Franchise Festival #36: X-COM

Welcome back to Franchise Festival, where we explore and discuss the history of noteworthy video game series from the last four decades. Older entries can be found here.

Today we’ll be coordinating our tactical approach to X-COM. Yes, I put a dash in there because that’s the original name (sort of). If you prefer the way that the series name has been written from 2012, just mentally white out that little “-“.


Julian Gollop was raised on strategy games in 1970s England. Beginning with classics like Chess, he worked his way up to more complex role-playing games like the newly-published Dungeons and Dragons (1974). By the 1980s he had a ZX81 computer and a network of like-minded wargame enthusiasts in the city of Harlow.

A gridded starship environment from the futuristic tabletop war game Snap Shot (1979). Credit: HistoryGamerDotCom

Gollop collaborated with Andy Greene to develop Time Lords (1983) and Islandia (1983) on the BBC Micro computer platform. He spent much of his free time at the London School of Economics engaged in game development, finally producing his first solo title in 1984. Rebelstar Raiders, published by Red Shift for the ZX Spectrum and highly influenced by contemporary tabletop board games Sniper and Snap Shot, was a foundational model for the turn-based strategy genre.

Rebelstar Raiders’ only map. The yellow icons on the left represent units being moved into position. The blue lines represent the walls of a structure, throughout which combat occurs. Credit: LordKarnov42

Its visual design is rudimentary and it lacks any artificial intelligence, depriving owners of any single-player game mode, but Rebelstar Raiders established many tropes which would come to define its genre. Play occurs from an overhead perspective with military squad units depicted in profile against the landscape. Buildings and obstacles are used for cover as each player attempts to engage in combat with his or her opponent. Each unit has ammunition, stats, and a preset number of action points, which can be expended to open doors, shoot at enemies, move, and so on. Turns move back and forth between each player in the manner of a board game. Play ends when one player’s squad eliminates all members of the other team.

Private Harris experiencing poor morale in Laser Squad. This 1988 game’s similarity to the X-COM series’ framework is genuinely striking. Credit: LordKarnov42

A sequel, released in 1986, integrated single-player mechanics at the request of publisher Firebird. Gollop realized that he had a talent for this line of work and founded an independent game development studio in 1988. Target Games, later renamed Mythos Games when Gollop’s brother came aboard, would rapidly establish a critical reputation for consistently excellent turn-based strategy titles. Laser Squad (1988) refined the gameplay of Rebelstar Raiders and Rebelstar 2 while introducing a host of new wrinkles: unit morale, equipment weight, and stealth elements are all factors in the game’s seven scenarios. While developing a sequel to Laser Squad in the early 1990s, Mythos Games would stumble into the creation of an entirely new intellectual property.


X-COM: UFO Defense / UFO: Enemy Unknown (1994)

UFO: Enemy Unknown was published in Europe by MicroProse during March 1994; an American version, memorably re-titled X-COM: UFO Defense, would be published later that year. The game was initially released on the MS-DOS and Amiga platforms before making its way to the Sony PlayStation in 1995 and Windows PC in 1998. Whatever hardware players encountered it on, X-COM was celebrated as one of the best strategy titles of the decade.

The game’s opening cutscene is not thrilling, but it is reasonably atmospheric. Credit: NecroScope86

Surprisingly, X-COM was almost cancelled several times prior to its release. Mythos Games had sought out MicroProse as a publisher for X-COM because of MicroProse’s reputation for strategy titles; in particular, Gollop was a fan of the Maryland studio’s recent Civilization (1991) and thought that a partnership would only serve to improve Mythos Games’ work. MicroProse suddenly merged with fellow software producer Spectrum HoloByte under inauspicious economic conditions at the end of 1993, though, and subsequently shuttered two of its UK-based satellite offices. The dwindling finances of the publisher inspired Mythos Games’ first brush with cancellation, while MicroProse’s new leadership would be responsible for the second.

The realistically modeled world map in Geoscape Mode, added to comply with MicroProse’s requirements. Credit: NecroScope86

Spectrum HoloByte was not enthusiastic about the perceived commercial viability of X-COM and, as it was effectively the financial wing of the newly reorganized MicroProse, it canceled Gollop’s ambitious project months ahead of release. The local staff at MicroProse UK made the peculiar decision not to relay this message to Mythos Games, and instead allowed production to continue. By early 1994, the game was finished and the publisher decided to reverse its original cancellation decision; opting to shelve a completed product would have been a bit silly.

