Review: XCOM26 Jun 2013 1
Released 13 Nov 2014
There's a lot riding on this shot.
It's night in Mumbai. We're in an army depot. Tanks parked in neat covered-and-aligned rows smoulder like spent fireworks, giving off an eerie orange glow. Captain Javier "Hex" Soto is resting his sniper rifle in the crook of his arm, lining up a standing shot on a monster.
A chryssalid is a half-again as tall as a man and sports a spidery assortment of arms, legs, and fangs -- it's responsible for the unnerving soundtrack of screams provided by the terrified civilians who dart between the columns of burning tanks looking for somewhere to hide.
The chryssalid in question is standing right next to the rookie, a kid from Russia named Gusev whose shaky aim emptied a magazine into thin air when he tried to kill the monster himself. If Soto misses this shot, that chryssalid is going to tear Gusev in half (if he's lucky) and Soto will be the last man standing from the five that I landed in Mumbai ten minutes ago. If Soto misses this shot, he probably won't make it back to the Skyranger alive to bug out. The government of India, already shaken by the reports of alien abductions and terror attacks will almost certainly withdraw from the multinational project that funds my team. And if India follows the other nations who've already withdrawn, I may not have enough money next month to keep pace with the inexorable advance of the alien horde. I will lose, and humanity will lose with me.
Don't miss this shot, Soto.
This is XCOM, the 2012 PC & console re-make of the 1994 Microprose classic. XCOM is the story of an alien invasion and the men and women you lead in an attempt to repel it. Like its forbear, XCOM is a strategy game that gives you a remarkable set of tools, and then gets out of your way to let you tell the story yourself. Unlike its forbear, I'm playing it on my iPad.
2K and Firaxis were entirely up front with us when they announced this port a few months ago. XCOM for iOS was going to be the full-fat console/PC XCOM -- with a few concessions. To run on the more modest iOS hardware, affordances would have to be made, meaning that some of the less crucial content would be cut out.
Gone are the alien autopsy and interrogation videos and the custom colors for armor. The cars found in urban missions don't explode with the same verve that they did on the PC, and the smoke from smoke grenades doesn't billow as much as it used to. These details were wonderfully immersive, but ultimately just window dressing. The important stuff is still there. You are still the XCOM Project's all-powerful administrator, training troops and assigning research priorities. You are still the battlefield commander, making every tactical call in the turn-based battles. The game doesn't include the Second Wave options that were added as a free DLC after the PC/console release last year, unfortunately, but the game's difficulty settings are still brilliantly calibrated: Normal for those who prefer their AI opponents to lose gracefully, Classic for players who enjoy living on the knife edge of failure, and Impossible for utter sadists.
There are fewer unique battlefield levels than there were in the PC version, but only those who replay the game again and again are liable to notice. It's possible to run into the same maps twice in the same playthrough, but because you are constantly evolving your forces to keep pace with the new monsters that the aliens throw at you, you won't have the same tactical challenge repeated. Maybe you'll be fighting sectoids and floaters with slug-throwing rifles the first time you see the graveyard map -- if you see it again later you'll be hunting mutons and cyberdiscs with heavy plasmas and alloy cannons.
For all the good things that XCOM for iOS has borrowed from its predecessor, it's also inherited some of its quirks. Inventory management is still a boondoggle that will have you hunting through your barracks one locker at a time to find the soldier that took the last medikit with them off-duty. The idiosyncratic way that the game spawns bad guys is still there, too: squads of aliens pop out of a terrifying jack-in-the-box when you reveal the tile they're hiding in -- a system that punishes noobs and that experienced players find easy to game.
XCOM works beautifully on iOS. The controls are perfectly set up for a touchscreen, and it's satisfying to discover iOS control metaphors turning up in unexpected places: you can switch between soldiers on the battlefield by swiping their names, or use pinch-to-zoom to explore the subterranean XCOM base in the strategic layer. Every once in a while you run into a hitch that reminds you that you're playing a game originally designed for another platform (pinch-to-zoom has a tiny bit of lag on the tactical screen, and the game's loading times are prodigious), but by and large it's hard to spot the seams in the port.
Like Soto's rifle shot, there's a lot riding on XCOM for iOS. This is the second time that XCOM has been forced into the role of coal mine canary. Last year, industry observers scrutinized the game's launch to see if the gaming public was prepared to pay top-dollar for a AAA turn-based strategy game, a genre that conventional wisdom had consigned to the dustbin of the 1990s along with AOL dial-up CD ROMs and Lucasarts adventures. Now XCOM for iOS is a weathervane for determining if Joe iPhone is ready to spend $20 on a mobile game. I hope he is, because XCOM is worth it.
XCOM for iOS might be burdened with a few irritating telltales of its console origins, but it's a close enough to a native experience that those foibles are worth putting up with. It is one of the deepest and most satisfying video game experiences you can have on a mobile device, and despite the details that have been shaved away in the porting process, it's still capable of generating true drama.
Don't miss this shot, Soto.