‘XCOM: Enemy Unknown’ Review (iPad)

For the last several years the gulf between mobile and “real” games has been rapidly closing. Originally, players seeking full fledged experiences on their phones and tablets had to settle for bite sized, simple games. These mobile games aren’t bad in that regard — in fact some of them are downright fun — but they lacked the robust mechanics and scope from larger, big budget games. Enter the iPad; a powerful tablet that can finally deliver these larger titles without compromising on the gameplay. I’ve been amazed with what kind of games are now available since the mobile devices’ launch.

Previously, I got a few moments with 2K China’s iOS version of “XCOM: EU,” and generally speaking I enjoyed it. The big worry with translating AAA titles to tablet is that too much will be cut or or it just won’t work. With “XCOM: Enemy Unknown” for iPad, the devs were able to shrink the full experience onto the small screen.

If you haven’t played or don’t know much about “XCOM” the first thing you have to learn is the virtue of letting go. One of the charming — and sometimes frustrating — part of “XCOM” is it’s ability to create drama that streams seamlessly during combat. Yes, the fate of the world is in your hands and there is a basic plot involving the aliens conquering Earth; but at its heart this game is all about the lives of your soldiers on the battlefield. As the Commander of the XCOM program

This isn’t a game for the impatient, reckless commander. You’ll only win by taking a slow paced, well thought out strategies. Knowing where to move and what to do comes with time and newcomers will suffer a few set backs at first.”XCOM” is not fast paced, in fact, it’s almost excruciatingly slow at times — especially when given a virtual no-win situation between life and death. Many of the sorties will test your resolve as you command some of your loyal agents into certain death. But each loss is a painful step toward progress and ultimate victory.

Outside combat, you’ll have to manage the XCOM HQ. Essentially, you’re given funds each month spend on equipment upgrades and to expand your base. Funds are determined by the panic level of the 16 countries that have committed resources to the project. Sometimes you’ll have to make a choice between helping one country at the expense of another’s safety. This raises their panic and if it gets too high, they’ll bail out of XCOM — leaving you with less money.  You’ll need to balance your reaction and judge what you’re willing to do to succeed. This becomes increasingly nerve-wracking towards the end game as the alien invasion really ramps up. A good player will have a balanced approach to world wide coverage while maintaining a few very strong alliances.

The major change in gameplay comes from the iPad’s input method as you’ll primarily use simple drag and tap motions to position your squad. The upside is that XCOM doesn’t have split second action that requires deft hands. Instead, the classic turn-based strategy remains the same as its big brother on PC and consoles. Thankfully, this means that you have plenty of time to set up attacks and plan out your moves. For the most part, the iPad version handles pretty well but occasionally there will be some trail and error as you attempt to tap a specific point. Having an optional grid overlay would have an excellent way to help with accuracy; fortunately, you can drag a line from the your soldier and a temporary grid pops up along with other visual indicators for appropriate cover. You can also use a few gestures to zoom in and out and position the camera for the best view but I found that the virtual buttons provided worked better. The controls aren’t a deal breaker in anyway but it gets frustrating when the iPad doesn’t seem to want to obey.

Graphically, 2K China does an admirable job porting the game, however it lacks in a few departments. A couple of  things I noticed were screen flickering and stuttered animations. During an action heavy moment, the character animations dropped a few frames. The overall look still retains the cartoony-ish art design but when you see a muddy texture it doesn’t look as bad. Still the cutscenes are smooth and when the FPS decides to behave “XCOM” looks pretty great. It doesn’t compare to its bigger siblings but having been compressed to fit on mobile it still holds up well enough.

2K China admirably shoves every intense, nail biting moments of “XCOM: EU” on the iPad while only suffering a slight hit in the graphics department. Though there are few problems with the touch controls this is largely mitigated in part by the turn-based combat. All the thrills of strategy and guiding your squad to victory is in tact and frankly this will be one of the most gut-wrenching gaming experiences you’ll have. If you haven’t had the opportunity to play our top pick of 2012, then this is best time to jump in.

“XCOM: Enemy Unknown” — Score 4 out of 5

“XCOM: Enemy Unknown” is available now on iPad for $19.99. Review code provided by 2K.

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