2019 marks the 25th anniversary of X-COM—25 years of tactically slaying aliens and stealing their tech. The beloved strategy series has had major highs and deflating lows. It's seen a lot of different forms, too: A first-person shooter, a play-by-mail game, and, of course, a turn-based strategy game. To celebrate 25 years of X-COM, let's run down every game in the franchise's history, including the ones that never saw the light of day.
UFO: Enemy Unknown (AKA X-COM: UFO Defense) (1994)Originally conceived as a sequel to Julian Gollop’s Laser Squad, UFO: Enemy Unknown (known as X-COM: UFO Defense in the US) is the turn-based, alien-slaying phenomenon that started it all. The player takes the role the commander of X-COM - a clandestine force tasked with defending the Earth from an alien invasion. UFO: Enemy Unknown established the series formula of management sim meets turn-based strategy. It tasked players with building and sustaining a base, including organizing finances and personnel, as well as taking the fight to the alien menace in tense and challenging combat encounters.
The game instantly became a cult classic and would later be ported to PlayStation, Amiga, and more. It spawned fan-made mods like XcomUtil and spiritual successors like Xenonauts and Julian Gollop’s upcoming Phoenix Point.
X-COM: Terror from the Deep (1995)Hot off the success of Enemy Unknown, MicroProse was keen to quickly deliver a sequel. Terry Greer, an artist at MicroProse at the time, recalled that “A decision was made to use the original engine, reskin the graphics and create a whole new story. By keeping changes to the absolute minimum a sequel could be created in just a few months.” Terror from the Deep launched in June 1995, just over a year after Enemy Unknown.
The game’s concept has humanity taking on a renewed alien menace under the Earth’s oceans. The majority of Terror from the Deep takes place underwater, with base-building and combat all submerged. The game establishes that all alien technology from Enemy Unknown is unusable in salt water, so players must capture and produce new tech. It was essentially Enemy Unknown underwater and it was pretty darn cool.
X-COM: Apocalypse (1997)X-COM: Apocalypse, the third entry in the series, is most notable for its difficult development. Apocalypse was an incredibly ambitious sequel. Set half a century after the events of Terror from the Deep, it told the story of humanity forced to live in Megalopolis-like cities after the Earth’s biosphere becomes severely damaged. The game’s interface was completely re-done graphically and made considerably more complex than previous games. Players were also required to manage multiple bases and there was a self-learning AI component that adjusted the game's difficulty based on how well the player was doing. There was also an optional real-time combat feature.
When discussing the game, Julian Gollop said “Just about everything that could go wrong did go wrong, and the amount of effort required to pull it into shape was immense. After three years of hard work and five different producers X-Com: Apocalypse finally hit the streets. The initial game design was definitely too ambitious and too complex.”
Gollop explained how “The aim was to recreate in some detail the events, organizations, and personalities within a futuristic megalopolis. Each corporation had a leader who could be tailed, arrested, interrogated or assassinated. Organizations could buy and sell buildings as their financial fortunes changed.”
The game was also supposed to have multiple alien dimensions that were generated pseudo-randomly, a scenario generator and multiplayer options that used a hot-seat turn-based system or a real-time LAN option. According to Gollop, most of these features “were finally stripped out due to the horrendous amount of work involved in QA and debugging.”
The end product was sizably reduced in scope but still came out well. The third entry in the X-COM series released in 1997 to a strong critical reception. It would be the last traditional game in the series until 2012’s rebooted Enemy Unknown.
X-COM: Interceptor (1998)Interceptor took the series in a radically different direction. Taking the X-COM struggle into space, it blends management elements with real-time space combat. In the year 2067 (before the events of Apocalypse), humanity decides to venture into “The Frontier” (space) after Earth’s resources become dangerously depleted. Naturally, this quickly becomes a war for resources as humanity and the alien menace battle it out for those oh-so-precious space materials. The game’s reception was mixed. The management elements were praised for being deep and rewarding, whilst the space flight combat was received less enthusiastically.
X-COM: First Alien Invasion (1999)Perhaps the strangest entry on this list, X-COM: First Alien Invasion (also known as X-COM) was Hasbro’s first outing with the series after acquiring MicroProse and the X-COM brand. A “play by mail” game wherein players took turns back and forth via email, First Alien Invasion was a simplified re-imagining of the original X-COM. The game was effectively shut down when Hasbro switched off their email servers a few years later. Although it’d been formally shuttered, fans of this strange little game were eventually able to resurrect it in a fairly convoluted manner. You could probably get it working in 2019 if you had the patience. I’m… not sure I’d want to, though.
X-COM: Enforcer (2001)It’s hard to argue that Enforcer - a pure-action third-person shooter rushed out the door once things started looking bleak for Hasbro - is anything but the series’ lowest point. It’s a mindless and inoffensive shooter that becomes much more cynical and disappointing when you regard the X-COM name lazily slapped on top. Unfortunately, there’s really nothing surprising about this game, but, hey, it’s only $5 on Steam if you’re really curious.
