XCOM: Enemy Unknown Plus is an isometric turn-based strategy game available for download from the PlayStation Store for the PS Vita. X-COM originated in 1994 when MicroProse released UFO: Enemy Unknown which is also known as X-COM: UFO Defense on Amiga and PC with a PS1 port in 1995 followed by a sequel titled X-COM: Terror from the Deep which released on PC in 1995 before a 3DO and PS1 port was released in 1996. The series moved away from consoles with a concentration PC from 1997 upon the release of X-COM: Apocalypse followed by X-COM: Interceptor in 1998; before MicroProse were bought by Hasbro Interactive with their first X-COM game under the Hasbro banner being X-COM: First Alien Invasion in 1999 and X-COM: Enforcer in 2001. Unfortunately, two X-COM games including X-COM: Genesis and X-COM: Alliance was consecutively cancelled following a turbulent time that saw multiple MicroProse development studios shut down. A new X-COM game would not see the light of day until 2K Games published XCOM: Enemy Unknown in 2012 for home consoles, computers and mobile devices with development duties handled by Firaxis Games who were founded in 1996 by former members of MicroProse including Sid Meier, Jeff Briggs and Brian Reynolds. A spin-off titled The Bureau: XCOM Declassified would release in 2013 as a collaboration between Irrational Games, 2K Australia and 2K Marin, while Firaxis Games released an expansion for XCOM: Enemy Unknown titled XCOM: Enemy Within in 2013 before releasing a sequel called XCOM 2 for PC, Mac and Linux in 2016. The biggest questions heading into the Vita release of XCOM: Enemy Unknown Plus is if it can retain not only the high standards of quality set by its PS3 counterparts, but to continue the historic legacy of the entire X-COM series onto a new platform?
The story is told through a series of well scripted and excellently rendered cutscenes as governments from countries across Earth have to unite to fight against an alien invasion which is so large in scale that it is globally jeopardising the human race; resulting in the formation of a secret paramilitary group named XCOM in which you have the task of creating and managing the base, planning missions and researching any of the alien technology found during those missions in order to improve the chance of survival for the human race.
The optional tutorial is an essential place to start as it teaches players how to move, find cover, flank enemies, utilise strategy, fire weapons and engage in combat against enemies for the first time which are all tactical skills and knowledge required to make any real form of progression in the campaign.
Following the tutorial, players will have the ability to identify their base location with two to initially choose from and a further three to unlock, although players will have to choose carefully as each continent provides a unique bonus such as North America having a 50% cost reduction in purchasing, building and maintaining all aircraft and aircraft weapons and Europe provides a 50% cost reduction in building and maintaining all laboratories and workshops. The unlockable locations have their own rewards such as the Asia location sees that every project in the foundry and officer training school cost 50% less; South America provides instant completion of all autopsies and interrogations; and Africa affords an increase of 30% in monthly XCOM funding.
XCOM headquarters acts as a HUB to all of the resources at your disposal such as a research lab to investigate and study alien weaponry before sending their findings over to the engineering department to replicate the weaponry and create medical items, while visiting the barracks will allow you to view the soldiers within your team as well as viewing a memorial to soldiers who have fallen during the invasion, hire rookie soldiers and award medals to soldiers. As large as those areas are there is so much more to explore such as the hangar which allows for aircraft components and weaponry to be upgraded and transportation between nations, alongside a situation room in which objectives can be viewed, the panic levels can be assessed for countries around the planet, launching satellites to monitor UFO activity, current intel on covert operations, view monthly XCOM finances, selling recovered alien artifacts to nations within the council via the gray market and view pending council requests.
The mission briefings are also incredibly important as there will be multiple abductions taking place simultaneously in different countries, although you will only be able to choose a single country on each occasion to save from the alien invasion with the country you decide to save providing rewards to your cause such as scientists to join your research laboratory or donating money to fund research and weaponry, while the country you leave behind increases their panic in the given situation.
The XCOM: Enemy Within expansion is bundled into the Vita version with a lot of content in itself that it must be asked if it is technically a full game rather than an expansion, so much so that it actually won the Best Strategy/Simulation Game of the Year Award at the 2014 D.I.C.E. Awards. Enemy Within includes a new character class, weapons, abilities, upgrades, two new enemies as well as new resources, maps and much more besides, although rather than having to complete the Enemy Unknown content before unlocking the additions of Enemy Within; it is instead appropriately interspersed around the Enemy Unknown content, therefore immediately providing the best of both worlds.
