Review: Intense alien warfare goes mobile with XCOM: Enemy Unknown for iOS
At a Glance
Aliens are invading, people are being abducted, and the planet is on the brink of utter destruction. With the support of the world’s governments, you must command an elite squadron of soldiers and face off against otherworldly foes to secure the future of the human race. If all of that sounds familiar, it should—this release of XCOM: Enemy Unknown is an iOS port of the console version of the game. This version, however, doesn’t skimp on content. All of the maps, missions, and cutscenes from the original game have been compressed to fit into your pocket, allowing you to defend humanity no matter where you are. But just because it’s portable doesn’t mean that winning the war will be a cakewalk: You’ll need to have your wits about you if you hope to triumph.
XCOM’s gameplay consists mainly of executing missions and confronting whatever aliens you encounter. Save for a few story-centric missions, XCOM’s maps, enemies, and objectives are random; they change every time you play the game, which allows for a fair amount of replayability. Most of the time, your main goal is to kill all the aliens on a map, though in some missions you’ll be disarming bombs or rescuing civilians too.
In the iOS version you use simple gestures and taps to command your troops in battle, but during my tests the controls never felt as accurate as those in the console and PC versions of the game. I can't count the number of times I got a unit killed because I accidentally moved them a few feet north of where I intended them to be. Gestures also proved problematic: Pinching to zoom out often resulted in the game’s assuming that I wanted to move a unit up a floor, and panning around the map seemed as if it took longer than it did on other versions of the game.
I did eventually get used to the touchscreen controls, though I had to slow down how I played to ensure that my characters went to the exact spots I wanted. The iPad version has button shortcuts for things like rotating the camera, and I often defaulted to using those rather than bother with the gesture required to accomplish the same thing. These buttons aren't available on the iPhone and iPod Touch versions of the game (due to space constraints), making it somewhat frustrating to play on those smaller screens.
If you’re wondering about how it plays on different iOS devices, XCOM is much more enjoyable on the iPad because of the extra screen real estate. You can more accurately maneuver through commands and menu options on the iPad, which is something I consistently had trouble with while playing the game on my iPhone. With so much going on at once, this is definitely a game you’ll want to experience on the biggest screen available.
When you aren’t out exacting vengeance on extraterrestrials, you’ll spend most of your time managing resources at XCOM HQ. You have a limited amount of money, scientists, and engineers, so you’ll have to be mindful of how you divvy up the labor and funds. Do you choose to build better armor so your squad can take more hits? Or do you research first aid techniques so that soldiers can heal themselves in battle? It's entirely up to you, and you'll immediately notice the consequences of your actions the next time you head into battle.
Graphics-wise, XCOM looks fairly good, but you'll need a newer device to get the best visuals and performance possible. XCOM looked and played better on my iPhone 5 than it did on my third-generation iPad, though the game does support devices going as far back as the iPad 2 and iPhone 4S. It requires a little over 3GB of free space to install, so if you're rocking a 16GB iPad or iPhone you’ll probably need to delete a few apps or videos before downloading the game. I suggest connecting to Wi-Fi as well, lest you burn through your data plan on a single download.
One major perk is that XCOM supports iCloud game saves, which allows you to start a game on your iPhone and continue it later on your iPad. The app is universal, so it works on all your iOS devices, but carries with it a hefty $20 price tag that might not sit too well with some gamers.
Although developer Firaxis Games did an admirable job of porting over the full XCOM to mobile, multiplayer mode won't be available at launch and will instead come later as a free update. We’ve heard no word yet on whether XCOM: Enemy Unknown for iOS will be privy to the same downloadable content available for the other versions of the game, but there’s always the chance that Firaxis can make that content available later as an in-app purchase.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown for iOS raises the bar on mobile games and shows that console-quality gaming is possible on smartphones and tablets. The game has its flaws, sure, but XCOM fans and strategy game enthusiasts will get a kick out of the game’s near-infinite replay value and the amount of planning that goes into winning a battle. You can help drive back the alien menace; I just recommend you use an iPad while doing so.