XCOM: Enemy Unknown Plus Review

Around a month ago I wrote an article explaining why RPG fans should care about and give the XCOM series a try. That article was timed to coincide with the release of XCOM 2, which we also reviewed - but it's found a renewed relevance this week with the surprise launch of XCOM: Enemy Unknown Plus for the PlayStation Vita, a newly and stealthily developed and released port of 2012's XCOM: Enemy Unknown.

XCOM is a series with history stretching back to the 90s, but newcomers to the series need not worry about being versed in the ins-and-outs of the original games. Enemy Unknown was a full series reboot, and essentially takes the core combat loop and spirit behind the original classic and recreates it with more modern design trappings. At its core XCOM is a turn-based strategy game, and what makes it more resemble an RPG is how every single action in the game is governed by dungeons-and-dragons style dice rolls. In practice XCOM's combat isn't too different to the likes of Final Fantasy Tactics or Disgaea, and that's why we cover it here on RPG Site and encourage our readers to give it a shot.

Enemy Unknown is the tale of Earth under attack - but rather than a full-scale invasion force the aliens are performing surgical strikes that gradually weaken the resolve of the planet's leaders. XCOM is an emergency organization with a huge underground base that's activated in an attempt to stop the rise of the alien menace, and your job broadly speaking is to drop into impacted zones to take out aliens, shoot down UFOs and generally try to prepare humanity for the worst.

Missions play out in grid-based, turn-based combat where your small squad of soldiers faces off against numerous enemy threats. You're commanding soldiers to move about to take cover or get to the high ground and so on, and each soldier fills a class role - a soldier, a support, a sniper, a heavy and so on.

The game hasn't changed at all, but the assets have been shrunk to fit the Vita.

Between missions you're sent back to the XCOM underground base, represented in an anthill-style side-on cross section, and it's there you can also do some solid RPG-style menu prep. That includes upgrading and training soldiers via choosing perks and skills for them as they level up, plus performing research to unlock new skills and new equipment in the form of armor, weapons and supporting technology.

Customizing your soldiers is key not only to victory, but to getting the most out of XCOM in general. An important part of managing the XCOM base and forces is dealing with limited resources; sometimes you may have to make the difficult call to let an alien abduction take place in order to safeguard your long-term viability, but doing so may mean less resources for you down the line.

On top of that there's Fire Emblem-style permanent death that can't be removed - If soldiers die, they're gone forever, taking with them all their experience. XCOM has a solid story of its own, but the real excitement comes in the stories of your own you build from your close scrapes and not-so-lucky mission outcomes.

Enemy Unknown Plus is essentially a complete port of the iOS version of Enemy Unknown to the Vita, and as a result that includes all of the content added after Enemy Unknown was released including post-launch patches to add additional features, some paid DLC packs, and the full-on expansion pack 'Enemy Within' that launched much later. That's what the 'Plus' is - this is Enemy Unknown plus everything else. This is all very welcome, as Enemy Within included some great new powers and classes to play with, and in terms of breadth of content that makes this game a winner - there's a hell of a lot here.

The controls are based off the previous console port and work brilliantly.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown has since been bested by XCOM 2, but it's still one of the best games of its kind around. As a result this review isn't really very much about the quality of the game - it's excellent to begin with - but more about the quality of the port.

That's where things start to get a little rockier for this Vita take on the title, but rocky is as far as it goes - elements of this port job from 2K China are undoubtedly rough, but it's also fairly impressive how well the majority of the XCOM experience has squeezed into this machine.

What's here is based off the iOS version of the game rather than the PC original, so what you get as a result are heftily reduced quality textures across the board and simplified character models. That's been married with what are more or less the controls from the console port from back in 2012 - and those have always worked quite well. 

In what I think is a nice touch the camera rotation controls have been left on the D-Pad alongside character elevation controls, freeing up the shoulder buttons which one might expect to be used for camera rotation in a game like this for the far more important and frequently used function of switching between the soldiers you have on the battlefield.

Actual camera movement is dropped on the right stick, while frequently-used functions such as attack and overwatch are tagged to specific buttons meaning the regular move-then-overwatch combo is easy to do from memory without looking down at a menu. Strangely the Vita's touch screen and rear touch pad are barely used at all, the former merely reserved for zooming in and out of the battlefield.

Combat is still based on sometimes painfully cruel algorithmic roll-based fundamentals.

The game is as excellent as ever and the controls don't really obscure that fact (though keyboard and mouse remains the optimum for this kind of experience) but there's definitely some dodgy performance going on, especially when the game is doing the CPU-intensive task of crunching the numbers to decide what a particular move is going to do or how an enemy is going to move. 

Performance generally can get a bit jittery when there's a lot going on, though the saving grace for Enemy Unknown Plus is that this remains a turn-based game - the spikes in poor performance aren't as disruptive when the game doesn't require twitch reactions.

When you consider just how much game has been squeezed into this game on top of that, it becomes easier to give it at least something of a pass for its performance issues. The one performance problem I'd flag as particularly problematic is loading - the load times can be absolutely immense, all things considered, with a test load I did from the XCOM base into a mission taking just over 40 seconds, which is way too long for just about any game.

XCOM Enemy Unknown Plus is rife with little problems that come as a result of porting such a large and CPU-heavy PC game to a pocket system like the Vita, but even in the same breath as acknowledging that it's hard to say that if you've no other way to play XCOM it isn't worth it: the game is that good. This definitely comes recommended behind the PC and console versions of this classic game and has a lower score as a result, but if the Vita is your main or preferred way of experiencing games, this port is still easy to recommend.