XCOM: Enemy Unknown Plus PS Vita Review

It has truly bugged me to see several reports of a Vita version of one of my favourite games of the last decade, XCOM: Enemy Unknown, go by without any further clues as to how true the rumours were for the past nine months; XCOM is a perfect fit for Sony’s unloved handheld after all. So I was naturally very excited, a little surprised, and a tiny bit suspicious about the sudden stealth release of Enemy Unknown Plus on Vita with no fanfare. 2K hasn’t even promoted it on social media. Everything points to a horrific car crash of a port. So imagine my delight to discover this is not only a fairly decent port, but that it’s more than I could ever of hoped for a Vita version.

For the uninitiated, XCOM EU is a 2012 reboot of the classic 90’s Julian Gollop series of turn-based strategy titles of the (sort of) same name (X-COM rather than XCOM). In these, and the subsequent reboot, you are tasked with controlling the actions of a squad of elite soldiers sent out to take on the threat of alien invasion with a healthy dollop of backup from H.Q. and its gadgets. It’s a delightfully cheesy and melodramatic backdrop for the nervy chess game you’re actually playing.

Your squad is filled out with four regular ‘classes’ in the Assault, Sniper, Medic and Heavy types, but you do get the chance to differentiate what they can do for you thanks to a branching skill tree. The hook of XCOM is that when your soldiers are killed on the battlefield, there is little to no chance of bringing them back, and as a result, you get attached to long-serving soldiers as they rank up and gain you abilities and equipment, but you end up terrified that one lucky shot could end them for good, and to be honest, it probably will. XCOM never leaves you certain of anything like it does about the demise of your squad. A misstep can see your pro group of super soldiers torn to ribbons in the space of just two turns.

Everything balances on that knife edge, even back at base the pressure to please the different nations funding you by bailing them out of trouble when it crops up becomes a heavy burden. You help one country, another will suffer, and panic will rise there. When panic reaches its crescendo, that country leaves the XCOM program, and the war gets that little bit harder to fight. The early months of any XCOM campaign are chaotic and stressful, as potential disasters pile up on your doorstep at an alarming rate. Nothing quite beats the feeling of pulling it off though, living another day because you built that satellite in time, or got your boys and girls home safe and successfully pushed back against the alien menace.That said, you’ll still be incredibly fortunate if they don’t come back severely injured in the process. You always pay in blood in the end, one way or another.

The ‘Plus’ part of XCOM: Enemy Unknown Plus simply means this is EU with all of the huge expansion pack of Enemy Within built into it as well. Enemy Within inserts a new secondary story into the campaign, with new enemy types, plus a bigger selection of maps, customization options and some lovely new toys for your team to try out including cybernetic implants, mech suits and gene therapy. It makes a great game even better, addressing some of the late game issues whilst unfortunately adding a couple of new ones of a lesser consequence. It’s a lot to fit onto the Vita, especially considering Enemy Unknown and Within both wheezed a fair bit on PS3. Remarkably it handles it pretty well. 2K China has handled the porting of what I imagine is the tablet version of the game, and while yes, it does have similar ‘quirks’ to its console sibling, and textures are lowered somewhat, this plays just as beautifully as it did around three years ago. If you adored it then, this is like falling in love all over again, and being on a handheld, it doesn’t suffer from that nagging feeling of inferiority next to the recent PC-only sequel that you’d get with say, a PS4 port (though, y’know, not averse to the idea Firaxis/2K). Being a turn-based game is a blessing for many of XCOM EUP’s minor technical faults as they don’t tend to affect gameplay all that much at all, and as a bonus, this version seems to have avoided the freezing of the PS3 one so far. Be warned though, as warm as I might be towards XCOM’s issues, they are still a pain in the jacksy, just rendered a lot less damaging by being in a truly engrossing strategy title. Takes the edge off.

I am however, a bit disappointed by the failure to make the most of Vita’s touch controls. Nearly everything is assigned to the face buttons, and the only nod to this being a portable touchscreen game is that you can zoom in and out of the map with a pinch of the screen. It’s underwhelming, and the only real issue I have with the way this port has gone. It still works perfectly fine of course, again being in this genre means super-swift control isn’t too much of a concern, but a bit of effort to make this stand out as a portable game would have been nice just the same.

For all the good and the bad about it, it’s great to see a game like XCOM make its way to Vita, even this late in the day when the handheld black sheep is crawling towards its death everywhere but Japan. It’s not going to be a sign of hope for Vita’s future by any means, but it is another really good title to add to the roster, and a fine excuse to revisit both the game and the console once more.



The Final Word

An admirable, if problematic, port of a fine strategy game, XCOM Enemy Unknown Plus gives the PS Vita a welcome, posthumous, shot in the arm.