Why I find it hard to trust Touch Arcade reviews

Or, When a ‘review’ is actually just a ‘hands-on first impression’

Touch Arcade is one of the biggest, most popular sites for news and reviews of iOS games. They also have a great iOS app that will keep you updated of news and price drops for watched games, and an active forum. Unfortunately I’ve found that when held against my own standards their journalism and particularly their reviews are not the most thorough or balanced; constructive criticism is often neglected, compromised by too much in the way of gushing praise, I feel.

You could charitably put this down to mere differences of opinion, but their ‘review’ of XCOM on iOS takes the biscuit, being little more than a vague hands-on first impression and frankly it barely qualifies as that – ‘glorified affiliate link’ would be my cynical assessment.

In this review they spend about 90% of the content describing and recommending the source PC/console game (which you can find in any review from the original release as it famously hasn’t changed) and just 10% covering the port itself, vaguely. Five stars, buy it now through our link.

Full disclosure: I also use affiliated links but I pride myself in giving as full, honest and balanced an opinion as possible about the apps and tools I talk about here. I rarely get that balanced feeling from Touch Arcade’s reviews, especially this one.

Now, the XCOM I’ve played on Mac and XBOX really is excellent. This iOS port is meant to be so complete as to be The Same Game, so it’s fair to presume that in terms of gameplay alone it’s the same 5-star design.

However, it’s still a port: the controls have been mapped to touch, it’s lost a lot of maps, it’s running on lesser hardware, and is only recommended for the latest iPhones and iPads (with ‘support’ for older devices). I’d like to know the ramifications of these factors before purchasing, especially as at $19.99/£14.99 it’s a AAA price for a AAA game; this is not Real Racing 3.

Touch Arcade’s review went up shortly after it was released for sale in New Zealand, the first country that gets an app release as it rolls out around the world. Given that limited time frame one might naturally assume the author had had pre-release access to the game and had a review ready to go with all that port-specific nitty-gritty us iOS gamers will be after.


Eli, one of Touch Arcade’s senior members, posted on the forum about how 2K has got Touch Arcade blackballed:

JFYI 2K has us completely blackballed. We didn’t get an early copy of the game aside from what was available in New Zealand, and their marketing people don’t email us. XCOM is just a great game. These nitpicks about the port are weird.

They didn’t like that we broke the Borderlands embargo, so, the reason TA has so much coverage now while everyone else is twiddling their thumbs is because we don’t have any restrictions and can just buy the game from New Zealand. It works out.

Well, it works out if you actually post a review, Eli, but your site’s ‘review’ barely qualifies as such. Also, the fact that there are so many “nit-picks” about the port should tell you that this is an area a good review would focus on. But hey.

About that embargo: to TA’s credit the embargo they broke was for a widely-denounced iOS Borderlands game that 2K banned anyone from reviewing for nine hours after the US release presumably because they knew just how appalling it was. Ironically enough given the subject of this post TA called them on that and broke the embargo to do so, potentially saving a lot of their readers’ money. They did a good thing there.

But this post is about their XCOM ‘review’ and thanks to Eli we can now deduce how much time was spent experiencing the port before posting judgment on it. Quoting a forum user, nightc1:

So, the game came out at 6am EST and the review was posted at 10:38am EST… given time to download the game and write the review and the tutorial seeming to take around 30min (judging off of Sanuku’s video)… so maybe 30min of actual non-tutorial gameplay was used to determine the game is a perfect 5/5 with no issues? Ok, granted it is a port… but still, it makes it hard to take the review seriously.

A diligent reader would note that almost their entire ‘review’ is actually just a love letter to the PC/console game, given away by references to how he’s never been able to finish an Iron Man game (a tough mode with no save-reloading); it takes dozens of hours to play through XCOM, even longer on Iron Man mode, so there’s simply no way the bulk of this copy was based on playing the iOS version of the game. I’d wager that almost the entire thing was written without so much as a minute spent playing the final iOS release.

Right enough, there’s just a single paragraph out of ten that pertains to the port:

As a touch game, Enemy Unknown operates pretty well. The controls are intuitive. You tap to where you want to place your soldier, hit a button when you want to activate a power. The more I look at the game, the more I’m noticing bits and pieces of asset compression, which makes it look like a “low res” port. As for actual problems, moving soldiers into buildings is pretty rough. The camera doesn’t clip through walls very well.

So when it comes to looking with a critical eye at what was involved in porting the huge console/PC game down to just 3.2GB of iOS code we can boil this ‘review’ down even further to just three sentences:

The more I look at the game, the more I’m noticing bits and pieces of asset compression

The more he looks at it? Well, how much looking at has he done so far? What assets have been compressed and what effect, if any, does that have on playing the game especially on Retina devices?

moving soldiers into buildings is pretty rough.

No further information about how it’s rough or what impact it has on the experience.

the camera doesn’t clip through walls very well

No further information about what this actually means and again what it means for the overall experience.

As for the sentence about the touch controls, it may as well just say “you use your finger to touch buttons” – nothing about how well things like panning, rotating or adjusting height and map-level work, things you’ll be doing a lot of in the game.

There’s also nothing about how this long-awaited, premium AAA console game plays on anything other than the latest device (surely TA installed this onto every iDevice they could get their hands on to test performance and get the scoop on this all-important question, no? No); nothing about what’s been cut to make it fit; barely anything about graphical quality apart from some concessions to having noticed a bit of glitching “the more I play”.

Three sentences. There’s your iOS review, folks.

You’ll get a much better analysis of what makes this port tick by reading a forum thread such as Touch Arcade’s own, where the members tend to write more fully about their experiences with the game. Of course you’ll have to filter out those whining about the price or about how the textures aren’t as good as on their Vita/console/PC, and one man’s unplayable frame rate issues may be another man’s perfectly tolerable compromise, but nonetheless there’s way more pertinent information there than in TA’s ‘review’.

Finally, and allow me to just go into full-on cynic mode briefly, the headline for their ‘review’ includes ‘Buy This Game Now’ and the whole thing seems rather keen for you the reader to click their affiliated link. I already mentioned this is one of the most expensive iOS games, right?

In summary

This is a premium iOS game, hopefully one of many more to come, and it deserves a premium review of the iOS-specific elements of the port. Instead we got a love-letter to the source game and barely any useful critique.

And that’s why I don’t base purchases on Touch Arcade reviews any more. As ever I’ll be waiting for Eurogamer’s take, but in the meantime why not see what an iOS XCOM review should look like over at The Verge.


In a follow-up article, TA Plays: XCOM, the team share 34 minutes of their own gameplay in a video. I’m finding that gameplay videos, while prone to spoilers, are often a better resource than unavoidably subjective text reviews so check it out if you’re interested in the game.

The TA team also acknowledge readers’ questions about playability of the game on various devices, except all they offer is that it plays great on the latest generation. As that’s what the game is officially recommended for these revelations are still pretty unhelpful, doing little to change my opinion of the thoroughness of their journalism versus the urge to get an article out now, quick, first.

Like I say above, you can get a much more professional and comprehensive look at how the iOS port handles over at The Verge.