Granddaddy X-COM: UFO Defense
Originally created in 1994 by MicroProse and Mythos Games, the series started off as X-COM: UFO Defense in the US and UFO: Enemy Unknown in Europe. It quickly gathered a devoted audience due to it’s never before seen blend of 4x strategy and turn-based tactical combat.
The plot is strongly inspired by alien paranoia science fiction stories of the time. As UFO sightings and tales of alien abductions increase all over the planet, the world’s governments come together and agree to create a task force capable of dealing with the threat – the Extraterrestrial Combat Unit (X-COM) is born.
During the game, you’ll switch between two different views. The Geoscape is a zoomed out planet view, where you can look in on the Earth while managing resources and planning your next move. Here you can command and equip your aircraft, request resources and base crew, plan research, create weapons, build squads and send them on missions. The Battlescape is a top-down isometric view of the battlefield where you control a squad and attempt to kill or capture all enemy forces.
Through the use of nine different terrain types, the time of day or night affecting your troops’ line of sight and a semi-randomly generated map, the levels never fall short in providing tactical diversity and keep feeling fresh, hours into the game.
If what we’ve mentioned above, sounds awfully familiar, that’s because there’s nothing much the modern games could do to improve on the classic recipe without taking away what made it special.
The following games are listed in order of release, not quality or preference.
10 Jagged Alliance 2
|Initial Release Date||April 1999|
|Platform||Linux, Microsoft Windows|
|Publisher||TalonSoft (Microsoft Windows), Titan Computer (Linux)|
First released back in 1999 the game has seen several re-releases containing added content such as Gold Pack in 2002 and Wildfire in 2004. Borrowing from X-COM and Fallout, you have a world map to conquer, RPG stats for your squad, and the combat takes place in a separate tactical screen view.
The story has you creating your main character and putting together a squad of mercenaries in order to liberate the fictional country of Arulco. Having been hired by Enrico Chivaldori, the country’s former ruler, you are tasked with taking down the despotic Romanian queen Deidranna Reitman, who’s come into power by less than honest means.
Starting your mission to take down the monarch, you’ll first be treated to the game’s world map which features Arulco split up into sectors to explore, conquer and control. From here you also hire mercenaries, purchase weapons, equipment as well as assign tasks to your squad – practice to improve a skill, teach others, repair weapons, heal the wounded, etc.
Once a squad reaches an enemy sector the view switches to the tactical screen for combat. Here, the game features smoothly animated 2D sprites from an isometric viewpoint. Movement and actions take place in real-time until one of your mercenaries spots an enemy, after which the familiar X-COM turn-based action point system is engaged.
A deceptively long and challenging game, Jagged Alliance 2 can still be played comfortably by installing some of the unofficial patches and mods to raise the resolution to something more acceptable by today’s standards. Often praised as still the best game in the series, it’s well worth a try.
9 UFO: Afterlight
|Initial Release Date||February 9, 2007|
Inspired by the X-COM titles that came before it, the UFO series created by Altar retreads some familiar ground. The Earth is under attack by aliens, and it’s up to us to salvage what’s left of humanity and reclaim the planet. Only this time, the action takes place in 3D and using a real-time with pause combat system.
As the third game in its series, UFO: Afterlight follows a group of humans, exiled from Earth to a Martian colony after the initial attack. Set 50 years after the first game, the story runs alongside its prequel UFO: Aftershock. As it so happens, Mars’ original inhabitants lay dormant, only to be awakened by our settling and attempting to terraform the planet.
In classic X-COM fashion has you alternating between the planet map and the tactical, down on the ground view, when combat is set to take place. While in the strategic global view, you can explore the red planet and expand your controlled territory, build structures, manage your base, research, resources, and squads.
While in the tactical mode, here’s where the game differs – combat takes place in real-time while providing you the ability to pause and issue orders to each member of your squad, not unlike a modern RPG such as Dragon Age. All characters, from soldiers to scientists, can gain experience points by performing their specific roles. This will allow you to improve their base stats as well as gain new skills to aid you.
If you’re after a different yet very familiar experience, Afterlight has got you covered. While the older 3D graphics might not stand the test of time as much as 2D can, there’s still a damn good game waiting to be rediscovered.
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|Initial Release Date||June 17, 2014|
|Platform||Linux, Microsoft Windows, OS X|
To call this game inspired by the original X-COM would be doing it a disservice. This is a labor of love for the series and it shows in spades.
While the developers like to call this a reimagining of the original, it more often plays out like a remaster or remake. For better and for worse it’s the closest thing to the ‘94 release.
