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XCOM: Enemy Unknown comes to iOS with minimal baggage, maximum fun

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This is not a review of XCOM: Enemy Unknown. If you’d like to know how Firaxis Games’ 2012 turn-based strategy game shapes out, check out Anthony’s glowing assessment from last fall. Today we’re looking at 2K China’s port of XCOM: Enemy Unknown, which was developed with assistance from Firaxis. It’s the same game, minus a few small bits and pieces that we’ll get to shortly. Only now you can spend $20 to play it on an iOS touchscreen.

The question is: should you?

2KG_XCOMEUIOS_REVIEW_04Let’s start with what’s missing. The most notable thing missing is multiplayer. There are plans to bring the mode out as a downloadable add-on, as a 2K rep told us at the 2013 Game Developer’s Conference, but it’s not available now. You also lose a few cutscenes, notably the autopsy and interrogation sequences. It’s a space-saving measure for the hefty, 3.2GB download, as is 2K China’s reduction in the number of map variants. There’s still enough in the game that you shouldn’t see any repeats, and if this is your first look at XCOM you won’t notice the gaps. 

That’s all that’s missing. With the exception of these elements, the Enemy Unknown that you know and love from last year (or heard justifiably great things about) is intact and rebuilt for touchscreen play on your iOS device. The controls are sensible, and redundant in a lot of places. You’ll typically spy virtual buttons at the fringes of the screen to complement the assortment of intuitive swipe and tap commands.

Moving your view around on the map works like any other touchscreen map app. Swipe in a direction to shift the camera, pinch/stretch your fingers to zoom. Twisting your fingers around in clockwise/counter-clockwise directions rotates the perspective in 90-degree increments. It’s all very smooth and sensible.

2KG_XCOMEUIOS_REVIEW_02The intuitive controls extend to squad management and combat as well. You can swipe across names in the bottom left corner of the screen, or simply tap the desired unit to take command. Dragging out from a selected unit brings up the movement reticle, with all of the same iconography from the 2012 release letting you know where the move and dash limits are.

An ability bar in the bottom center of the screen offers quick access to your various combat actions. Everything, from movement to attacks to special skills, requires a confirmation tap, so there’s little chance of issuing an accidental order. It’s a nice touch, and a welcome one, especially if you’re playing on a cramped iPhone screen.

For all that works in this iOS port of XCOM: Enemy Unknown, the execution isn’t perfect. Load times in particular are a major sticking point. Expect a wait of more than a minute from the moment that you tap the app icon on your home screen to the game’s main menu. You watch the same intro sequence every time, and while you can skip it if the game finishes loading in the background, you’ll generally end up watching a good chunk of it. Then it’s 30 seconds or more to load up a saved game.

2KG_XCOMEUIOS_REVIEW_01Game performance is good-not-great, with occasional stutters and hiccups interrupting the otherwise smooth play. Visually, it looks better than you’d probably expect for a port of a console/PC game. Sure, nitpickers will spot and call attention to lower res textures. Nitpickers are jerks though. Don’t trust them.

It’s worth noting that these performance tests were conducted on an iPhone 4S and a third-gen iPad. The newer hardware likely offers improved load times and better overall performance.

2K China did a bang-up job of miniaturizing the big screen XCOM play from 2012 into a pint-sized port that boast just about every feature you’d want to see carried over. The absence of multiplayer is a bummer, but the mode would likely benefit from a re-tool for its iOS release and that would have held the port back even longer. The core game is completely intact and it’s just as excellent as it was last year.