XCOM: Enemy Within iOS Review: The Standalone Expansion Is Even Better Than The Original

By Alex Riviello , Updated Dec 23, 2014 12:27 PM EST
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XCOM Enemy Unknown landed in 2012, and much like the alien invasion it depicted it took everyone by surprise, reviving the beloved turn-based strategy game and becoming an instant classic in its own right. This wonderful title racked up numerous game of the year awards, an impressive feat when you consider that it was up against popular titles like Mass Effect 3, The Walking Dead and The Witcher 2.

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The expansion pack XCOM: Enemy Within was released a year later and managed to improve upon the experience. For one thing it’s completely standalone and playable by itself- it just added more. A new resource, new genetic modifications for your operatives, and most importantly, the inclusion of the MEC trooper, who is capable of wearing giant mech exoskeletons into combat, which offer up all sorts of new gameplay possibilities.

Then, the insane happened. 2K Games announced that they were releasing XCOM Enemy Unknown on iOS and Android mobile devices as a premium title, and pulled it off, both critically and financially. Now XCOM Enemy Within is here, and it’s yet another must-purchase.

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Who would have ever thought that XCOM would feel most at home on a mobile device? It doesn’t seem possible that the PC and console hit would work on a phone, but it does. It turns out that controlling your army via a touch screen is way more intuitive and fast than using a controller. Once in a while you can get into a hiccup trying to switch elevations and getting someone into a specific location on top of a building, for instance, but for the vast majority of the time it’s quick and easy, and everything feels faster. Instead of moving a cursor around the screen to select places to move and enemies to engage, you’re just tapping on locations to and swiping left and right.

The new resource, Meld, is a pretty ingenious addition. At first it seems a bit annoying to have to grab these from locations on the map before they self-destruct, but then you'll realize that they're rewarding you for being a little reckless. See, in the original game is was quite possible to hang back from the battle, moving everyone up a little at a time and using Overwatch (an action which allows your team to fire at anyone who comes into their firing range) to make sure that you stay safe. Now you have Meld, which is so useful in upgrading your operatives that you'll have to get to it ASAP, forcing you to rush to battle a little faster than perhaps you'd like. It makes for incredibly entertaining battles, every single one.

The MEC troopers are a real highlight too, as there’s nothing like having a giant brute watching your back and drawing enemy fire. As with every other operative they’re customizable and can be outfitted with grenade launchers or used as moving cover.

The rest of the game plays out much the same- you’ll build up a base, research alien technology, and keep an eye on the skies around the world as you try to keep funds coming in from all the countries you can.

About the only negative thing about Enemy Within at all is how much batter powery it uses. This thing will suck your phone dry before you know it- the side effect of pumping out console-quality graphics on a device that can fit in your pocket. You’ll want to keep a charger on hand if you want to play this for a while, which of course you inevitably will.

Sadly, we also have to talk about the price of the game. This costs 13 bucks, a shocker to folks used to paying a few dollars for a game for their phone, or even getting them free. But for the dozens upon dozens of hours of gameplay you’ll wring out of this game the price is well worth it, and it feels a bit silly to even point out how cheap that is compared to other forms of entertainment. It’s great to see 2K bucking the trend of cheap iOS games and prove that there’s a market for people who want larger experiences, and are willing to pay for it.

Even once you’ve made your way through the massive campaign you’ll still find a full-featured multiplayer mode available, which lets you fight asynchronous battles online against friends and random opponents. The clever way you pick your team lets you choose from any type of operatives and loadouts that you wish- even alien combatants!- guarantees that you’ll keep trying new tactics and playing forever.

XCOM: Enemy Within is one of the best turn-based strategy games ever made, and this may inexplicably be the best version. If it’s just as successful as its predecessor we will see more studios seek to release their AAA titles on mobile. It can happen, people. I want to believe.

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XCOM: Enemy Within was reviewed from an iOS code provided by the publisher. It's also available on Google Play and Amazon App stores for Android. It's currently on sale for a mere $6.99 as part of 2K's Holiday sale, so you really have no excuses at all.

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