App Reviewed on: iPhone 5
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The original X-Com: UFO Defense has been one of my all time favorite games for almost 20 years. There's something about the combination of naming soldiers after friends and family members, carefully trying to manage finances and tech trees, and the tense search for hostile aliens in unfamiliar terrain that still excites me to this day. So when it was announced that Firaxis, the developers behind the latest entries in the Civilization series, were going to release a modern update of the 1994 classic I was both supremely excited and ridiculously nervous.
Of course I was worried about XCOM: Enemy Unknown for nothing. It turned out to be a fantastic re-imagining of my favorite strategy game that trimmed away a lot of the unnecessary fat and added a few more contemporary elements to create an incredibly compelling experience. Then it was announced that Firaxis and 2K China were going to take that same experience and somehow cram it on to iOS devices. Again I found myself excited and worried at the same time. And again I was worried for nothing.
An incredibly hostile alien threat has appeared seemingly out of nowhere. A top-secret military project, referred to as XCOM, which is funded by all the major nations on the planet is humanity's only hope for survival. Players assume control of the Commander, the head of the entire organization, and must make careful use of every resource at their disposal if they're to have any chance of success. They'll assume direct control over troops on the ground as they engage the alien forces, scramble interceptor aircraft to keep the skies clear of UFO activity, research new technologies using alien artifacts recovered from each fight, expand their facilities to increase overall effectiveness, and try to keep the project backers from panicking and pulling out.
Each facet of XCOM: Enemy Unknown is carefully balanced with the others, so players must treat each with the utmost care. Neglect the Council and there won't be any more funding to go around. Fail to research better technologies and soldiers won't amount to much more than a temporary distraction for the alien troops. Forget to add more facilities and certain tasks will take far too long to complete, or may limit advancement altogether. It's a delicate balancing act that can be tricky to pull off, but it's not impossible.
What's Old is New
A lot has changed over the years. What once seemed to work well back in the 90s feels more dated and clunky now. Each soldiers' pool of Time Units that they could use for everything from moving to shooting is gone. Instead, they can perform a set amount of actions in each turn: Soldiers can move and then attack, dash (i.e. move farther at the expense of any further actions), or attack and then their turn is over. It's a little more limiting than being able to pull off, say, three Auto Shots (equivalent to nine total shots) in one turn but it really streamlines the process. Squads are also significantly smaller, with a limit of six soldiers instead of well over a dozen. It's just enough to get the job done but not so much that it makes the skirmishes drag out. Cover is also important now. Depending on what a soldier is hiding behind it can have a significant effect on an enemy's accuracy, which could mean the difference between life and death.
The smaller squad size also places a larger significance on each individual soldier. Now when a rookie reaches their next rank they'll attain one of four specialized classes (Assault, Heavy, Sniper, Support), each of which has their own skill tree to make use of. So while there may only be a maximum of six soldiers going into a given fight, it doesn't seem so bad when they're able to do things like headshot enemies from a seemingly impossible distance or can toss smoke grenades for added defense bonuses.
Other less immediately noticeable - but still quite significant - changes have been made to the classic formula. Producing new gear and items no longer takes time. So long as players have the necessary materials they can craft new weapons, armor, and support items as soon as they'd like. The need to micromanage supply orders is also gone. Scientists and engineers are now supplied monthly during each Council report, and can sometimes be earned as a reward for thwarting alien abductions. Items like grenades and medkits have a limited number of uses in battle but they won't disappear for good after they've been utilized.
So XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a fantastic modernization of a classic strategy game. That's great, but how has it fared in the transition from PC/consoles to iOS? Pretty darn well I'd say, all things considered. I will say that there are a few regrettable omissions I've noticed, however. As was mentioned previously by several different sources, the map diversity is more limited in order to save a bit on space requirements. I've also noticed that while the visuals still look great, they don't quite measure up to their big screen counterparts. Models and textures are a little simpler, and the lighting is a lot less impressive. I was also incredibly disappointed to find that, while the ability to customize soldiers' names and appearances is intact, some of the options are missing. I can live without them, sure, but being able to pick from a series of armor colors made keeping track of my soldiers on the field a lot easier because I would code them all (i.e. white for support, blue for snipers, etc).
However, while a few little details have been scaled back or cut in order to cram everything into iOS devices, absolutely none of the core XCOM experience has been affected. Enemy Unknown on my iPhone is the exact same game as it is on my Xbox, just smaller and a little less detailed. Of course, while it's still incredibly awesome it's also got its fair share of issues. I've dealt with several crashes over the course of my game which aren't too bad thanks to an autosave that usually picks up close to where I was booted, but they're still incredibly irritating.
I've also noticed that the interface can be problematic on certain maps. Namely it's been difficult to select specific tiles when moving because the environment gets in the way. Rotating the camera helps, but it can feel a little clunky at times. The camera also has trouble deciding what to center on during reaction shots, and has a tendency to bounce all over the map as multiple soldiers take potshots at fleeing aliens. It doesn't ruin the gameplay at all, but it can be rather bothersome and disrupts the immersion a bit. However the biggest issue I have with XCOM: Enemy Unknown is the strain it puts on the battery. I understand that it's a fairly resource-heavy game, but I've lost significant chunks of battery life over a very small amount of time. It's totally worth it because the game is so awesome, but that's also a problem because it makes not being able to play it when the juice is low that much more painful.
"We'll be in touch, Commander."
XCOM: Enemy Unknown might have a few problems, but it's still an utterly fantastic game. The only real differences between playing it on a larger machine and an iOS device, excepting screen size, are a few minor graphical changes. Other than that it's a dead-on port of 2012's best strategy release, and one of my new personal all time favorites. This is simply a great strategy game that happens to have been altered to work on mobile devices; not a dumbing down or a tie-in, but a direct port. It's worth playing in any form, but being able to fight for the Earth's survival whenever I want is particularly glorious.