Ever since the first crummy Snake-alikes and variations on Klondike started showing up on the iPhone app store way back in the days before App Store was a thing, I’ve frequently bemoaned the lack of a solid X-Com clone on Apple’s iOS platform. In fact, I’ve been throwing a low-level hissy about the series’ lack of portable representation since series creator Julian Gollop’s Rebelstar: Tactical Command landed on Gameboy Advance back in 2005 and proved that X-Com without the base-building, research and manufacturing, and Geoscape mode just wasn’t really X-Com at all.
But getting back to the point: touch-driven interfaces and turn-based tactics go together like milk and cookies, and it’s remained a deep mystery that on a popular platform where everybody’s ripping off everybody else’s ideas, we haven’t seen anything that even attempts to ape a design that’s been ripe for the taking since 1994. Now, on the eve of the release of 2K’s XCOM: Enemy Unknown – a series reboot that looks to successfully mix the best qualities of the 90’s classic with an interface that even your blind granny could navigate – someone has finally gone and done it. Nevermind the fact that the game is called Aliens Versus Humans, and that it doesn’t have a Sectoid or Skyranger to its name: this is the game X-Com fans have been waiting to put in their pockets for nearly two decades.
As it happens, anyone who’s Googled “X-Com for iPhone” in the past year will likely have stumbled upon the game, and quite possibly given it a pass. AVH has been available on the App Store for nearly a year, though until recently, it was little more than a generic-but-accurate riff on X-Com’s tactical layer (like the aforementioned Rebelstar game.) That’s not to say that the work of husband-and-wife development team Jim and Vanessa Cloughley (the independent software company professionally known as Leisure Rules) wasn’t impressive for their first release: it was just incomplete. I’d sampled the game here and there, found it amusing in a sort of nostalgic and “isn’t that cute” way, but ultimately forgotten about it due to many other higher priority releases. It wasn’t until I stumbled on the developer’s Twitter account a few weeks ago and realized there was an update it the works that I decided to give it a second look. And, boy, am I glad I did, because what I saw blew me away. Since the update, I haven’t been able to stop playing, and if there’s any better measure of the quality of a game, I don’t know what it is.
The 2.0 update to Aliens Versus Humans – what Leisure Rules calls “Onslaught” – has, at long last, brought the X-Com experience to iOS devices. I don’t know how such a small, inexperienced team pulled it off, and I don’t care: I just want to keep playing. It’s nearly all here: the Geoscape, where alien activity is monitored and missions are launched; the base building and management. The research and manufacturing, purchasing/recruiting, firing and selling; the region-specific biodiversity and day-and-night cycle. The game’s even got an ominous 90’s synth backing track to round out the experience (though it could stand to have a few more.) What’s missing from what I’ve played so far – namely, Interceptor-style aircraft to shoot down alien ships – is written off by the game’s fiction, and I have a hunch it’ll show up in a future update or new game once the Cloughleys figure out how to program it.
That’s not to say the game is perfect: there are certainly a few problems here. For one, there doesn’t seem to be a cancel button for any action outside of the tactical mode, which can make accidental button taps expensive, especially when building or expanding bases. For another, the game seems to lock the research trees away until you’ve completed a handful of missions, even though you’ll already have collected a fair amount of alien technology and stinky Bhodon corpses by the time you’ve completed your first tactical mission. This wouldn’t be a big deal if the game wasn’t as ridiculously difficult as the series it’s based on – in fact, it may be on par with X-Com: Terror From the Deep for mind-numbingly difficult, even on the easy difficulty. I lost 90% of three separate squads of 8 (and one “Skyhopper” – good one, guys) before I’d acquired enough alien alloys to research a basic armor upgrade for my soldiers, and by the time I was able to manufacture it, I could only afford to make one. It would’ve been nice to be able to research armor and a few other essentials from the get-go, and it seems like an odd change to make to the formula when the rest of it is so spot-on.
Of course, none of this really matters when I’m playing Aliens Versus Humans, because when I’m in the groove with the game, I’m no longer playing an X-Com clone – I’m playing X-Com. If this is the closest we ever get to official series representation on iOS, I’m okay with that. This is the real deal, folks, and it’s only $2.99. Hats off to the Cloughleys for pulling it off. Now let’s all throw a bunch of money at them so they can buy their kids some ice cream, and then start making the game even better.