XCOM: Enemy Unknown (iPad): Review


This review comes from Digitally Downloaded.

review I am really disappointed with XCOM. Not because of the game itself, but the fact that, within a day of it being released on the Apple App store for $20.99 the Internet has filled with comments from people saying words to the effect of “it’s too expensive” and “I’ll wait for it to drop to $0.99.”

This here is, by far, the biggest and most impressive game on the Apple App Store, and is releasing for a full quarter of the price which people had to pay on other platforms, and still people aren’t happy. It’s a game that lasts literally dozens of hours and has a difficulty level to challenge even the most brilliant of tacticians, and still people aren’t happy.

I am tired of the entitlement in the games industry. If you people want good games to play, start paying for them. My honest recommendation is for anyone that wants to see more AAA-games on the iPad, buy this on principle and prove to the game development community that premium games without in-app purchases can earn enough revenue for the developer and publisher to bother releasing it in the first place.

Now, that rant aside, here’s why this game is essential:

XCOM was one of the most pleasant surprises in the games industry when it was released on PC and consoles last year. In a world where conventional wisdom is that gamers are happiest when playing linear, thoughtless games with lots of gore and Hollywood voice acting, and developers and publishers are turning classic franchises into these kinds of games to the horror of the fans of the original (remember the recent Syndicate and Shadowrun games?) 2K Games was brave enough to make a game that the masses wouldn’t like. Here is a game where not only is it possible to lose, but it’s possible to feel very stupid in the process.

XCOM doesn’t really hold your hand. Units die easily, and after a short introduction to all the game, players are left to make a regular stream of difficult decisions. It’s a game broken up into two parts – there’s the mission-base, where players allocate resources, level up units and keep an eye out for opportunities to attack the hostiles in key strategic locations. This part of things plays out a little like a real time strategy/ simulation hybrid, and the decisions made there will have a direct impact on the second part of the game – the on-the-ground tactics combat, which is turn based and has players lead a squad of a handful of soldiers into skirmish-level engagements.

As with all tactics games, finding a good mix of skills and building a team that can support one another to tackle tough enemies is crucial, and because death is permanent in this game and you can rename characters as well as control the skills they develop as they level up, you come to really care about these soldiers, and when they die (and many of them will), it’s disheartening. On the higher difficulty levels managing to keep a soldier alive long enough to hit the elite skill sets is a massive achievement, and that resource becomes so precious thereafter that you don’t really want to use him or her in battle again, for fear of a wayward shot taking them down.

Units can be further customised with equipment that an R & D lab can devise from objects recovered from the battlefield. There’s never enough in terms of resourcing or time to develop everything and so choosing the right projects to protect the soldiers on the battlefield becomes paramount. If there’s any one recurring theme to XCOM it’s that your decisions as the player matter, and that in itself is enough to separate this game from almost anything else that’s been developed in the past generation where players are prescribed their experience in the nice, neat doses that the developers want them to.

The interface is mapped well to the iPad – because this is a slow paced, strategic game (and turn-based to boot) there isn’t really any way in which players can make a mistake and land their soldier in a death zone. Players are asked to select movement or attack actions, and then confirm that that indeed is what they wanted to do – that bit of redundancy did prevent me from making a couple of mistakes, but the point is here that I didn’t make any mistakes in my actions (which is unfortunate, there are times I would have liked to blame something other than myself for a badly thought-out strategy. In the command centre things got a little more weird on me with the occasional random camera movement when the game interpreted something I did as a double-tap when it wasn’t, but after a first 20 minutes of regular irritation I got the hang of massaging the game’s engine through those difficult periods.

Let’s talk about what is missing from the iPad version however. There’s no multiplayer right now, and for a tactics game that’s close to unforgivable unless you’re Fire Emblem. However, we are promised that it is coming, so this review assumes that it’s there and it works. What probably won’t be patched in is variety in the randomly-designed levels for non-story critical missions. This was a bit of a sore point in the PC and console versions of XCOMs, and there’s even less variety in the iPad game, for whatever reason. It’s not even close to enough to ruin the game, but the repetitiveness of the levels does mean that a certain sensation of a grind sets in eventually.

In terms of aesthetics it looks gorgeous on the Retina display of my iPad 3, but there are clearly fewer polygons used than in my PlayStation 3 version of the game. There’s a few framerate issues here and there when cutscenes are rendering using the in-game engine, and the FMVs are clearly compressed and too grainy for their own good. This is despite the game being nearly 2GB to download. But these minor technical issues are not worth dwelling on – the point is that this is an AAA-grade console title that works better on the iPad because it’s now portable.

And that is worth $20. So if you like games that are actually fun to play do yourself a favour and splash out. Even if it means you miss out on a couple of coffees next week.


Image credit: Firaxis Games


  1. It was my game of the year in 2012 by far, it’s a great game. I’m hoping now that they have an iPad version out they might patch the PC version to make it more Windows 8 touchscreen friendly :-)

  2. I loved the X-COM series when they were originally released. I even bought them all again for about $5 on Steam one day, just so I had one of my all-time favourite series playable on current equipment.