As in Laser Squad, each soldier has a unique set of statistics which govern his or her performance in combat. Credit: NecroScope86

A hybrid approach to game design was X-COM’s greatest coup. The original project was a fairly straightforward iteration on Laser Squad, but MicroProse had insisted upon a handful of features early in its partnership with Mythos Games; these included the integration of a world map and a research tech tree, based on the popularity of these features in Civilization. Mythos Games developed an entirely additional layer of gameplay which featured no combat or character units. Instead, Geoscape Mode presents a map of the Earth with numerous stats enumerated on a user interface. The player has the opportunity on this screen to identify cities to locate their base, intercept enemy UFOs in real-time, and establish strategic partnerships with various nations. No longer would Gollop’s approach to game design reflect a single system; Civilization had shattered that norm in 1991, and X-COM would follow suit.

Equipment and soldier procurement is handled using the same interface. Credit: NecroScope86

The narrative remains relatively simple, though it improves upon the discrete nature of Laser Squad’s scenarios. At the start of the game, the player is informed that the Earth is under siege by an extraterrestrial threat in 1998. Earth’s nations opt to separately mount their own defenses, but are eventually convinced to fund the creation of an international organization called Extraterrestrial Combat (abbreviated as X-COM, naturally). The organization is intended to defend against specific attacks by the alien menace, research extraterrestrial technology and biology, and eventually mount a counter-attack on the aliens’ Martian base.

Building one’s base strategically takes on more significance later in the game when the player is called to defend it from alien attack. Credit: NecroScope86

The game is played out between the global map (Geoscape), a base-building screen, and individual squad missions (Battlescape). The global map is described above, but the base-building simulation offers a distinct set of decisions for the player to make. He or she must use funds secured from the international community to build new areas of his or her headquarters, opening up new weaponry and tools. Aliens can be researched here once the appropriate containment facility and non-lethal weapon have been built. All building and research projects take time, which is measured on the world map screen.

Exploring a spooky farm and nearby alien ship. The black areas represent unexplored locations. Credit: NecroScope86

The squad combat sections are quite similar to those in Mythos Games’ Laser Squad, and it’s here that X-COM’s origins as a Laser Squad sequel are most apparent. Combat begins in Battlescape Mode when player identifies an alien invasion site or uses his or her own air defenses to shoot down an alien craft and investigate the wreckage. He or she chooses a selection of soldiers from among a wider pool and deploys them to an isometrically-depicted battlefield. Soldiers are commanded around the field individually on the player’s turn, making use of action points to explore dense urban and sprawling rural environments in pursuit of enemy aliens. Once encountered, aliens approach the player relatively tactically; commanding line of sight, cover and ammunition supplies is necessary to defeat these exceptionally challenging opponents.

Engaging a big, squishy snake-like enemy on a suburban street. Credit: NecroScope86

Humorously, the challenge of the aliens’ AI was a consequence of Mythos Games’ inexperience programming complex NPC behavior. The team decided to integrate randomness in the AI’s decision-making ability, giving the appearance of aggression and intelligence. In fact, it was unpredictability that set X-COM’s aliens apart from the antagonists in competitors’ games. Player characters’ low damage tolerance and the inherent unknowability of what lay beyond character sightlines contribute to the game’s tense atmosphere.

Defending the player’s base from an alien invasion. The cloaked creature about to be blown up is called an ethereal. Credit: NecroScope86

At the same time, a handful of reasonable criticisms were raised by strategy enthusiasts. Psychic abilities and enemy mind control of player characters are introduced midway through the game, but the player has no way of knowing how to effectively respond to this threat. Eventual tech upgrades reveal latent psychic abilities in human squad members, but this difficulty spike can make the game feel unfairly weighted against the player’s success. The use of symbols on menu screens, rather than words, could also render the game inscrutable to new players if they didn’t consult the accompanying manual.

