XCOM: Enemy Unknown for iPad and iPhone review - Acclaimed alien invasion strategy game

So it begins. Until now we've been used to seeing heavily cut-down mobile versions of the big console and PC games eventually stagger slightly awkwardly onto iOS, but this adaption of hit turn-based, alien-hunting strategy game XCOM is very much the real deal. While it might take a bit of a hit on the graphical front, it otherwise includes everything its rapturously-received console/PC predecessor did.

If you're unfamiliar with its heritage, XCOM is a remake of an early 90s PC game called X-COM, which fuses turn-based ground missions with real-time base building, squad recruitment and research of hi-tech ways to combat an escalating alien invasion of Earth. XCOM is a more fluid, high-speed take on the same concept, but retains the dual disciplines of tense, terrifying battles, between your squad of all-too-mortal soldiers and an implacable alien foe, and trying to construct a stronger line of defence and offence between these. 

The dark joy of XCOM is that you will almost certainly see some, if not all, of your most beloved and veteran soldiers die in the line of duty. There's a lot to learn, the aliens steadily grow in number and lethality, and there's no room for recklessness. While the loss of a long-serving unit, upgraded over the course of several dozen traumatic missions, feels like a punch to the gut, it also makes moments in the game memorable.

That virtual death means something - especially because the game allows you to customise the names and appearances of your soldiers. So the guy that just died was more than likely named after your best mate, childhood friend or celeb crush. Conversely, you'll see rookie soldiers coming through and surviving unexpectedly, taking on new importance within your regularly decimated team, and before you know it Ringo Starr or Boris Johnson is somehow your most invaluable team member.

For the most part the game fits iOS well, though butterfingered types will find that they're often accidentally sending their squad of four to six alien hunters to the wrong place. Again, the big surprise is that the entire console game is here, and doesn't feel any the worse for it. In fact, the base management aspect of XCOM even feels better-suited to the swipes and taps of touchscreens than it ever did on a TV or monitor.

The downside to all this is the notoriously high price, plus the 2GB download. Make no mistake, this isn't a game to go into casually - it's a 20+ hour experience, even before you replay it from the start (which you almost certainly will if you dig it), which requires a fairly keen gaming mind and a thick skin for defeat. The cost, much as it's a shock to see a number so large on the App Store, very much reflects that, and if you're a habitual gamer looking for something meatier than the iOS norm, it really doesn't get better than this. 

OUR VERDICT

Sometimes it's hard not to scoff at 'tablets are the consoles of the future' claims, but XCOM's surprising comfort on touchscreen is a strong suggestion that it might well be true after all. The price will take some swallowing, but this tense, slick strategy game is one to keep you busy for weeks, not mere days.

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