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Move over, consoles: strategy games have a new home on mobile

XCOM 2: War of the Chosen on iPad
(Image credit: TechRadar / 2K games)

Fans of strategy games used to have to play on PC; console ports rarely fared well, with the limited control of a joystick compared to a mouse making it hard to complete even the simplest of tasks in such a game. However that's starting to change, as strategy games are starting to find a new home: mobile devices.

XCOM 2, the popular strategy sequel from 2016, is now available on iOS devices, thanks to Feral Interactive porting it over along with all its expansions. But this move, exciting as it is, is symbolic of a bigger change for games: developers are seemingly starting to realize the popularity, and potential, of mobile gaming.

So if, like me, you're a huge strategy game fan yet don't own a PC, you might not need one for much longer.

XCOM 2: worth choosing

We're not going to give you a full XCOM 2 review, mainly because the game is years old and the mobile port is almost exactly the same, but it's worth briefly examining the game.

The port of XCOM 2 available on certain iPhones and iPads is actually War of the Chosen, an expansion for the game, along with various DLC packs. It costs $25 / £24, which might seem pricey for a mobile game, but it's actually about $10 / £10 cheaper than the game is listed for on Steam, and a third of what all that would cost you with the console version, so it's pretty affordable.

The game runs super well - we found very few bugs or glitches, and performance, for the most part, was admirable even when there were lots of on-screen characters or effects. For a game that was maligned for performance issues at launch, this port seems to fix a lot of problems.

Controls feel much easier than on console, though of course mouse-and-keyboard still reigns supreme. You can easily select a soldier then press where you want them to travel to, or who you want them to attack, or which action you want them to perform - it's almost like you're actually the commander of these soldiers, huddled in a helicopter circling the scene, frantically issuing them orders.

XCOM 2

XCOM 2 runs well on iOS devices (Image credit: 2K Games)

We tested the game on a third-gen iPad Pro 12.9 - battery drained fast while playing, and the tablet could heat up quite a bit if we played for too long, which is worth knowing if you're planning to play for a long time, or away from a charger.

Generally, though, this is the XCOM 2 you know (or don't know) and love (or are yet to fall in love with). It's a tense squad-based strategic adventure in which you save the world from aliens, controlling both small squads of soldiers in intense battles, and maintaining the day-to-day running of your home base. Thanks to smart enemy AI, soldier permadeath, and a whole host of increasingly hard-to-kill enemies, it's a really tense game to play.

We found ourselves quickly turning off our iPad on more than one occasion, knowing the only way to save a favorite soldier was simply not to play, because we'd gotten them into a mess they couldn't get out of. But, as with all games like this, we couldn't stay away for long.

Keeping mobile

XCOM 2 certainly isn't the first popular strategy game port to hit mobile devices, but, given the scale of the game, it may be among the most ambitious. 

Feral Interactive, which helmed the port, has also brought over Rome: Total War and all of its expansions, Company of Heroes, and Tropico. Each has been perfectly optimized to run great on phones and tablets, and we're huge fans of all we've played.

But that's not all. Civilization 6, Bad North, This War of Mine, Darkest Dungeon, XCOM: Enemy Within and more are all available on your handset (some on iOS, some Android, most both).

Developers are clearly starting to realize that touch controls give you as much versatility as a mouse for controlling units, selecting buildings, or scrolling around a map.

Civilization VI

Civilization VI is available on mobile devices (Image credit: Aspyr Media, Inc.)

Smartphones are getting more and more powerful, and the performance divide between them and computers, while still large, is shrinking. It only makes sense that several-years-old games work well on them. 

This is great for people who love strategy games but don't own PCs, as it makes the genre far more accessible than it typically was. Sure, some strategy games, including certain ones listed above, went to consoles - but they're rarely as fun to play there thanks to the controls. On mobile, they feel smooth and seamless, as XCOM 2 shows.

More ways to play

The future of mobile strategy games is exciting - I'm looking forward to more ports, especially from the Anno and Age of Empire series, as I don't have a PC on which to play some of my favorites from both franchises.

There are plenty of pretty great mobile strategy games that aren't ports like Polytopia, Plague Inc. and Outlanders (though the latter feels incredibly similar to Banished on the PC), and I'm excited to find more in that vein too, though it's often harder to find great games on phones given the huge number of games constantly coming out.

Apple Arcade

Apple Arcade has some intriguing strategy games (Image credit: Future)

But what I'm really interested in is new strategy games getting simultaneous PC and mobile releases, just like many get PC and console launches. Of course, this is a while off (portable devices still aren't powerful enough yet), but it's getting nearer, as phones and tablets get more and more powerful.

Perhaps the biggest shift that needs to happen for more mainstream mobile strategy games isn't technical though, but cultural. Many still look down at mobile gaming, assuming it's all pay-to-win idle RPGs or casual Candy Crush clones, betraying a gaping lack of knowledge on the mobile gaming scene.

Until people realize mobile gaming can be on a par with console and PC gaming, at least in terms of user experience, developers might not be too keen to make their projects mobile.

Either way, mobile remains a more reliable and easy way of playing strategy games compared to consoles, and that's the real joy here. You no longer need a super-expensive (or any) PC to play the best strategy games, as they're coming to mobiles, and the future looks bright for people who prefer to game on their phones or tablets than computers.