Set in an alternate history the action starts on Earth in 1958. A UFO had entered our atmosphere and was instantly hostile to aerial forces sent to intercept.
Only brought down by a joint effort, the world’s governments realize that this is a threat that cannot be faced alone – and so the clandestine organization known as the Xenonauts is born. Years later in 1979, the aliens have returned, together with a giant fleet, and it’s your job to fight them off and find a way to save the Earth.
Staying true to its roots, you’ve got a Geoscape and a Battlescape, there’s a fixed isometric view when in combat, and the art style is simplistic but crisp and functional. Gameplay-wise there’s nothing much new to talk of.
There are a few new additions and improvements to the formula. Improved aerial combat, alternate victory conditions, and the cover system are worth mentioning, but overall it’s a faithful recreation of the original right down to the sometimes overcomplicated UI.
If you’ve got a craving for a deep and complex game, this one’s for you. Just remember, it might suck up all your free time, don’t say we didn’t warn you!
7 Invisible Inc.
|Initial Release Date||May 12, 2015|
|Platform||Microsoft Windows, OS X, Linux, PlayStation 4, iOS|
With Invisible, Inc. we’re taking a bit of a departure from the classic X-COM formula by adding a bit of roguelike into the mix. There are no aliens to defend against. No, kill everyone to win. Here we have only futuristic corporations, security guards and stealth.
In the year 2074, megacorporations have overthrown the world’s national governments and taken control. Invisible Inc is a private intelligence agency providing services to corporations.
You command various agents on different missions in an effort to complete your objective, usually a heist, and get out alive. Viewed from the classic isometric view, we are treated to a highly stylized art style that is very pleasing to the eye.
The action takes place in a turn-based tactical fashion, but with a large focus on stealth, as killing enemies is not the main objective and would only serve to get you into further trouble. When the game starts you only have two agents at your disposal but as the story progresses more are unlocked, each with their own distinct abilities and playstyle.
Having a roguelike element, Invisible, Inc. has randomly generated missions, levels, and gear you can acquire in your playthrough. This offers a large degree of flexibility to how you approach your missions and provides replayability to the game.
While not a traditional X-COM title, its random nature, challenging gameplay and customizability make it a fun game that’s sure to have you coming back for more.
6 XCOM 2: Long War 2 Mod.
|Initial Release Date||January 19, 2017|
While I’ll admit I might get some flak for including a game mod on this list, I feel that Long War 2 adds so much to the base game that it can be considered a total conversion mod – A game all onto itself.
Due to the first Long War’s popularity and quality, Firaxis Games officially sanctioned and partnered with Pavonis Interactive to create mods for the release of the game. Having Firaxis’ tool support allowed the team to create an almost entirely new experience for the hardcore player. Released on January 2017, Long War 2, brings with it a slew of new features.
While a few of the story beats have been changed as well, the overall plot remains the same – overthrow the alien overlords and root out their sympathizers while discovering the truth behind the top-secret Avatar Project.
When you first start a game, you’re thrown in the deep end, no handholding to ease you through the first hours of the game. Missions are now a lot more challenging and require careful planning of your squad’s classes.
The maximum number of troops you can send in at a time has been raised to 12, although discouraged due to the game’s new infiltration mechanic. Infiltration is a balancing act between the number of troops you can take with you on a mission and the likelihood of the aliens discovering you and reinforcing the location or you just flat our failing to infiltrate.
Combat has been revamped and rebalanced. Weapons are now much more customizable right from the start, armor works differently, classes are revamped and even a new one, the Technical, is added that brings with it a heavy arsenal.
Not even the Geoscape stays the same. Events and missions are far more frequent than you can cover, the economy gets a rework, and resource gathering is based on personnel you’ve assigned to each of the regions.
The Long War 2 doesn’t look back on the past, it takes what’s here in the present, and goes crazy with it to create a deep, complex and very long war that feels like a modern streamlined X-COM.
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|Initial Release Date||April 24, 2018|
|Platform||Microsoft Windows, OS X, Linux|
While other games in the setting put you in the seat of one of its giant robots, BattleTech goes back to its roots and provides you with a commander’s view of the battlefield. BattleTech is based on the long-running tabletop franchise of the same name, better known in our gaming world as MechWarrior.
The world of BattleTech is controlled by five great noble houses locked in a long-running devastating war that has set back humanity technologically, causing mechs and their pilots to be a very valuable commodity. You assume the role of a mercenary commander, of a squad of 4 mechs, called a lance. Throughout the story, you select one or more houses to serve as you take on side missions to keep the money rolling in and access more of the main plotline involving a web of political intrigue and conquest.