Decisions on which type of shot to take, with the accompanying likelihood of success. Every X-COM player would come to distrust the optimism inspired by anything higher than 80%. Credit: NecroScope86

Additionally, some rather odd glitches are present. The game’s difficulty is unable to be altered, returning to a default state even after the player makes setting changes. Characters also occasionally explode when arriving on the Battlescape screen. These issues would be resolved by fan modifications and future re-releases.

Taking out the aliens’ commander, a freestanding brain, within its Martian base. Credit: NecroScope86

X-COM made a huge commercial and critical splash in spite of its fairly niche market; Julian Gollop partially attributed the European game’s uncharacteristically strong performance in North America to the popularity of television’s X-Files (1993-2001, 2016-2018). It merged the squad-based wargame fundamentals of Laser Squad with the grand globe-spanning scope of MicroProse’s own commercially successful Civilization. The publisher was ready to capitalize on this success with a sequel, but Mythos Games’ needed a bit more time to meaningfully iterate upon its ambitious ideas.


X-COM: Terror from the Deep (1995)

MicroProse intended to strike while the iron was hot, producing a sequel to their hit strategy game within less than a year. The only way to effectively complete this project on such a tight timescale, however, was by iterating only slightly upon the original title. This model had become well established over the preceding decade as publishers sought to cash in on commercially successful properties. The creative voices spearheading development often found this attitude in conflict with their desires to generate compelling experiences, however, and Mythos Games was no exception; MicroProse consequently opted to have its own UK staff build a new X-COM game using the engine and assets from UFO Defense, freeing up Julian Gollop’s team to simultaneously begin work on a more ambitious third entry.

The quality of opening FMV is dramatically enhanced in Terror from the Deep. Credit: NecroScope86

MicroProse UK did not aim to experiment with Terror from the Deep, and the results were middling. The game experience is functionally identical to UFO Defense, as players split time between Geoscape, Battlescape and base-building sequences. Enemies are quite similar to those encountered in the preceding game, though some new aliens are present and others have been cosmetically adapted to an underwater environment.

Base building is functionally identical, but with one key difference – it’s underwater. Credit: NecroScope86

This environmental update constitutes the most significant departure from UFO Defense. An introductory FMV places Terror from the Deep’s narrative forty years after the events of its predecessor, as a deep-sea alien base is activated on Earth; this threat, which had originally been buried on the ocean floor 65 million years earlier, is awoken by a beam originating at the aliens’ fallen Martian stronghold.

Thank goodness this ocean floor is more brightly lit than the real-world ocean floor. Credit: NecroScope86

All combat occurs in the depths of the Earth’s oceans. This conveniently has the effect of rendering all technology from the preceding game obsolete,as it was not intended to function in salt water. It also impacts the game’s overall atmosphere – environments are darker and more claustrophobic than ever, with the player’s squad navigating sunken ships, abandoned ruins and dense flora. Newly introduced harpoon weapons are universally less effective than the starting weaponry from UFO Defense, representing a marked uptick in difficulty from the outset.

With its interception sequences, Terror from the Deep explores the intense naval combat of World War 2… with aliens! Credit: NecroScope86

Higher difficulty, more broadly, represents the design philosophy behind Terror from the Deep. With little in the way of meaningful mechanical enhancements, MicroProse UK relied on the assumption that the previous game’s fans would be seeking a more challenging experience. Levels were larger, ammo was more scarce, and enemies could take more punishment before being eliminated. Terror from the Deep was developed with an established fan community in mind, rather than trying to bring in new players with fresh ideas.

Don’t you love Rene’s antiquated helmet? Credit: NecroScope86

To that end, it was largely unsuccessful. The game was panned by critics, who accurately identified it as a cheaply made commercial product rather than a meaningful evolution of the strategy genre. X-COM: UFO Defense already had a reputation as a challenging game, so Terror from the Deep’s artificially inflated difficulty simply felt punishing. The game would represent a creative dead-end for the franchise, in spite of a later PlayStation port, and fans would wait two years for the series’ next true update from Mythos Games.


X-COM: Apocalypse (1997)

While MicroProse was churning out a disappointing retread of UFO Defense, Mythos Games was attempting to evolve its popular property without compromising the series’ identity. Early entries in a franchise often struggle to establish what must be retained and what can be discarded from debut titles, resulting in incongruous follow-ups like Zelda II: The Adventure of Link (1988). Julian Gollop had a strong idea of the X-COM series core features, however – interlinked but mechanically distinct systems, squad-based combat, and alien threats – and found a way to build on the franchise in an inventive way.

