On the face of it XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a turn-based game about fending off an alien invasion. It’s about advancing your team of customizable soldiers to the front line, and stealing the remains of alien tech. It’s about micro-managing your base, building facilities and launching satellites above foreign neighbours to keep their panic levels low.
But there’s a caveat. The game features permadeath. Despite levelling up my favoured marines - Max Junior and Harry Potter - and equipping them with the best gear researchable, they were still outflanked by tall thin aliens. And they died. In-game and forever. I even visited their memorial. XCOM is as much about building player memories as it is about shooting grey dudes in a flying saucer.
And now there's this new, iOS-friendly version. The original XCOM: Enemy Unknown was released at the tail-end of 2012 to great fanfare and it’s been ported by 2K China and overseen by Firaxis, the studio who created the original game. On iOS platforms (it’s available as a Universal App so you can buy it once and play it on both your iPhone and iPad with cloud saves linking them up) it sells for £13.99.
A lot of people will jump at that price point. We are used to handheld games that retail for 99p. They tend to be ‘freemium’ price systems with the option to buy in-game currency for £X. Consumers have reacted badly to games like Final Fantasy V (£10.99), a title that is twenty years old with little changed. And this is fair enough: why should we pay full price for a game that is two decades old and that we don’t, physically, own?
But this is something different. XCOM: Enemy Unknown contains the full-console and PC experience (without DLC) for a quarter of the price, and without tagging on freemium content. That’s it. That’s the only metric we should judge it by. It’s like a permanent sale. Why? Because the game functions brilliantly on the iPhone. On the iPad, it’s even better. It makes sense to use touch controls when scrolling and selecting skills. The only way it doesn’t make as much sense is when adjusting the level of terrain or rotating the camera. But in a lot of ways (such as managing your base) the user interface improves on the PC and console versions.
Admittedly, there are some faults: the textures are low-res, the cut-scenes aren’t skippable, the loading times are significantly longer and the character’s mouths don’t open fully during speech. But it’s XCOM. On a phone! I can take those cuts.
I shouldn’t be allowed to play it, really. You see, most of the time I work on the go. I edit documents using Google Drive. I tap away on the tube. I am, largely, locked-in to my iPhone. The game draws battery like a vacuum and draws you in too - making you eager for that one more turn of gameplay. It’s best played plugged in, or at least with a charger to take on the go. So far I’ve spent 14 hours in the game, cruelly defeated by aliens at every turn as I slowly mastered my own defeats. It’s still there, now, as one of the four shortcuts on my home screen. I’m ready to take the plunge in again.