XCOM: Enemy Unknown Review

The original XCOM was released on PC in 1994. It combined strategic battles against alien invaders with deep resource- and base-management. It spawned various expansion packs, and built a large cult following. XCOM fell into obscurity for a number of years with a few planned sequels failing to make it out of development. 2012 saw the long awaited (and critically acclaimed) release of XCOM: Enemy Unknown, developed by Firaxis Games. Close to a year after release, Firaxis has stuffed nearly the entire PC/Console title into a seriously impressive iOS port.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown places you in the role as the commander of the XCOM forces, tasked with protecting Earth from an alien invasion. You control your troops on the ground doing the dirty work, as well as manage your underground base of operations. To help you manage the XCOM project is science officer Dr. Vahlen, engineering guru Dr. Shen, and your second in command Chief Officer Bradford. Each character offers advice on how to develop advanced weapons, armor, and field tactics.

Globe-hopping alien throw-downs are a large part of the game, but effectively managing your base and budget is critical and will help you bring your troops back home alive. Your budget for the XCOM project comes from the nations of planet Earth, and you have to make sure to keep them safe from alien attacks or they will walk away from the project with your much needed funding.

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When the games begins, you choose the continent where the XCOM base will be located, with each location offering a unique bonus. For instance, a base located in North America will give you access to cheaper aircraft and lower upkeep costs. These continent bonuses help add depth and welcome replayability options. The base is displayed in a clever art style and gives you a glimpse into the inner workings of the XCOM project.

There are many areas in the base, including Research Labs, Engineering, Situation Room, Hanger, and Mission Control. From these areas you’ll guide research into alien technologies, build devastating weapons and aircraft, and deploy troops on missions. You also have access to the Barracks, where you can hire new troops, invest in training bonuses, and view the XCOM troop memorial that displays the names of your fallen comrades. Yes, you will lose troops while defending Earth, because XCOM: Enemy Unknown features (optional) permanent death for those who fall in battle. I like playing Iron Man Mode, which doesn’t allow you re-load your saves to resurrect your troops. The added stress of permadeath makes your decisions and battles feel more meaningful.

In the mission control screen, you access a global network that alerts you of alien threats. You can engage in ground battles with various mission objectives, including rescue missions, diffusing bombs, and good old search and destroy. You’ll also encounter UFOs and do battle in an air combat mini-game. However, the ground combat is the bread and butter of XCOM and where you’ll spend most of your time.

Once you’ve chosen a mission you can select the troops you want to deploy, then customize their equipment load out ad physical features, and upgrade their abilities as they get promoted to higher ranks. Each soldier begins as a lower ranking officer and will be promoted to one the advanced classes. The classes include Support (Medics/Defense), Assault (Damage/Frontline), Heavy (Damage/Squad Buffs), and the Sniper (Damage/Long Range). Each class has a series of special abilities to unlock with promotions. These abilities will turn your weak meat-shield rookies into alien death machines.

The combat is a turn-based affair on gridded maps. Each team takes a turn to complete a round. The maps are wide open and mix indoor and outdoor destructible environments. Finding cover and placing your troops in defensible positions is the key to success. Aliens will try to flank you, destroy your cover, or blow up combustable items such as gas tanks and cars.

To make things more challenging, you have limited visibility due to the “fog of war” and will need to tread lightly. One wrong move and your best solider may find him- or herself surrounded by hostile ETs. The alien army is armed to teeth and features various deadly species that will determine how you engage in each mission. There are the small but deadly Sectiods with telepathic abilities, hulking mutons with heavy plasma rifles, and the absolutely terrifying Chrysalids that can one-shot your troops and turn them into zombies that eventually mutate into another Chrysalid. I’ll offer you a tip: Kill them first and kill them fast.

Compressing a game of this size to run so well on iOS required some careful omissions from the original. The textures and animations are downscaled but are still better looking than most iOS games. The one glaring omission is the armor customization, which takes away some of the fun of personalizing your troops. The game does crash at times when things get hectic, but not frequently enough to be a major concern. There’s a lot of game here for your money, even at the $19.99 price tag. The PC version is still selling around $40 and is worth it even at that price.

  • pholly

    Great game, if any iOS game deserves a 4 it’s this one. I still think it’s overpriced if you have other ways to play it but if you limit yourself to iOS games then you need to buy this now, if you like these types of games.

  • Reignmaker

    I have an iPad 4 so I know my device should be ready for this, but the ballsy specs kind of scare me. I hear it runs hot on all devices.

    • ETC37

      I’m playing it on an iPad2 and have no problems at all, so with a 4 you should have absolutely no problems.

      • Reignmaker

        Thanks for the response. That’s interesting, I heard the iPad 2 app was crashing a lot. Guess it just depends.

        • ETC37

          Never crashed on me once, and my longest “session” was about 90 minutes with X-Com.

          I either have a magical iPad2 or I’m just someone who knows that after downloading a massive game like X-Com, it helps if you reboot your device and make sure you have nothing else running. Also, running a game like this when your battery gets down to like 30% is a bad idea. My game didn’t crash, but it started freaking out when my Ipad got to 25%.

          With an iPad 4, you should be peachy.