XCOM: Enemy Unknown pushes iOS gaming to the $20 frontier

Top-end design and a deep game set out to challenge a deep and cheap tablet gaming landscape. A hands-on look at XCOM's leap to the iPad.

Scott Stein

Scott Stein

Editor at Large

I started with CNET reviewing laptops in 2009. Now I explore wearable tech, VR/AR, tablets, gaming and future/emerging trends in our changing world. Other obsessions include magic, immersive theater, puzzles, board games, cooking, improv and the New York Jets.

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4 min read
XCOM on the Retina iPad looks pretty. Screenshot by Scott Stein/CNET

What does it take for an iOS game to feel like it’s worth $20?

Games have already tried. Square Enix has hit this mark, or close to it, several times for Final Fantasy games. Few others dare approach it. Even $10 games are few and far between; this is the age of the freemium app, the a-la-carte entertainment experience.

2K Games made a bold move porting XCOM: Enemy Unknown, a game of the year candidate on PCs and consoles last year, to iOS. Even bolder is the game’s asking price, a mere $10 less than what XCOM’s selling for on other platforms.

Is it worth it? As a polished on-the-go strategy experience, the answer can be yes. But the world of turn-based strategy is a well-visited one on the iPad, and many entertaining alternatives are out there for less.

I won’t be discussing XCOM as a port; I’m looking at it up against those alternatives.

The iOS version of XCOM costs as much as a discounted PC game. It’s also the same size as one -- it’s a whopping 3.2GB download, taking ages to install and occupying a major chunk of your iPad/iPhone/iPod file storage. PS Vita games have been this size, but it’s the only iOS app I’ve seen crack 3GB.

Screenshot by Scott Stein/CNET

But, you get lots of flair: cinematics, tutorials, and a game that operates on two levels, global strategizing, and squad-based tactical missions on various maps around the world.

Touch implementation on XCOM works pretty perfectly; squads move around maps and set themselves up for battle with a tap of a finger, like pieces on a game board. Sometimes it feels like the iOS port of Bastion in its overhead view, but pinching and zooming or rotating the maps is easy to do. Menus and other settings are easy-access without dominating the display. The game, a high-tension cat-and-mouse series of missions against hostile invading aliens, feels fun but not overwhelmingly original. The appeal here is in the gameplay, a mix of console-style gaming and Civilization-influenced planning.

Screenshot by Scott Stein/CNET

Will iOS gamers appreciate the depth of XCOM, or even need it? To use a real-estate term, the app landscape is a buyer’s market. There are too many high-quality games out there, many of them selling for a song. People who just want a good turn-based strategy game on iOS have other options, and less expensive ones at that: Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions, Civilization: Revolution, and Sid Meier’s Ace Patrol. But then again, they’re not XCOM.

XCOM earns its price for players who care deeply enough about the game’s unique design. But, that battle against cheaper apps is a battle iOS games are going to have to face.

Then again, the tide might turn fast. Games like Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic are already showing how incredibly rich iOS games can be, and iOS 7 allowing third-party game controllers might evolve iOS gaming even further.

XCOM on the iPad Mini. Screenshot by Scott Stein/CNET

XCOM can play on the iPad 2, iPad Mini, third- and fourth-gen iPads, iPhone 4S, iPhone 5, and fifth-gen iPod Touch; in other words, A5 processors and higher. I played on the Mini and fourth-gen Retina Display iPad. It’s playable on both, but with a solid edge to the Retina version. The iPad Mini’s gaming frame rates got choppy (although the smaller screen never felt cramped); the fourth-gen Retina iPad’s graphics were at the level you’d expect: smooth and slick, with extra effects and polish. I gave it a brief go on the iPhone 5; the display has a more cramped layout, but graphics performance is excellent.

XCOM on the iPhone 5. Screenshot by Scott Stein/CNET

The version of XCOM I played, and that will be available at first, is single-player only. A future update will unlock multiplayer modes, but right now that cuts a little into the $20 value perception. The single-player mode is deep, though, and unfolds with all the cinematics and style befitting a PC game. There's plenty of replayability because of the game’s clever use of branching decisions and tactical compromise. It’s much like playing Civilization -- but unlike the iPad’s older port of Civilization Revolution, a game strong on design but missing an extra layer of PC finesse, XCOM: Enemy Unknown is as rich-looking as any PlayStation Vita or midlevel Xbox 360/PS3 game.

There’s even iCloud game saving for cloud-based and multidevice cross-platform play. The 1.0 game build I used, however, occasionally suffered in-game quits and missing iCloud saves across different devices. That may resolve itself over time, but bears watching. After all, the reliability of mobile gaming as a platform will be what makes hard-core gamers choose it over PC and console gaming beyond convenience and price.

Bottom line? XCOM is really good news for the future of mobile gaming. But I bet a lot of people are going to wait for a sale.

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