X-Com: UFO Defense has become virtually synonymous with “strategy” ever since it was first released in 1994. X-COM: Terror From the Deep (1995) was a neat idea for a sequel that took the fight for Earth’s survival into the oceans with entirely new aquatic aliens to battle, although it was hampered by a significant research bug that could make completing the game impossible. X-COM: Apocalypse (1997) expanded the formula even further by adding more complexity to the world as well as other human factions to worry about in addition to the always-present alien threat. After that came X-COM: Interceptor (1998) which deviated quite a bit from the series’ roots. This time the fighting was over a specific region of space, and much of the gameplay centered around space combat using Interceptors and coordinating wingmen during an attack. Finally, there was X-COM: Enforcer, which was an even bigger departure than Interceptor. Enforcer was more of a third-person arcade shooter set in the X-COM universe, with no real strategy or management elements to speak of aside from selecting which weapon to use in a level. But while the series has done fairly well for itself over the years, none have every quite managed to eclipse the original.
I could go on and on about why it’s so great and why I would go so far as to purchase the DOS version just so I could run it on my Mac in an emulator. I actually have, on occasion. However it’s not just me. A lot of people think very, very highly of this strategic battle for Earth’s survival against seemingly impossible odds. So many, in fact, that its influence can be found throughout almost 20 years worth of games across multiple platforms. Granted I’m only one guy and have human limitations, so I haven’t tracked down every single one, but I have compiled this collection of fifteen different titles that manage to evoke some of that X-Com magic.
The Beginning of the End: 1994
It all started in 1994, when X-Com: UFO Defense was first released across several home computer platforms including the Amiga and DOS, and was later ported to the original Playstation. At the time there really wasn’t anything quite like it. There was an almost masterful mix of base management (building facilities, researching new tech, hiring personnel, manufacturing better gear, etc) and tactical combat that, to this day, hasn’t been able to be reproduced in quite the same way.
Every single sortie was an intense game of cat and mouse as the precariously mortal humans (i.e. mice) tried to track down and eliminate their superior alien targets (i.e. cats). Simply stepping off of the Sky Ranger for the first time could result in a rookie – or even worse; a veteran – getting vaporized as the extraterrestrial threat had usually already spread itself throughout the environment. Crafting better weapons and armor back at the base certainly improved a soldier’s chances of living to fight another day but even on the easiest setting it was quite common for an entire squad to get wiped out in short order.
With enough tenacity and practice, however, players could eventually fight their way through the invasion forces and even take the battle to the aliens’ base of operations. It’s the kind of undertaking that could require days or even weeks worth of planning and strategies to complete, but it made X-Com all the more satisfying for it. Then, once the dust had settled and the threat had been quelled, it was time to do it all again.
The First Wave: 1997 – 1999
1997 saw the release of Incubation: Time is Running Out for the PC. There was a linear set of story missions to complete, and little emphasis on micromanagement aside from equipping squad members before each fight, but it managed to capture the turn-based intensity and gruesome alien combat quite well. 1999’s Abomination: The Nemesis Project, also on PC, followed suit with more combat and less management. About all the player could do when not in a firefight was select which areas of the world to try and defend from the alien/viral threat, then take their squad into real time combat.
Finally, Jagged Alliance 2 joined the fray that same year, and on the same platform, to round out the 90s library of strategy games. The combat sections were fairly reminiscent of the earlier strategy series but in many ways it played a little more like chess thanks to the need to take control of various areas. Unlike X-Com, the game took place solely on the island of Arulco rather than the entire world and instead of in-depth base management players would hire additional mercenaries, monitor enemy troop movements, and plan the hostile takeover of a town or mine or other useful area.
Turn (Based) of the Century: 2000 – 2005
Once the year 2000 rolled around, it was time for games like Shadow Watch to take the reins. This tactical espionage thriller put players in charge of an elite team of operatives, each with their own special abilities and personal loadouts, and tasked them with retrieving documents from corporate offices (guarded by nasty enemies, of course) and other Shadowrun-style stuff. No expanded tech trees or cannon fodder rookies, though; they had to get their team through it all using only their wits and careful use of each team members’ strengths. A year later in 2001 Fallout Tactics: Brotherhood of Steel spun-off from the main series as a means to scratch a very particular itch. This isometric strategy RPG may not have had an expansive and open-ended story like its siblings, but it did have lots and lots of turn-based combat.