    I’m seriously tempted to buy the iPad version of the new game, but a 2GB download! @.@ wow, just wow. I remember the original Enemy Unknown coming on a couple of 1.44MB floppy disks. (Yeah I’m old, so what…)

    • You think the download is bad – Wait until you see how much room it takes up when installed (nearly 4GB). I had to delete a heap of apps to make room, but its worth every kilobyte :)

    • Oh the original X-Com was so good.
      Part 2 was impossible though, still to this day I have not finished that game.

      • TFTD was the best one but can get bloody hard if you’re not prepared for the next wave of aliens.

  3. Is the cover mechanism still broken? in the PC version you can be shot through wall and cover by the AI far too often

  4. The new version of Xcom was good, but it was “dumbed down” into an experience that was much less than it could have been. If this is an example of a AAA title, then I will keep my money with the independents who produce a better game, rather than a pretty one.

    Every section of the game has something that is “missing” or that could have been done better. Now individually that’s not much of an issue, but it adds up.

    A couple of things off the top of my head.
    Satellites – How stupid is it that 1 sat is required for all of Russia, which is the same number of sats needed for the UK? They could have simply had the sats be position-able, like the radar bases of the original. Instead they dumbed it down and now there is just a set number of sats that you must buy to get complete coverage.
    Bases – Speaking of bases, the whole “Antsnest” thing is a complete waste of time. Why even bother, the base layout and choice has almost 0 effect on the game. Considering the original had base construction and layout being very important, because you know your base could be invaded. This was a terrible loss.
    Base management – I thought I was the commander, apparently I am just the figurehead, cause I sure wasn’t making any real decisions in the Strategic side of the game. Hire and fire staff, nah that’s not important anymore. We’ll just build a lab and suddenly we’ll have more scientists like magic, oh and don’t worry about paying for them.
    Economic management, well we have the “gray market” which allows you to sell some things, and just as a bonus we’ll give you the occasional request for extra bonus stuff.
    Tactical combat – Overall pretty good, but why can’t we choose where to shoot? In the original a quite reasonable tactic was to clear a wall using high powered weapons. Now you can only do that if you are lucky enough to score a bad shot, or willing to waste space with a grenade.
    TC Enemy AI – Overall not bad, but why do we have to wait until they are “seen” before they start trying to ambush you etc.
    TC Inventory Fitout – I am the first to admit the original inventory needed work. But now they have done away with any possibility of multiple weapons, or more than 1 medkit/grenade/stungun etc.
    TC Picking up gear – Nope can’t do it. So they did away with ammo in general. One of the exciting parts of the original games was when you had a couple of guys in a serious firefight, they would often start running low on ammo. They could pick up fallen comrades guns, or even alien weapons once the tech was known. Now you can’t. Indeed, now if you don’t stun the alien, the gun is destroyed.
    TC Squad size – wtf the original had a team of like 14 or something. And you needed every one. You tried very hard not to get attached to a team member until you had at least the first upgraded armour in the original. Cause chances are they would die. You needed 14 guys to be able to clear a level sometimes. Ok sure maybe that was too much, but 4 squad members… Insane.
    TC Level Size – These levels are tiny, which is obviously because you have so few squad members, but still.
    TC Level maps – Seriously TC is what this game has turned into, and they have like maybe 3 or 4 maps for each battle type. By the end of the game I knew every single one, and could basically win on that alone. Come on, you reduced the size of the levels, so how about increasing the numbers of them. Or at least vary the start spot for your squad.
    TC Soldier classes – kinda cool, but limiting. Why can’t I choose what class to take? In the original you could fit anyone out as you saw fit. So if you wanted a super accurate heavy weapon that could only fire once, you could do it. Now we are limited based on the “class”.
    Mission Choice – Why the hell can’t I try and get to 2 or more missions? Why can I only pick 1. If there are 3 missions and 2 are close by, if I finish 1 soon enough I should be able to get to the other. Or Better yet, why can’t I have 2 or more squads and send one to each location?
    Mission Choice – Why are we choosing at all? Why aren’t we simply detecting the alien activity as it comes in or getting reports from the site when it happens? Then we get to make actually strategic choices.

    And I couldn’t be bothered with anymore… I am sure there are lots of other things.

    Just to be clear I played this through, and I did enjoy it, but by the end it was starting to pale, and when I went to replay it some months later, I got to the first mission, recognised it immediately, won it without trouble(this was at a harder level) and gave up on it. The original Xcom kept me playing for months and months.
    My angst about this comes from the fact that a lot of the changes were pointless “dumbing down” and I am sick of publishers thinking we are “stupid”.

    So it was a good but flawed game, that didn’t have the longevity it should of.

    • Just for clarity, that rant was based on the PC version. It’s not impossible that some elements have been fixed in the Ipad version. But as most of the issues revolve around core decisions made by the publisher, I doubt it.

      • You know you’re probably right. It’s a flawed masterpiece. But a masterpiece it still is, and one that is now a completly faithful mobile port. Regardless of faults with the game, I think its awesome I can now play such an advanced, technical game in short bursts whenever I’m out an about. I never had the patience or time to sit at my PC and get fully into it last year, but I’m really enjoying having it with me wherever I go.

        Given its a turn-based ‘point & click’ UI, its perfect for touch-screens. It’s certainly worth the asking price. Anything less would be an insult to the developers.

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