Apocalypse‘s opening cutscene is the most thrilling yet. Credit: Nookrium

X-COM: Apocalypse is actually the product of two teams. MicroProse UK, which had been fully responsible for Terror from the Deep, was assigned the art design for the series next game. Julian Gollop and the Mythos Games crew, on the other hand, worked on the underlying systems and gameplay programming. Their most ambitious break from the past was the integration of a real-time combat system during Battlescape sequences. This was optional, and was likely a concession to the increasing dominance of real-time mechanics in contemporary strategy titles, but would represent a significant break with the cautious turn-based combat that had previously defined Gollop’s library of work.

Cityscape Mode is extraordinarily dense, and perhaps a touch reminiscent of SimCity (1989). Credit: Nookrium

X-COM’s Geoscape was excised entirely in favor of a new mode called Cityscape. Cityscape reflects the narrowed scope of the series’ third entry as it focuses on Mega-Primus, a single megalopolis built on the ruins of Toronto. Players must manage competing political factions and economic conditions in Mega-Primus, securing funding by carrying out the will of distinct city leaders. Incurring destruction on city infrastructure during the Battlescape mode can cause these political leaders to withdraw their support.

The player now has multiple bases, each able to be customized. It’s a micro-manager’s dream. Credit: Nookrium

The aliens besieging the city are almost entirely new, representing an inter-dimensional rather than interstellar threat. These creatures appear in the city via dimensional rifts, so much of the player’s research is dedicated to safely entering these rifts and fighting the creatures on their home turf. Due to MicroProse’s decision to hire a science fiction artist who insisted upon building all enemies as physical models before digitizing them at a manageable size for X-COM’s isometric game engine, the art design for these aliens is unfortunately less distinct than in earlier titles.

This recruited character represents one of the interesting plot developments since the conclusion of Terror from the Deep – human/alien hybrids. Credit: Nookrium

Interestingly, X-COM: Apocalypse builds on the narrative of UFO Defense and Terror from the Deep. Much of the Earth had been devastated by the events of the first and second alien wars, leading to the construction of entirely new human cities. Society had grown restive due to the constant threat of annihilation and broken infrastructure, leading to rise of powerful, radical political groups and cults. By the time of Apocalypse, Earth lacks the unified world authorities who had come together at the start of the original game. The Sectoid aliens from the preceding game, meanwhile, have been enslaved by the new Microid aliens of Apocalypse. Their Martian base has become the foundation for off-world colonization and mining by humans. In spite of its inherent emphasis on tactical combat and resource management over complex storytelling, Mythos Games had crafted a beguiling X-COM universe.

Base defense playing out in real time for the first time in an X-COM release. Credit: Nookrium

X-COM: Apocalypse would mark a major shift in the series’ fortunes. It was commercially unsuccessful and fell victim to numerous development issues, convincing Julian Gollop that MicroProse was no longer a reliable publisher. His own ambitions, on the other hand, outstripped the resources and technology available for development within an increasingly niche game genre. Market forces had never been a major factor in Gollop’s approach to game design, but the tension between what was possible and what was desirable had made Mythos Games’ continued partnership with MicroProse untenable. Gollop would sell X-COM‘s rights to its publisher and move on to new intellectual properties, as the series itself would descend into obscurity over the decade ahead.


XCOM: Enemy Unknown (2012)

MicroProse may have obtained ownership of the X-COM IP, but it inherited little of the creative vision which fuelled the series’ strongest moments; specific details on the quasi-spinoffs produced from 1998 to 2001 will be discussed below. By 2002, the property was again in flux, being transferred as part of Infogrames’ acquisition of Hasbro Interactive the previous year. Infogrames, renamed Atari after acquiring that company at the same time that it purchased Hasbro Interactive, did nothing with the franchise. It eventually sold the rights to Take-Two Interactive in 2005 and work finally began on a new series entry.

