col. Sniper (9 base HP; 13 with Carapace Armour). She survived purely because of RNG luck.
I remain absolutely convinced that XCOM: Enemy Within, at least on Classic/Ironman, is trying to teach us something here. That things can always go wrong in a split second when you least expect it; that you should never be arrogant or overconfident even when you are winning; and most important of all, the real Enemy Within is not the aliens or EXALT, but yourself. You live and die based on your own decisions and mistakes, and you have to find a way to suck it up, learn from your errors and move on.
To everyone that watched my marathon stream last night — Yao, sotilas, moonphx, baskingner, and all the random guests who watched me slog through the final mission — thank you. Thank you for devoting your time to watching a random gamer who so desperately wanted to conquer Classic/Ironman. Not for bragging rights, not to haolian, but to simply prove to himself that he could do it.
I did it, I finally did it. Rest in peace, Annette Durand (my Volunteer). You were my best Assault, my best Psi Operative, and my best soldier at using the Arc Thrower. May you find peace after all the suffering you and your friends endured.