‘Two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying’ – Arthur C. Clarke
The opening quote that XCOM Enemy Unknown Plus presents the player with when first starting a new game is a chilling and fitting one indeed, because if there is one thing that the XCOM series encapsulates perfectly it is terror.
I can probably count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I felt truly in power or in control of the situation in XCOM, both with my time spent on the original PS3 version and now on the port bought to the Vita with all the DLC and extra content included.
You see the whole emphasis of the game is that you are humanities first and last line of defense against an invading alien menace. You are out gunned, out numbered, underfunded and your backs are constantly against the wall. But it is this feeling of inevitable failure, the constant threat that one wrong move, one wrong decision could turn the tide of the war against you in an instant that makes XCOM one of the most rewarding and engaging experiences of the last generation.
Veterans of the turn based strategy genre will feel right at home in Enemy Unknown Plus. The game is a refined version of the many tropes and gameplay styles we have seen before in the likes of Fire Emblem and Final Fantasy Tactics. Your squad exchanges turns with the enemy, on what is essentially a grid based map, as you strategically and meticulously plan your approach to the battle. You will be using cover to your advantage constantly as it takes very little for one of your hardened marines to be turned into a red sticky mess.
The threat of permanently losing squad members is ever present and made all the more real and emotionally stressful by the fact that soldiers are fully customizable, down to their race, name and appearance. Want to fly head long into a fight surrounded by your friends and family? Well you can, but be prepared to shed a tear or two when Uncle Derek, your only medic, is crushed beneath the mighty fist of a Berserker, leaving you not only without the ability to heal, but also without the comfort a familiar face offers in the desolate heart of battle.
As mentioned XCOM Enemy Unknown Plus comes with all the DLC and added content that can be found in the Enemy Within expansion. This additional content is implemented in a rather ingenious way; rather than having to spend hours and hours playing through all the vanilla content before you can take advantage of what the DLC has to offer, it is in fact subtly woven in and out of the existing campaign.
The DLC includes not only extra missions but also many new strategies and ways to deal with the alien threat. Soldiers can now be upgraded into mighty MEC Troopers through aggressive surgery. Don’t fancy that approach? Then maybe you’d prefer to tinker with the gene therapy route. Meddling with soldiers’ genes will grant almost superhuman traits such as the power to leap incredible distances or telepathically sense an alien’s presence before it gets the drop on you. However in true XCOM form, even with all these new options at your disposal, the creatures you face will still feel one step ahead of you as new, more powerful xenomorphs such as the stealthy Seeker and intimidating Mechtoid step into the ring to make your life a misery.
XCOM vets will also be glad to hear that Ironman mode has made the transition intact. For the uninitiated among you this is XCOM in its purest form; the game in its hardest settings, constantly saving so you can never load an old save state. This makes every decision permanent and every death equally so. I’m not going to lie, I have never made it more than a couple of hours in Ironman mode before being completely annihilated, but the challenge it offers is some of the most ridiculous fun I’ve had with the game.
However XCOM falls just short of being a flawless conversion. Unfortunately some concessions have had to be made to squeeze this game onto a handheld. Even on consoles Enemy Unknown was never the most beautiful belle at the ball, and was notoriously plagued with choppy frame rate issues, screen tearing and copious amounts of pop in (be it textures or the environments themselves). Time it seems is a cruel mistress and the years that it has taken to bring this game to the Vita have obviously not been spent tightening these bolts. Which might go some way to explain why it suddenly appeared on the Vita store with very little fanfare. Marines and aliens are sometimes reminiscent of Harryhausen Claymation, especially when there is a lot of action happening at once.
The load times can also feel slightly egregious, sometimes reaching pre-patch Bloodborne levels of length. Although once you are finally locked and loaded into a mission you won’t be interrupted with any loading screens for the duration of the level.
The silver lining to all this is the fact that the game never actually crashed on me or froze completely. Thankfully these issues are not deal breakers due to the fact that this is a turn based game; timing or twitch based shooting are not required and as such you won’t ever face defeat due to the games engine stumbling here and there. Although occasional slowdown can take you out of the immersion the game offers, it shouldn’t ruin your overall experience.
XCOM Enemy Unknown Plus is undoubtedly fantastic value for money, and although cost shouldn’t influence your purchase you can’t argue that for £15.99 there is a hell of a lot of content here and hundreds of hours of tight tactical gameplay. Technical issues do hold it back from being one of the Vita’s best but it is without question one of its greats. You’ll jump for joy, cry, shout, swear and laugh and there are not many games that can offer you that.