Even the title screen is atmospheric! Credit: ChristopherOdd

Take-Two subsidiary developer Irrational Games was assigned the next X-COM game, but it would struggle to split time between this and its own BioShock IP, leading the property into the hands of 2K Marin, another Take-Two studio. As 2K Marin worked on a first-person shooter set in the X-COM universe (more on this in the Spinoffs section below), Take-Two Interactive would assign a full-fledged remake of the series’ original release to subsidiary Firaxis Games in 2008; this studio had been established by former employees of MicroProse before being acquired by Take-Two. Due to its role in the development of Civilization III (2001) and Civilization IV (2005), Firaxis had already cultivated a reputation for excellent turn-based strategy gameplay.

Thank goodness they didn’t abandon the equipment screen! Credit: ChristopherOdd

Even with this impressive background, it would take at least four years for Firaxis to get its X-COM series reboot onto store shelves. Much of this lengthy development period was spent identifying and honing elements of the original X-COM that still felt fresh. Developer interviews reveal that the team at Firaxis was dedicated to treating the beloved property with respect while avoiding fawning reverence – some archaic features would need to be cut away in order to polish the series to modern standards.

The typical gameplay perspective in Battlescape mode is surprisingly similar to the original game; its primary difference is a slimmed-down HUD and fully polygonal rendering. Credit: ChristopherOdd

Among the greatest challenges was a major visual overhaul. Isometric sprite-based art design was a core piece of the 1990s strategy game aesthetic. This had fallen out of favor by the early 2000s, though, and even the venerable Civilization franchise had transitioned to 3D polygonal art design by its fourth entry in 2005. Rather than aping past successes, Firaxis developed a new 3D game engine to render characters and environments in real-time. The perspective is typically a distant isometric point-of-view, but the camera closes in to nearby cinematic angles when combat actions are initiated. The original game could depict graphic violence in an abstract fashion, but watching aliens and humans inflict harm upon one another in three realistically-modelled dimensions dramatically enhances the game’s horror. The shifting perspective has the additional effect of making a classic turn-based strategy title feel comparatively dynamic, appealing to an audience which had not grown up with the slow-paced, cumbersome interfaces of 1980s strategy games.

Choosing research projects requires interacting with the charming Dr. Shen. Credit: ChristopherOdd

If the visual overhaul in Battlescape mode heightens turn-by-turn tension, changes to the classic Geoscape mode are designed to enhance the tragedy of an unfolding alien invasion. The narrative and overarching structure are virtually unchanged from UFO Defense, but dynamic camera angles as the player builds his or her base reinforce the fact that there are individual lives affected by the cataclysmic events unfolding over the course of the game. Each type of resource management – military development, scientific research, and alien autopsies – are embodied by human avatars who converse with the player character in first-person scenes. They emphasize the importance of various projects, competing with one another for the player’s time and reminding the player of how important his or her individual choices are.

Base building in a fully 3D-modeled profile view. Credit: ChristopherOdd

Base building is carried out from a profile perspective, as the player denotes specific sections of a grid to build new facilities. These take time, as building and research projects had in the original game, so the player must be judicious about how he or she allots resources. At the same time, facilities grant bonuses to adjacent rooms, so even the base’s layout must be carefully considered.

Hey, I know that planet! Credit: ChristopherOdd

A revolving 3D globe in the X-COM headquarters represents the Earth, revealing nations’ financial support of the Extraterrestrial Combat initiative and alien attacks across the planet. Most attacks occurs in tandem with others, so the player is forced to decide which nation to support and which to ignore. It is impossible to guard against all threats, though the development of an air fleet and defense satellites over time can mitigate the potential for widespread devastation.

Egads, it’s a Sectoid ambush. Credit: ChristopherOdd

Combat occurs in much the same way as it had in the original game, aside from the dynamic perspective. The player controls a squad of class-based characters customized with equipment and abilities between missions. The roles denoted by various classes establish how each character functions in battle, from direct close combat to medical care for wounded team members. Tactical decisions are affected by sight lines around sprawling environments and mission objectives. The objectives are highly varied, including bomb defusal, hostage rescue, and alien eliminations. Levels and enemies scale in complexity and difficulty over time, with the player exploring dense alien architecture and battling powerful psychic creatures by the campaign’s conclusion. The presence of an Ironman mode preserves the series characteristic tension, as a turn-by-turn autosave system ensures that earlier save states cannot be recovered and soldiers lost in combat are permanently removed from the player’s roster.