Combat is turn-based with your squad of soldiers always having the first opportunity to move with each soldier having the chance to move twice providing an ample amount of turns in order for every soldier to be strategically positioned.
Elite military soldiers prove to be worthy ally characters in the fight to save innocent lives from the alien invasion with ally characters brought to life through excellent character design throughout such character classes as support, heavy, sniper, assault and more besides that accurately reflect their preferred approach to the task at hand. Pre-mission character customisation allows players to select abilities based upon the abilities learned by each soldier during progressive training as they ascend the ranks through participating in more missions such as a heavy being able to fire a rocket, a sniper being 30% more likely to inflict a headshot, support being able to throw a smoke grenade, assault being able to run and gun and much more besides, while there is a wide choice of weaponry from a primary weapon such as an assault rifle, shotgun, LMG, sniper rifle, rocket launcher and more besides, accompanied by a secondary weapon which is usually a pistol as well as armour to equip. There is even full character customisation including first name, last name and nickname as well as a selection of voices, races, heads, skin colours, hair styles or helmets, hair colours, facial hair, armour decoration and armour tint.
The enemy design is excellent as all the enemies look as intimidating as you would anticipate from a hostile invasion with aliens having their own range of species and abilities such as Sectoids and Sectoid Commanders are a form of infantry that are capable of mind manipulation of humans and can even merge minds with each other to increase their health when low on health; strangely human-looking aliens called Thin Men capable of spitting a cloud of poison from long range; flying cyborgs referred to as Floaters who are powered by twin jetpacks and have the ability to take off into the sky and land right in behind your squad; and many more scary enemy types which will be progressively encountered throughout the game. Enemy A.I. is impressively intelligent enough to utilise their surroundings to their advantage by taking cover and flanking your team, while different species of aliens hunt in varying formations and fire their weaponry in an alternative manner such as short bursts or rapid fire.
The environment design is varied as there are a variety of combat scenarios which occur in streets, buildings and structures which are littered with many forms of debris and objects for ally characters and enemies to take cover behind and utilise in an attempt for both sides to flank each other, therefore the environments can be used strategically to present the best opportunity of gaining the upper hand in battle.
For a game with as many gameplay elements as XCOM; an exceptional job has been done mapping everything comfortably to the Vita with the Battlescape control scheme consisting of pressing X to perform actions such as attacking or confirming a selected movement; pressing triangle to perform overwatch; pressing O to cancel an action; pressing square to target unit; pressing L or R to cycle through units; pressing left or right on the d-pad to rotate the camera to the left or right respectively or navigating the combat menu; pressing up or down on the d-pad to change elevation; changing the direction of the left analogue stick to move the cursor when selecting which area for a soldier to move to or navigating the combat menu; changing the direction of the right analogue stick to pan the camera around the surrounding environments; pressing select to end turn; and pressing start to display the menu. The touch screen is appropriately utilised to pan the camera around the surrounding environments by swiping across the touch screen in any given direction, pinching the touch screen outwards to zoom in, pinching the touch screen inwards to zoom out, tapping the bottom left area of the touch screen for more information on the chosen character’s statistics and abilities and tapping the bottom right area of the touch screen to choose an alternative weapon from the soldier’s available loadout.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown Plus on Vita makes the most of the Vita’s superior RAM in comparison to the PS3 as screen tearing and pop-in of texture layering that were present in the PS3 version are now absent from the Vita release; resulting in the Vita producing a quality that is actually looking and technically performing better than the home console version which is well complimented by great character animations and pretty good environments during gameplay as well as excellent story driven cutscenes.
The presentation of the game is solid with a great user interface across various menus such as the main menu, difficulty menu, advanced options menus, options menu and gameplay menus such as the XCOM Database with support for navigation via the left analogue stick, directional pad and face buttons, although it does not include support for navigation via the right analogue stick, touch screen and rear touch pad. The background of the main menu immediately sets the tone with a car door open, providing a glimpse of a limp hand as a phone lays on the street, the nearby streets are otherwise empty other than for an alien which scurries along the ground, although multiple short flashes light up the night sky as quick successive loud explosions are heard which eludes to one or more battles simultaneously taking place in the distance.
