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Friday, December 09, 2016

Review: Enemy Unknown Plus (PS Vita)

Through a combination of sales, coupons, and credits, I picked up Enemy Unknown Plus on my PS Vita for about $2 during my summer trip. For the next several months, my Vita was turned into the "Enemy Unknown Plus" machine.

I'd been given free licenses of Enemy Unknown (the base version) for both PC and the PS3 over the years. The PC version, however, crashed during the tutorial, so I was never actually able to play. The PS3 just didn't feel like a good venue for a strategy game that required lots of thought, as it would take up the family entertainment center.

The PS Vita turned out to be an ideal platform: you never have to turn it off, as power consumption is minimal. Suspending the game didn't impact any other activity on your smartphone or computer, so you could stay in context for weeks and months. The game itself is a port from the iOS/Android versions of the game. However, one visit to the Android App store and you'll see that games like this have a really spotty record for even people who have high end phones! That's because the game was written using the C-based Unreal Engine, and I'm sure the amount of hacking required to get it to work on Android at all must have been huge.

The Vita, on the other hand, not only has a common platform (no fragmentation), but it also has 2 joysticks, a joy pad, and face buttons. That means the UI on the game is awesome --- you're getting an experience almost identical to that of the console. In fact, once I learned the game, out of curiosity, I tried it on the PC and found the mouse interface on the PC inferior --- I ended up attaching an XBox Controller to make headway. Even then, I discovered that the base version of the game was inferior: Enemy Unknown Plus integrates features from Enemy Within, and made the game so much better that even though it was harder, I went back to the Vita version to finish it.

The game itself is a tactical game with strategic elements that are outside the tactical game. The tactical game is a squad based game where you control a squad of 4-6 characters in a grid-based turn based tactical game that's very reminiscent of D&D. Each side gets a turn with its characters, and each character gets 2 moves, 1 move, and an action. Actions, however, always end your turn, so if you take your action right away you don't get to move. The characters' moves can be interspersed with each other, so for instance, you can move one character, switch characters and then move another character, and then switch back for the first character to take its action. The UI is very intuitive and the only touch input is for switching weapons, which isn't done frequently. The game has a fixed number of maps, but the missions played on each map is varied. I played 3-4 games (to varying levels of completion) and only had a few repeats.

Each character has a class (there are 4 classes: snipers, heavies, assault, and support) and can be leveled up, attaining skills that affect loadout and occasionally allow them to break rules. As with any D&D game, you'd want a mix of classes in the field as each class brings an important ability to the game.

The strategic elements aren't confined to characters and leveling up, however! The game also includes resource management at multiple levels (base building), and strategic positioning (where to add satellites to watch for UFOs), and research (what weapons to research first, and how to allocate funds for equipment for the tactical game vs interceptors for the strategic game). This makes for agonizing decisions every month, and nail biting resolutions to various missions as the tactical game impacts whether you have resources to carry on the fight to the next level.

The game does have several design errors. One is that the skill tree for various classes are not evenly balanced. Certain skills (like squad sight) are much more powerful than the alternates, but you don't know that until you get to the middle of the game and suddenly discovered that you just get wiped and can't make progress any more! Similarly, if you fail to prioritize satellites and engineers over scientists, you'll get quickly over-run by the aliens and lose the game.

As for the implementation on the PS Vita, there are several issues: one is that the load time is incredible. Expect load times of up to a minute in between enemy encounters. Save/restore take similar amounts of time. Secondly, there are bugs: I've had more than one or two games crash out during a mission load. The solution is to save early and often. Since the file sizes are relatively small, this will not hurt you.

Despite all that, the game's well done and a lot of fun. It's ideal for short bursts of play, since in about 10 minutes you can finish an UFO encounter. As mentioned, even if you can't, you can always suspend the game and resume later with zero load time on the Vita, so as far as I'm concerned, the ideal platform for this game is the PS Vita. Highly recommended, and a must-own if you have a Vita and haven't played the game on other platforms yet.

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