Mobile review: XCOM: Enemy Unknown

With XCOM: Enemy Unknown, Firaxis and 2K Games were faced with a challenge greater than an alien invasion: taking a blockbuster AAA game and converting it to an iPad. I loved the idea, but wasn't sure if such a thing could be done. After playing through the iOS version for myself, I can say that the essence of the original is fully intact.


Those that played through last year's Enemy Unknown are familiar with the story. There's a global organization tasked with fighting off alien threats, not just with the best in modern weaponry, but also through a giant bureaucratic organization that specializes in monitoring the aliens from all possible angles. Whether it's taking the fight directly to the alien menace or conducting research on exactly what they're made of, all of it has made its way to the iOS version.

The first thing to note is that there are a few trade-offs in translation. Enemy Unknown's visuals on iOS aren't quite on par with its console and PC big brothers. You'll notice some of the character models, environments, and effects have been scaled down slightly, appearing noticeably lower-res. However, they're also noticeably more advanced than any of the other graphics I've seen on other iOS games. Visually, this version of Enemy Unknown is still a treat.

Enemy Unknown's combat has translated to the iPad smoothly, save for a few rough patches. You'll now arrange your squadron's movement with touch controls, using double-taps or an on-screen button to confirm their positions. Firing weapons and using grenades or rockets similarly employs a touch interface, as you tap your target to aim. It's incredibly easy to use, but it does have some imperfections. Most notably, if your fingers wander while trying to find the confirmation button, you could change your destination spot, accidentally sending a soldier into an open area. I've lost good men and women this way, all because of my clumsy finger.

The other major aspect of Enemy Unknown is the resource management. These are likewise managed with simple touch controls, with an interface that's easy to navigate. Tutorials and cutscenes help initiate the newcomers, while veterans will know all the ins-and-outs of upgrading soldiers, launching satellites, and keeping XCOM member nations happy.

Most importantly, the spirit of the PC and console versions of Enemy Unknown fully translate to the iPad. It still hurts to build up a soldier for four missions, only to carelessly lose him in an alien ambush. Trying to keep panic meters down in neighboring nations still feels frantic. Rescuing civilians is still an exercise in frustration--the good kind of frustration. None of this has been lost in translation and anyone looking for an on-the-go version of Enemy Unknown will find what they're looking for with the iOS version.

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The only other gripe that I have is that the initial load time when booting Enemy Unknown is pretty lengthy. Expect to see that front-end animation a lot, because you won't be able to skip it until the whole game is finished loading. That's probably because the file is so huge, exceeding 3 GB of storage space. If you own a 16 GB iPad, you'll likely find yourself deleting several apps to make space, like I did. Fortunately, I didn't notice any other instances of long loading times during my time with the game.

Still, XCOM: Enemy Unknown is worth the effort if you don't already own it on PC and console. It's a sublime experience and one of the most complex, yet easy-to-play strategy games I've encountered. Firaxis continues its mastery of mobile devices, appropriately hitting its pinnacle with their best game of the last year. [Re-releases do not get a numbered score]

This XCOM: Enemy Unknown review is based on a copy of the game provided by the developer, tested on a 3rd-generation iPad. The game is available on the App Store (Universal) for $19.99.