X-COM: Alliance (canceled)Two X-COM titles were canceled following Hasbro’s financial troubles and eventually shuttering. X-COM: Alliance was by far the most ambitious of the two. It was also the more anticipated. Alliance was a first-person shooter with “strategy, adventure, and role-playing elements too”. It had been in development at MicroProse since 1995 with the working title X-COM 4 (later X-COM 5). Alliance initially survived Hasbro’s acquisition and was officially announced in 1998 with a 1999 release date. After a series of delays, it was eventually canceled in 2002.
Alliance was to be a tactical first-person shooter with an emphasis on team management. Each character would have their own unique characteristics and behavior, which would be influenced by their morale and fatigue. A significant 2D component was also planned for the game’s management and research aspects. A series of multiplayer modes were also planned, including co-op, deathmatch, and capture the flag modes.
The game’s story would take place in the year 2062 (22 years after the events of X-COM: Terror from the Deep), where the research vessel UGS Patton would be spontaneously sucked into a dimensional wormhole on their way to establishing an Elerium mining facility on Mars. The crew - a combination of top X-COM soldiers, scientists, and engineers - would end up stranded 60 light years from Earth. They would find the alien invaders from X-COM: UFO Defense engaged in a war with a new alien race called the Ascidians.
Check out an original trailer for the game and a compilation of gameplay footage below.
X-COM: Genesis (canceled)After finishing X-COM: Interceptor, MicroProse’s Chapel Hill studio finished porting the original X-COM games from DOS to Windows. Their next project - bolstered by a wave of new hires from the recently shuttered EAI - was going to be a return to the mentally-stimulating gameplay the series was known for. Genesis was conceived as a 3D strategy game with tentative real-time elements. A feature allowing players to pause the action and issue commands was eventually added to ensure the Genesis felt faithful to the original games. The game also featured a “Geoscape” view of the Earth which allowed players to rotate and see the Sun and Moon pass by as they did. The team started building a 3D engine that used Direct3D before the game was later canceled and the studio shut down.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown (2012)The reboot that brought the classic alien slaying formula to the 21st century. XCOM: Enemy Unknown finally gave fans something to get excited about. Combining a layer of thoughtful strategy with tense turn-based action, the 2012 revival was a huge hit. The game launched to critical acclaim and took home a number of publication’s Game of the Year awards. Between its capacity for extreme difficulty, the depth that its meta-layer of base-building strategy affords, and its thrilling turn-based encounters, XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a fantastic game. It also had a great console port that helped make the timeless XCOM formula more accessible than it had ever been.
The Bureau: XCOM Declassified (2013)Following the excitement and buzz generated by XCOM: Enemy Unknown, fans were excited for what came next. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t quite be what they were looking for. Originally titled XCOM, The Bureau: XCOM Declassified had a troubled development that went back to 2006. The project took many forms, including a first-person shooter where players would be tasked with photographing mysterious alien beings and bringing the pictures back to a secret government organization for research. The end result - a forgettable third-person shooter with light tactical elements allowing the player to issues commands to their squad - released in 2013 to a tepid reception.
XCOM: Enemy Within (2013)Enemy Within was a major expansion to a year-old game. It was a hefty addition to an already dense game, mixing up the single-player campaign with a new faction to fight, a new resource to collect, and sweet mechs for both humanity and the alien menace. It provided a great reason to come back to XCOM, and watching giant mechs clash on the battlefield was endlessly fun.
XCOM 2 (2016)Unlike its predecessor, XCOM 2 was initially developed exclusively for PC. Firaxis cited their experience developing for the platform as the reason for this decision. Despite their apparent commitment to the platform, XCOM 2 was almost unplayable when it launched in February 2016. Buggy, prone to frequent crashes, and marred by performance issues, it would be a while before fans could play a stable version of the game. It was ported to consoles later that year. Today, the game holds up much better to critical scrutiny, offering a sharper and expanded experience with new ideas, new enemies, and refined mechanics.
Check out our review here.
XCOM 2: War of the Chosen (2017)If XCOM 2’s troubled launch was a disappointment to fans, its first major expansion was definitely the remedy. War of the Chosen is the biggest and boldest expansion the series has seen, offering a reinvigorated campaign loaded with a new enemy faction, new allies, classes, and a team of elite alien assassins (the Chosen) who are out for your blood. War of the Chosen mixes things up in a major way, bringing in enough fresh ideas and concepts to fill a full-on sequel. Being hunted by the Chosen is tense and thrilling, while the new classes bolster your forces with some extremely fun and varied classes. This is XCOM at its finest.
Check out our review here.
What do you think? Which is your favorite X-COM title? Are you a fan of the rebooted series or do you prefer the original games? Let us know in the comments!