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'XCOM: Enemy Unknown' brings the fight against space aliens to your iPad

\"XCOM: Enemy Unknown\" wowed gamers when it adopted the PC gaming classic to the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 consoles late last year. But can publisher 2K do the same thing for iOS?
\"XCOM: Enemy Unknown\" wowed gamers when it adopted the PC gaming classic to the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 consoles late last year. But can publisher 2K do the same thing for iOS?2K Games

When it comes to old-school video game publishers scrambling to adapt their wares to an increasingly mobile marketplace, 2K Games has taken an unconventional approach. While rivals like Activision and Electronic Arts have started to develop hit casual games like the acclaimed "Plants vs. Zombies," 2K isn't trying to defer to mobile users who'd rather play a few levels of "Angry Birds" than ever step into a match of "Call of Duty."

Rather, as "Civilization" creator Sid Meier suggested of his first mobile game "Ace Patrol" in an interview with NBC News last month, 2K's developers are trying to prove to hardcore gamers (or, perhaps, themselves) that they can get the same experiences they know and love from PC and console games on their smartphones and tablets.

No doubt this was the inspiration behind transforming last year's acclaimed strategy game "XCOM: Enemy Unknown" to Apple's iOS operating system. Many fans of the original line of "XCOM" PC games originally scoffed at 2K's attempt to bring the cult favorite strategy again that pitted humans against alien invaders to the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. But it still managed to secure a 90 percent score on Metacritic, and even won over diehard PC gaming loyalists on websites like Rock, Paper, Shotgun and PC Gamer.

After several months of quiet development at 2K's China offices, the publisher revealed Monday that "XCOM: Enemy Unknown" will be released for iOS devices for $19.99 on June 20. So with one critical success under its belt, will 2K and "Enemy Unknown" developer Firaxis be able to carry "XCOM" through to untested waters once again?

Having spent time with a review copy of "XCOM: Enemy Unknown," I can say: kind of. "XCOM" on iOS is certainly good. But it doesn't quite feel as good as "XCOM" on a PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360 (or a PC, for that matter).

The bright, cartoonish lazer beams and explosions of2K Games

Simply put, "XCOM: Enemy Unknown" feels more like a proof of concept than a game that was built from the ground up with a tablet in mind. Firaxis is a company best known for its stellar line of turn-based strategy games, a type of aesthetic and game design choices that theoretically lends the studio's work to the board game-like interface of an upward-facing tablet.

That works remarkably well in 2K's recent mobile games, "Sid Meier's Ace Patrol" and even the cartoonish, free-to-play strategy game "Haunted Hollow." And it often works well in the nail-bitingly tense tactical action of "XCOM," which has been smartly reconfigured to let players tap and swipe on the screen to re-orient the camera angles, send their soldiers to various strategic locations and target the iconic, giant-headed sectoid aliens that have come to (presumably) enslave mankind.

But it still feels like "XCOM: Lite." I first played the early levels of "Enemy Unknown" with an iPad at one of 2K's press offices, and the game looked stunning if still a little clunky in terms of its touchscreen controls. But played on an iPad Mini, the game's visuals take a dramatic hit. And clocking in at 3.2 gigabytes, "Enemy Unknown" forced me to sacrifice the majority of my tablet's memory (not to mention battery life) just to play the thing.

Still, gamers couldn't ask for a better concept to try to prove itself on mobile devices than "XCOM." It may be a slower and simpler version of the 2012 classic, but, at its core, "Enemy Unknown" on iOS is still "XCOM." If I already had the original, I would hesitate to put down another $20 — an almost exorbitantly "premium" price tag for an iOS game, considering that the vast majority of its competition is free.

But if I, like so many other tablet owners, didn't have a console? Well, it might be worth spending some extra money on a more in-depth experience than the next "Fruit Ninja" or "Temple Run" is going to offer.

Yannick LeJacq is a contributing writer for NBC News who has also covered technology and games for Kill Screen, The Wall Street Journal and The Atlantic. You can follow him on Twitter at @YannickLeJacq and reach him by email at: ylejacq@gmail.com.