The PC received even more strategy love in 2002 with Laser Squad: Nemesis, which was kind of like playing X-Com as a turn-based deathmatch with several playable races. A single player campaign was available but honestly, that’s not why most people played it. Then in 2002 we saw the release of one of the most well known “spiritual successors” to X-Com when UFO: Aftermath became available. Aside from the “we already lost and are now fighting to take back our planet” theme and real-time combat that could be paused at any time to issue orders, it made for a very close approximation. Although many would argue that the UFO series was vastly inferior regardless of having an additional eight years worth of technological advancements on its side.
2003 went on to give us S2: Silent Storm, also for the PC (lots of PC love from the strategy genre, yessir). It was a very similar experience to the previously mentioned Jagged Alliance 2, although it was more about completing a linear set of missions and the occasional random encounter than trying to dominate territory. Plus it was set during World War 2, which is probably the most “normal” environment of any game on this list. Rounding out this lot in 2005 was Rebelstar: Tactical Command for the Gameboy Advance; a game developed by many of the same people who worked on Laser Squad Nemesis, actually. Again, it was pretty much all turn-based combat segments very similar to classic X-Com missions, and again it involved a team of soldiers who gained experience and new skills as they progressed. However it was also possible for players to “save” a set number of a soldier’s action points to put them into “Overwatch” in order to cover areas and otherwise react to alien activity when it isn’t their turn. Sounds a bit familiar, hmm?
The Next Generation: 2007 – 2011
In 2007, the Xbox 360 received what was possibly its first X-Comlike when Operation Darkness was released. This bizarre strategy title involving World War 2, werewolves, and various other monsters wasn’t exactly a critical darling. Still, it did call to mind a little of that old school turn-based charm. Plus werewolves. I mean come on, werewolves, people. Fans of handheld devices and space marines had a bit more of a reason to celebrate that same year when Warhammer 40K: Squad Command came out for both the PSP and Nintendo DS. Much like earlier X-Comlikes it focused on the squad and a linear story, with turn-based combat and lots of nasty things to kill. 2007 also happens to be when UFO: Extraterrestrials (not to be confused with anything from the aforementioned UFO series) was released. This one was also very similar to the original X-Com, exept that it didn’t take place on Earth but rather a recently colonized world somewhere else in the universe. There’s still plenty of R&D and alien slaughter, though.
As we get closer to the present it’s hard not to mention games like 2008’s Valkyria Chronicles for the Playstation 3. Which is exactly why I’m mentioning it now. It was an obviously anime-inspired turn-based strategy game set on a fictitious continent during a fictitious war, but the hidden enemy movements and limited soldier actions felt quite familiar in a cozy sort of way. Last we have Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars, which was released for the Nintendo 3DS in 2011 both as a launch title and as one of the only worthwhile games on the platform. Shadow Wars hybridized X-Com’s turn-based tactics and finite battlefield resources with the overhead grid approach from other games like Fire Emblem.
Full Circle: 2012 – Present
And now, eighteen years later, X-Com is back in the form of XCOM: Enemy Unknown, Firaxis’ 2012 “remake” (of a sort) of the Microprose original. Taking one of the most universally celebrated PC strategy games and dressing it up for modern gamers, while simultaneously keeping as many of the nostalgic bits in place for long time fans, was an incredibly tall order that many people were skeptical of. In the end, though, the team at Firaxis did a stellar job with preserving the feeling and oppressive intensity of the original game while streamlining and updating the experience.
The modern release of XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a seemingly impossible achievement that manages to introduce newcomers to one of the genre’s most beloved series as well as appease (most of) the old school fans. It’s a game that’s well worth owning and celebrating, and we’re on the verge of being able to experience the panic of hunting down a pack of Chryssalids whenever and wherever we want on our iOS devices. The future, even one under threat of a hostile alien invasion, is looking mighty bright.