This appears to be a still of the player character either battling aliens or ordering fast food. Credit: ChristopherOdd

XCOM: Enemy Unknown was published across the Windows PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 platforms in 2012 to widespread critical acclaim. Additional ports were later produced for the PlayStation Vita and mobile devices. A major 2013 expansion, Enemy Within, offered new mechanical exoskeletons for soldiers, new alien enemies, a rogue human faction called EXALT, and 47 new battlefield maps. In Enemy Within, the player must also defend against a direct alien attack on his or her base at a randomly determined point in the campaign.

Wait, that’s not Geoscape mode. Yet there’s the globe. This must be a base defense sequence in Enemy Within! Credit: illequine

Firaxis had navigated an extraordinarily challenging tightrope walk, but had managed to preserve the spirit of the original X-COM without becoming mired in archaic design philosophies. Even as quality of life concessions were made, including highly customisable difficulty settings, the game retained an atmosphere of tension and careful resource management. Based on the Enemy Unknown‘s resounding critical and commercial performance, Firaxis was quickly assigned work on a follow-up.


XCOM 2 (2016)

According to a 2016 Rock Paper Shotgun interview with lead designer Jake Solomon, the development team at Firaxis had felt beholden to UFO Defense when developing XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Freed from that constraint by the positive reception to their final product, Firaxis could integrate more of its own original ideas when creating a sequel. In contrast to the relationship between Terror From The Deep and the series’ 1994 premiere, the sequel to X-COM’s reboot would be a significant step forward for the franchise.

Things are looking rather bleak at the start of XCOM 2. Credit: ChristopherOdd

XCOM 2 went through several development phases, though the basic outline seems to have remained largely consistent from beginning to end. The player would discover that much of the preceding game’s final act had been an illusion produced by the aliens. In fact, the Earth had been conquered and X-COM had been driven into the shadows.

Rescuing the Commander from his/her stasis pod. It feels like someone smarter than me could write an allegorical piece about believing a pleasant illusion rather than a challenging reality. Maybe someday. Credit: ChristopherOdd

At the start of XCOM 2, a guerilla squad of X-COM soldiers rescues the preceding game’s Commander from a prison in which he or she has been experiencing the illusory depiction of the alien invasion. The Commander, having honed his or her skills in a simulation over the preceding twenty years of occupation, is placed in charge of the remaining X-COM resistance fighters. From this disadvantaged and heavily outgunned position, X-COM must strike back and overthrow Earth’s oppressors.

Combat sequences are almost indistinguishable from Enemy Unknown. Credit: ChristopherOdd

The campaign is mounted in a similar way to XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Players split time between base-building and combat, with the former occurring on a series of animated menu screens and the latter occurring on isometric 3D maps. Base development, research and mission selection are extraordinarily similar to XCOM: Enemy Unknown in spite of the player’s less privileged position. The most significant factor is time and dwindling resources, as these are much scarcer than in the preceding title.

The map screen, from which players choose missions. Credit: ChristopherOdd

What little material support X-COM has is acquired primarily from squad missions. These are mechanically similar to earlier series entries – turn-based combat taking place within an invisibly gridded urban or rural environment – but are appreciably more challenging than in XCOM: Enemy Unknown. The development team had noticed players behaving very conservatively in the previous game, avoiding risks by opting for defensive tactics. This slowed the game down and sometimes secured victory at the expense of a thrilling experience. To fight this behavior, Firaxis increased the pressure on players to move quickly through maps or face consequences; some missions feature soldiers being left behind if they don’t make it to an extraction point within a designated time limit, while others feature resources that disappear if not secured in a specified number of turns. This pressure keeps players’ squads in constant motion and increases the opportunity for emergent combat scenarios to develop.

Building the X-COM base is mechanically and cosmetically similar to Enemy Unknown, but resources are much scarcer. Credit: ChristopherOdd

Emergent gameplay is more broadly enhanced by the integration of procedural level generation. XCOM: Enemy Unknown had been lightly criticized for the rigidity of its maps – once a player had experienced them all, the sense of mystery was diminished. To avoid a similar pitfall in XCOM 2, Firaxis built a level design engine capable of creating new battlefields on the fly. Players could never feel that they had a grasp on the terrain, dovetailing elegantly with the developers’ intent to keep players feeling like underdogs.