The gameplay can tend to feel more complex and clunky to an X-COM veteran as movement is not based on a grid, and mechs are much more than just a bar of HP to be depleted. The mechs have armor plating on various body parts that need to be whittled down before actually damaging their health pool.
Which body part you choose to target and what direction the shot is coming from all matter a great deal. Most of the time, it can be the difference between immobilizing a mech, cutting off some of its arsenal, killing the pilot inside or blowing it up altogether.
Each mech and pilot can be specialized for a specific role and purpose, with mechs split into four distinct classes: light, medium, heavy and assault. The level design, while not spectacular, has a role to play in combat, with hills, mountains, forests and other terrain features having a major impact on how you approach a situation and who will emerge victorious.
As long as you’re willing to put up with a slow start and sometimes obtuse mechanics, the game feels all the more rich and satisfying once it all clicks together. With dozens of stock mechs to choose from and so many more parts to mix and match, you’re sure to be able to build a satisfying death machine to trample over your enemies.
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|Initial Release Date||August 14, 2018|
|Platform||Windows, Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch|
|Publisher||Good Shepherd Entertainment|
Another spy game Phantom Doctrine feels like a mix between XCOM 2 and an ‘80s Bond movie. While it looks amazingly similar to XCOM, the overall gameplay flow and combat set it apart, for better and for worse.
Set during the Cold War, you take on the role of a CIA, KGB or Mossad agent and are tasked with dismantling a conspiracy set in motion by a fictional group known as Beholder. The plot can be very hit and miss for most people, some preferring a more in-depth storyline while others disliking the extra tidbits you can obtain by going through the conspiracy board minigame.
True to form we have a world map from where we can choose what missions to go on, build bases, manage resources and squads. While you do have the capability to customize, most of your agent’s progression path tends to feel less important, due to the game’s overall focus on stealth. Despite this, individuals tend to feel more like characters as events can reveal things that can flesh their backstory.
Sometimes you can be informed that they’re working as a double agent, or a member of your squad isn’t quite who he says he is, here you have a choice to investigate, confront or just ignore the tip. Little flairs like this make your agents have a ton more character.
During missions, you’ll have an isometric 3D view identical to that of the newer XCOM games. Stealthily making your way across the map, timing your agents’ movement to the enemy guards and infiltrating heavily guarded compounds only to come out undetected can feel like an exhilarating game of cat and mouse, even if the game is turn-based.
Combat, however, is usually a last resort or at the very least, something I wouldn’t recommend as it feels clunky and limited, with a few exceptions such as melee takedowns and long-range sniper shots.
A tactical spy game with ‘80s flair. While it might not be for everyone, if you’re into stealth games or ever wondered how Hitman would play out as a turn-based game, look no further.
3Warhammer 40,000: Mechanicus
|Initial Release Date||November 15, 2018|
|Platform||Microsoft Windows, macOS, Linux|
A fun grimdark story-driven romp through the Warhammer 40k universe, Mechanicus takes a piece of XCOM, strips it down to its raw parts and assimilates it into its own blend of turn-based mechanics.
Based in the well known and established world of Warhammer 40k, the plot refreshingly follows not a squad of space marines, but a cohort of Tech-Priests. Accompanied by lesser, generic cannon fodder troops you embark on a quest to salvage ancient technologies from the mysterious catacombs of the Necron Tomb World, Silva Tenebris.
The lore is one of the best parts of the game as you get to learn of the Adeptus Mechanicus and how they promote the religion of the Omnissiah and their adversaries, the Necron. Not usually one of the genre’s highlights, thanks to the Warhammer universe, presentation, music, and well-written plot, the atmosphere can draw you in as much as the addicting gameplay.
Starting out, you’ll be presented with your Geoscape replacement, where you can prepare and customize your squad, choose what mission to embark on and aim for certain rewards. You are given control of two Tech-Priests and are able to summon cannon fodder Servitors to do your bidding.
As the story progresses you can increase the size of your squad as well as customize them by putting points in one or more of the six classes or skill trees available. The classic isometric view returns, as well as a square movement grid.
What sets Mechanicus apart, however, is its special resources called cognition and cogs. Cogs can be used to power weapons while cognition is used in conjunction with special abilities and summoning cannon fodder troops.
This creates an interesting resource balancing game and makes it so you can’t only rely on troops while keeping your Tech-Priests at bay, and knowing that ability or weapon to use, and when to use it becomes a crucial skill.
Overall, Warhammer 40,000: Mechanicus is a good game only marred by its lack of difficulty and challenge towards the end of the game. It’s easy to recommend to any fan of the genre or of the Warhammer 40k universe.
2Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden
|Initial Release Date||December 4, 2018|
|Platform||Microsoft Windows, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch|
|Developer||The Bearded Ladies|
Based on the tabletop RPG Mutant Year Zero, the game features a post-apocalyptic world filled with the scarce survivors of the human race and what’s become of it. A game in equal measure about stealth as much as it is about combat it provides an interesting blend of mechanics to play around with.
After the apocalypse happened, most of the remaining humans have been affected by radiation and mutated into unlikely anthropomorphic animals. Most survivors live in the Ark, a fortified settlement and one of the only remaining bastions of civilization remaining in the Zone. Your story begins with Dux and Bormin, a duck and a boar mutant, tasked by the Ark’s mysterious leader called the Elder, to go on a search for a missing stalker.
You quickly find out that beyond their looks, their physical mutation also affects their gameplay and skill trees, effectively shoehorning characters into set roles. Dux is an effective long-range combatant while Bormin is best suited as a tank or close combat damage dealer and so on. Played from an isometric perspective, the game is meant to be a “tactical adventure”, and it shows.
Compared to X-COM’s soldiers, each of the characters you control has their own backstory, personality, and abilities that fit who they are and their place in the world. Even as your roster grows, none of the squad members you gain feels expendable. A large portion of the game, exploration, takes place in real-time.
You’ll be scouting out your environment, stealthily planning your way through the Zone, and setting up the perfect ambush for your enemies. Once the actual fighting starts, a traditional turn-based system is in place, complete with cover, high ground advantage and a chance to hit percentage that you love and hate.
The combat can be challenging or downright hard if you haven’t planned ahead of time. Enemies tend to be unforgiving of mistakes and take any opportunity to make your life hell.
This design can be a double-edged sword. On one hand, players that love a more meticulous stealthy approach are sure to enjoy the game, while those who are gung-ho might not.
Worth exploring for its world and humor, it’s a good recommendation for anyone looking for a story-driven experience. A mutant RPG with XCOM combat and tactics, Mutant Year Zero is a quirky adventure that’s sure to pose a challenge even to X-COM veterans.
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|Initial Release Date||December 2019|
|Platform||Microsoft Windows, macOS, Xbox One|
From the original creator of the X-COM franchise Julian Gollop and his new studio Snapshot Games, comes a new turn-based tactical wonder called Phoenix Point.
Yet unreleased at the time of writing, the game aims to be faithful to the mechanics of its X-COM: UFO Defense origins and aims to be the biggest and deepest ever of the genre to date.
In a future version of Earth, with the melting of the polar icecaps in the year 2022, scientists found an unknown extraterrestrial virus. The virus quickly started infecting marine life and mutating and evolving everything into Lovecraftian abominations. Not content with the seas, mutated creatures reminiscent of The Thing infest the land and start emitting a mist that would infect and transform anyone unable to find shelter.
The action starts in 2047 the alien mist and creatures have taken humanity to the brink of extinction. Few bastions remain for the survivors and those that exist are ruled by radically different ideologies. We’re set into the role of a commander of the Phoenix Project, an organization created to help humanity in its hour of need.
As a spiritual successor of X-COM, the Geoscope map makes a return, only this time instead of chasing down UFO’s and sabotaging alien bases, we’ll be exploring various points of interest across the planet. It’s possible to assist, hinder or even outright attack the other surviving factions. Based on your choices and depending on your relationship with said factions, plus the missions you complete for them we know multiple endings exist.
Your soldiers gain experience and can be customized in multiple ways. You can spend all of your experience points increasing your stats, or you could purchase certain abilities for your troops, even spec them into a new class. The complexity doesn’t stop there and I could go on forever.
Combat resembles modern XCOM titles but with two major differences. First, you’re able to pick which enemy body part to target, similar to Fallout’s VATS system, you can cripple an enemy, take out of its weapons or aim for a weak point. Second, bullets are physically simulated, they won’t go through walls and will hit whatever they come in contact with, be that walls, enemies or allies.
As the game progresses, the alien monstrosities continue to evolve and literally adapt to your troops, mutating into new creatures meant to dismantle your tactics. All this adds up to create an extra level of strategy in designing your perfect squads to send on missions.
Let’s hope that like the aliens, the genre continues to evolve and bring us awesome new experiences with it. I for one, am highly looking forward to this title and its intricacies and hope it doesn’t become too big for its own good.
This concludes our list of the best games like XCOM. As always, tell us in the comments below if we missed something or what you would’ve added. Don’t be shy!
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