Gaming for Grown Ups
25th July 2013 09:00:00
Posted by Steven McCullough

XCOM: Enemy Unknown

iPad Review

The aliens are back and now they're on the move! Top-notch turn-based strategy comes to iOS with this new port of XCOM: Enemy Unknown.
When Firaxis decided to resurrect classic ‘90s PC strategy game UFO: Enemy Unknown (also known as XCOM: UFO Defense), they were taking a considerable risk. Granted, the original may have been a hit on its native platform in the mid ‘90s when strategy games were at their arguable zenith, but the market has moved on and turn-based games on consoles are something of a rarity. Thankfully conventional logic did not hold sway and the game was a massive critical hit, with several notable publications (not least ourselves) considering it one of the top games of the year. Now 2K and Firaxis are hoping to replicate that magic by porting the game over to the app store, an equally bold move considering the lion’s share of the saturated iOS games arena are pithy time-wasters of little substance. Has lightning struck twice?

On top of the situation.

For those unfamiliar with the premise, the game revolves around a surprise alien invasion of Earth. The world’s governments are caught with their political pants down and are forced to rely on the experimental XCOM (extraterrestrial combat) project to repel the invaders and determine their true intent. Throughout the game you train units, research new technology and weaponry, and generally upgrade your fighting force until it is in a position to meet the threat head-on. A more streamlined evolution of the original game rather than a straight remake with more polished graphics, the new XCOM is an intriguing genre mix, switching between high-level base building strategy and turn-based combat on the ground. From the safety of your underground lair you work to ensure the safety of the human race until the abduction alarm sounds, and a sky-ranger blasts off towards the target zone with your crack team of soldiers on board. At this point, the game becomes tense, slick turn-based strategy in a completely destructible environment. Occasionally there are hostages to take or VIPs to be rescued, but a large chunk of the time the objective is to splatter the grey menace across the map in as efficient a manner possible.

The truth is out there. Behind that trailer, actually.

Even if you’re unfamiliar with this sort of genre, an excellent tutorial guides you through the opening missions while establishing the scene, and the crisp neon blue overlays visually communicate the important data you need to know without having to revise a stack of numbers. The developers did a top notch job of mapping the inherently numerous and finicky turn-based controls to a pad for the console versions and have replicated that success with the touch screen; all available options are only a swipe or tap away and accessed via clear and distinct icons. Some slightly awkward two-finger gestures are necessary to pan around and rotate the map, but they are a minor niggle in an otherwise solid implementation.

For much of the game you will be fending off alien scum on your own terms, with the occasional set mission foisted upon you to advance the plot. It’s a juggling act of no mean difficulty to keep all the panicking member countries relatively secure, and one wrong decision or slew of bad fortune can mean absolute disaster. This is a game about tough decisions, and they are all yours to make. Strategy sadists can choose to play the notorious Ironman mode where every decision is final and does not allow you to turn back the clock with a safe little autosave. You are nothing without your squad, and the game ingrains this upon you at every turn. As you grow more attached to them they earn nicknames, get promoted, learn new abilities and obtain new equipment. Then they get brutally cut down by enemy fire, and the loss you feel is palpable. Fools rush in, and this game will slap you upside the head if you dare to be cavalier with your choices.

Terror can strike anywhere at anytime.

While not being that graphically intensive on its native PC platform, XCOM has a very distinct look which has been largely preserved in its transition to tablet and phone. Graphics aren’t quite as detailed as on console or PC, but apart from some very slight slowdown on level entry, the game runs very well indeed. It can occasionally take a small nudge to get the camera to show the inside of a building, and the classy dynamic camera angles that often accompanied a successful takedown have been mostly removed. As you might expect there are cutbacks for a release of this magnitude; some of the maps have been eliminated to save space, and the ability to select different armour colours is gone, a shame as it was a useful way to distinguish between your crew. Textures and lighting effects are much reduced, the autopsy and interrogation cutscenes are gone. Even with these reductions the app size is considerably large (over 3GB on install) and will eat well into your battery life, so don’t expect any extended play sessions unless you’re hooked to the mains.

The sound remains fantastic, with eerie winds blowing as your dropship touches down giving way to a frantic, tremulous score when battle breaks out, urgent taiko drums hammering out a rhythm to support otherworldly synth. The characterisation of your three immediate subordinates at the base is strong, and as you pan around the base visiting the different sections, the on-site personnel will offer their opinions, musings and fears on the current state of play. Out on the field though, your squad no longer always vocally acknowledge your orders and when they do it’s always in the same bland American accent, despite their on-screen nationality. Fear not though, the rich crumbly Christmas cake tones of noteworthy voice actor Jon Bailey as head of the Council remain intact. We will be in touch, Commander!

Calcuations indicate a 55% chance that this will be a BOOM HEADSHOT

It’s considerably more expensive than other games on iOS, but you are getting a near-perfect port of a console game that just happens to be equally at home on the iPad and iPhone as it does on console or PC. Mobile gamers have been conditioned to expect games for a couple of quid at most, and this has led to questionable business models and the rise of odious free-to-play microtransactions. Such behaviour in this title could have ruined it, but pleasingly it is nowhere to be found; one reasonable outlay bags you the full game, and while the multiplayer mode is currently absent, it has been confirmed this will be available as a free update soon. Cloud saving is a welcome bonus, so if you have two iOS devices you can sync your campaign on them both.

You talkin' to ME??? No seriously, the universal translator's broken.

This reviewer remembers being distinctly wowed the first time he saw GTA3 running on an iPhone; a game which, despite its expansive nature is still a decade old and perhaps unsurprisingly running on such a device. Now we have one of the top games released only last year doing the same. Some players might baulk at the price for an iOS title, but in all honesty, despite the previous litany of sacrifices and trade-offs, you are getting pretty much the full XCOM experience on a mobile device. It’s hard to say with any real conviction that this is the future of mobile gaming as this title is uniquely suited to be ported, but it’s a grand achievement and a brave step forward in redefining what we should expect from mobile games. It’s surely missing some of the finer details from the PC and console versions, but now thanks to 2K and Firaxis, we can save mankind from alien annihilation, even when on the toilet.

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Details and Specifications
Review Platform: iPad

Publisher: 2K Games

Developer: Firaxis

UK Release Date: 2013-06-20