XCOM: Enemy Unknown Review

Earth is being invaded by aliens on a global scale. The Council of Nations has created an elite paramilitary group to defend humanity and you are given the charge to become the commander of this group. You are responsible for some of the best soldiers, scientists, and engineers from nations all over the world. You make the tough decisions and play a huge role in what the future is going to look like. That’s right, baby — this is XCOM, and it’s available for your iOS device right now.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a nearly perfect port of the PC/PS3/360 version that came out last October. Firaxis has really done an awesome job translating the game to mobile devices. The visual quality has been lowered a bit and the multiplayer mode has been cut altogether. The single player game, however, is completely intact. Perhaps most importantly, the user interface has been completely redone with touchscreens in mind and it works really well. Intuitive gestures put you in control of the camera and big, tappable buttons let you assign your soldiers’ actions.

For those of you who, like me, are coming to XCOM for the first time, you are in for a treat. Enemy Unknown follows a great sci-fi story, all of which is voice acted (certainly a contributor to the game’s massive install size that’s over 3 GB). The gameplay is split into two different modes, tactical combat and base management. Both modes are a lot of fun and complement each other well, making XCOM an experience that far exceeds the sum of its parts.

The tactical combat mode puts you in charge of a small squad of soldiers. The specific missions vary, but your basic task is always to kill any aliens you encounter and try to keep your soldiers alive. Turn-based combat takes place on fully 3D maps, and almost every obstacle, even buildings, is destructible. Each soldier and alien gets to use two actions per turn. Actions include moving, attacking, throwing grenades, hunkering down for extra defense, or entering Overwatch mode, which causes your soldier to open fire as soon as they see an enemy move.

The game features multiple difficulties, but even the easiest option can be unforgiving. There is no way to revive soldiers who die. Combat is about careful strategy, not run-and-gun action. Making sure your soldiers have environmental cover and can protect each other is critical if you want them to make it out alive. Soldiers who do make it out alive are promoted and learn new skills. The first time this happens, a soldier is assigned a specialization that will determine the type of weaponry and skills they can use: Assault, Heavy, Sniper, or Support. Each specialization brings something unique to the team, and it is really rewarding when you meet success by harmonizing your soldiers’ skills. Soldiers can be customized in name, appearance, skills, and loadout and you will grow attached to those that survive a few skirmishes. It is emotionally painful when one of your soldiers die and I love that this game can elicit that response from me.

The management mode puts you in charge of the underground XCOM headquarters. The base is shown from the side as a grid of rooms not unlike an ant farm. Alien bodies and technology that you recover from the field can be taken to the Research Labs to discover upgrades. The Engineering facility will build the technology discovered by Research as well as expand the base with new facilities, allowing you to build up the type of base that will best support your play style. The Barracks will let you manage your soldiers and the Hangar will let you manage Interceptors that can take out UFOs spotted by your satellites. You will use the Situation Room to launch those satellites and manage your relationships with the various nations that fund the XCOM organization. If the panic level in a country gets too high, their leadership will pull out of the XCOM project and you will lose their funding. As you progress through the game, new tech from the Research Labs and new facilities built by Engineering mean even more ways to improve your campaign against the alien invasion. There’s a lot to do, but it all feels like it has a point and it adds an enormous amount of depth to the game. As I mentioned earlier, the two game modes support each other superbly and never feel disjointed. Your performance on the field and the way you manage XCOM HQ directly affect each other.

The game is highly replayable, both because you’ll want to try different play styles and because you’ll want to move on to more challenging difficulties as your skills improve. Each time you play, the soldiers you train and the way you build your base make your playthrough feel like a different story. This game is notoriously difficult, but extreme difficulty works for XCOM. The game also features an Ironman Mode that has proven very popular with gamers. This mode will cause the game to autosave after every turn and prevent you from creating more than one save file. The constant autosaving is designed so that you can’t reload an earlier save if something goes wrong.

The game does have a few minor flaws, but they are minor annoyances rather than game-breaking issues. First of all, this game is very graphically intensive. You’ll have the best experience on an iPhone 5 or iPad 4, although the iPhone 4S, 5th-gen iPod touch, and iPad Mini are supported. I personally spent the most time with XCOM on my iPhone 4S, and it crashed on me a couple of times during cutscenes, even though I had nothing else running on my phone. Fortunately, the game autosaves regularly, so the most I ever had to do was rewatch a few cutscenes. In-game, the only trouble I had was the camera. It gets a little funky when switching between an interior and exterior view of buildings. You will definitely run into situations where a close-up wall takes up your entire view for a second. Also, despite the environments being in 3D, the camera snaps between two preset zoom levels and four preset rotation angles. I really wish I could zoom and rotate freely, especially on the my phone’s smaller screen where the close zoom can feel a little too close for tactical decisions but the far zoom makes everything too small to sit and play a whole map that way.

It’s hard to avoid the topic of the game’s $19.99 price tag, because it is so much higher than the typical iOS game. Let me be the first to point out that this is not a typical iOS game. Your twenty bucks are buying a game that is likely the nearest an iOS port has ever come to console quality. The game is top-notch, offering awesome visuals and a great story with full voice acting. So much care went into crafting the details of this game and then making it work great on iOS too, and it shows throughout. The gameplay is excellent, challenging, and addictive. You will easily be able to rack up dozens upon dozens of hours before you’re done with this great game.

If you like strategy games at all (especially the turn-based tactical kind), you owe it to yourself to devote your time, money, and storage space to XCOM. It is certainly one of the best games in its genre, even outside of iOS. The iOS port takes full advantage of touchscreen, iCloud saves, and Game Center achievements. Firaxis should be applauded for bringing an awesome triple-A title to iOS — and with almost no compromises. Don’t let the $20 entrance fee scare you off. This is a great game that is going to give you hours upon hours of enjoyment.

View XCOM: Enemy Unknown on iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/xcom-enemy-unknown/id639544885

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