Aliens vs Humans: X-Com reborn on your iPad11 Jul 2012 0
There's one game that has been installed on every computer I've ever owned: X-Com. The Julian Gollop classic from 1994 is the reason this blog even exists. Here in the Tactics Cave, the every new PC has X-Com installed on it before anyone is allowed to touch it. New applicants for internships at Pocket Tactics are made to wait outside on the porch and play X-Com until they can beat Cydonia with only laser pistols and harsh language. X-Com is serious business.
The first time I saw the iPad, my immediate thought was that it would be a great machine to play X-Com on. I still think that. Many squad tactical games have appeared on iOS over the years, from the flawed-but-entertaining Call of Cthulhu: The Wasted Land, to solid-but-safe Hunters 2 (which is the one X-Com creator Julian Gollop likes, you may recall). Most of these games get the combat right to varying degrees, but they've all fallen short when it comes to the strategy layer. Without that spinning globe geoscape, research, and squad management, it's just not X-Com.
For the last few days, I've been playing a beta build of Aliens vs Humans: The Onslaught, and my friends it is X-Com on your iPad. I know that's a hell of a thing to say, but I am not playing with your emotions. It's real.
Aliens vs Humans has actually been out for over a year, the product of husband-and-wife dev studio Leisure Rules. The AvH you can get now is a tactical-only X-Com clone with a single-player campaign of pre-designed battles. What's coming out in the next couple of months is essentially AvH 2.0, and it is the whole tactical and strategic shebang: you are in charge of the defense of the Earth from a mysterious alien assault, tasked with everything from administrating the force to orchestrating the battles.
AvH:Onslaught is like a tribute band for X-Com - it hits all of the same notes as the original: recruitable (and re-nameable) troops who learn as they gain experience, cagey aliens who see in the dark better than you do, bases that you build and staff, research that you direct, randomized combat maps - the whole lot. X-Com is still famous for it's unforgivingly lethal battles, and AvH is just as ruthless. I've probably played a dozen missions and I've yet to bring all my guys home alive.
Leisure Rules have made some changes to the formula though: there's no mind control (which made the endgame of X-Com trivially easy) and there's no interceptions - indeed, there's no UFOs. The aliens teleport directly to the surface like a malevolent Star Trek away team, and you fly your team's Skyranger, sorry - Skyhopper transport to meet the threat. There's no doubt that it's streamlined down from X-Com, but it's a fantastic experience in its own right.
The devs have absolutely nailed the incredible tension of the classic X-Com combat experience. That wonderfully queasy feeling - when it's the aliens' turn and all you can do is stare at that black "hidden movement" screen and hope that your squaddies are still on their feet when it's your turn again - that feeling is something that AvH captures perfectly.
Not everyone is going to like AvH. If all you have left of X-Com is some rose-tinted memories of it, you may have forgotten just how slow and methodical the gameplay is. Leisure Rules have done a good job of keeping the maps relatively small and the aliens aggressive to maximize trigger time. The alien designs aren't the most imaginative things I've ever seen - one of your foes looks like a Big Wheel. An evil space Big Wheel, I suppose. As a two-person project, it's certainly not as polished as many of the games on the App Store. But if you love X-Com, you owe it to yourself to give it a shot.
Aliens vs Humans: The Onslaught will be available at the end of the summer as a free update to Alien vs Humans. Stay tuned this week for my interview with the developers. The hot-off-the-presses AvH:Onslaught trailer is after the jump.
Correction: This post originally stated that The Onslaught will be an in-app purchase - that was a misunderstanding on my part. It will be a free update to the existing AvH app. My bad, apologies for the confusion.