Excellent voice-overs help to bring a variety of characters to life such as David Hoffman voicing Central Officer Bradford having previously voiced Johnny Powell in The Darkness II, Matthew Yang King voicing one of seven male soldiers having also voiced Justin Ayo and Male Raiders in Fallout 4, Vic Chao who voices another of the seven male soldiers having also voiced Kenshi and Goro in Mortal Kombat X, Tara Platt voicing one of the five female soldiers having voiced Vert and Green Heart in the Hyperdimension series, Moira Quirk voicing Dr. Vahlen having voiced Mercedes and Selene in Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen and many more talented voice-over artists throughout the cast of characters. Sound effects include afterburner thrusters on aircrafts, firing and throwing weaponry, explosions, aliens communicating with each other, aliens screaming or reacting when they are fired upon and ally characters running for cover, while climactic music provides a tense atmosphere during battle and important scenes.
The trophy list includes 48 trophies with 34 bronze trophies, 11 silver trophies, 2 gold trophies and 1 platinum trophy. Easier trophies include the And So It Begins bronze trophy for completing the tutorial mission and the …And Practice bronze trophy for building a workshop. The hardest trophies have to be the Our Finest Hour gold trophy for completing the game on the impossible difficulty level and the No Looking Back gold trophy for completing the game in Ironman mode on the classic or impossible difficulty level. It is estimated that depending upon skill and a good trophy guide to provide some helpful tips that it would take over 80 hours to platinum the trophy list.
There are four difficulty levels including easy, normal, classic and impossible with the major differences between each step up in difficulty including your soldiers starting with less health combined with enemies having more HP and more aggressive attacks which leaves your soldiers far more susceptible to enemy attacks, while you will also have to face further problems such as starting with less money to finance laboratories and essential items as well as panic spreading more rapidly. Therefore, it is effectively tailoring the gameplay based upon experience of the series and genre ranging from easy for newcomers to tactical games through to classic and impossible both providing a proper challenge for veteran XCOM players. Ironman Mode takes everything a step further by automatically updating a single save which makes the consequences of your decisions permanent as you progress through the game instead of providing the opportunity of restarting the previous save point to change a specific decision that did not work out as planned. The difficulty customisation extends to a range of advanced options including tutorials and second wave options such as Damage Roulette providing the change of weapons having a much wider range of damage, New Economy which sees the funding offered by council members become randomised or Aiming Angles providing units with an aim bonus as they progressively close in on flanking an enemy.
The Vita version rather disappointingly has no multiplayer which is quite surprising for a turn-based game as a pass the Vita multiplayer component would have sufficed with the ability to play co-operatively on the same team or competitively as the first player controlling the soldiers and the second player playing as the aliens, while ad-hoc for two locally situated Vita consoles would have been ideal and there quite arguably should have been online multiplayer given that the PS3 release contains online multiplayer features. There are no online leaderboards, although they could have covered how many of each type of alien have been killed and how many soldiers have survived as well as the number of mission objectives completed including the figures from those that have been replayed.
Despite the disappointment of no multiplayer gameplay; XCOM: Enemy Unknown Plus still provides a huge amount of replayability between the vast content in Enemy Unknown which is well complimented by 4 difficulty levels, Ironman Mode and customisable difficulty settings as well as the inclusion of the Enemy Within expansion which provides a plethora of content beyond the original game that will collectively suit play in short bursts during journeys, but also long play sessions for hours and has more than enough content and choices to have players returning for multiple playthroughs.
Overall, X-COM has come a long way since early outings on the Amiga in which players could take their turn, drink a cup of tea and still be waiting for the A.I. to take a turn, whereas the Vita genuinely represents a true well paced turn-based X-COM experience in the palm of your hand that deserves to have a place in any Vita games collection as it is certainly one of the very best portable strategy and turn-based games on any platform.
Developer: Firaxis Games
Publisher: 2K Games
Release Date: March 22, 2016
Platform: PS Vita
ESRB Rating: M – Mature
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