Here is a zoomed-in action scene in which a Sectoid-human hybrid uses psionic powers on an X-COM soldier. Note the overgrown nature of this environment, along with the futuristic map on the bus stop. Credit: ChristopherOdd

Cosmetically, the world of XCOM 2 is more distinctly fantastical than that of its predecessor. Twenty years had passed since the aliens’ initial invasion. The Earth’s overlords largely reshaped the planet’s cities while conveying the image of a fascist security state. This places a higher burden on the narrative to communicate how and why the world has evolved, rather than simply juxtaposing the foreign and familiar as had been done to jarring effect in XCOM: Enemy Unknown. XCOM 2 is the story of a hardscrabble struggle to survive and thrive in a world conquered by aliens, so placing players in familiar settings would only undermine the game’s theme.

New persistent enemies are flagged by a red icon on the overworld map screen in expansion War of the Chosen. Credit: Gamespot

In spite of initial hesitation by Firaxis, XCOM 2 was published on Xbox One and PlayStation 4 several months after its debut on the Windows PC platform. The following year, the studio would release an expansion called War of the Chosen. Some major overhauls are present, including specialized boss enemies called the Chosen; these creatures appear at random intervals to abscond with soldiers as the player takes part in otherwise standard combat missions. Soldiers are improved from the base game as well, newly able to form relationships with specific squadmates. These relationships inform the soldiers’ combat prowess and increase the opportunity to hear unique dialogue, further enhancing the sense of emergent storytelling distinct to each player’s adventure.

The Chosen are not a particularly pleasant bunch, even to one another. Credit: Gamespot

XCOM 2 and its expansion were widely lauded by fans and critics. Even series creator Julian Gollop tweeted his love for the game in 2016! Gollop did voice a concern echoed by the wider world, however: XCOM 2 is bracingly tough. This had apparently been a very late change of direction in development, as testers had found the game too easy in its beta build. Firaxis may have over-corrected a bit, however, and the game quickly gained a reputation for its difficulty. Still, sales were strong and fans were satisfied that the franchise had finally received a successful direct sequel.


Spinoffs and Cancelled Releases

After 1997’s X-COM: Apocalypse, Mythos Games split with MicroProse and abandoned ownership of the alien invasion simulator it had so boldly introduced to the world three years earlier. MicroProse, along with the succession of studios that inherited the license, would attempt to develop sequels set in the X-COM universe. These titles can be treated as bizarre spinoffs, as they share surprisingly little in common with the core tactical strategy entries.

Interceptor is a significant departure from the series’ typical mechanics, as this cockpit-view suggests. Credit: Silencer

The first attempt to create an X-COM title after the departure of Mythos Games resulted in space flight simulator X-COM: Interceptor (1998). This followed the series’ formula of multiple interlinked systems – in this case a real-time flight combat mode and a resource management mode – but lacked any tactical squad combat. All battles take place in space, with the player piloting a ship and firing on enemies in real-time. Critical reception was muted, though some praised the political intrigue of the resource management sequences.

A flashing “COMBO” icon might be the least thematically appropriate element in the intensely thematically inappropriate X-COM: Enforcer. This is more or less the X-COM name slapped onto a standard third-person shooter. Credit: Samuel McCravy

The next post-Gollop X-COM game was X-COM: Enforcer (2001). Hasbro Interactive acquired MicroProse in 1998 and, among numerous staffing shifts, had several other X-COM projects cancelled in pursuit of one that would be likely to turn a quick profit. The studio gambled on a real-time third-person shooter based on the series’ universe and set during the events of the first game. It shares little in common with its source material beyond cosmetic details, and was subject to scathing reviews. This was the final title released in the series prior to Firaxis’ 2012 revival.

A 2011 trailer depicted The Bureau: XCOM Declassified in its early first-person shooter build. Credit: moviemaniacsDE

During that lengthy interval, however, Irrational Games and 2K Marin had been assigned the responsibility for developing a new game in the X-COM franchise. According to an extensive series of anonymous interviews conducted by Polygon, X-COM development moved back and forth between Irrational and 2K Australia during 2006-2007, with the latter successfully pitching a mid-20th Century setting. With Irrational rapidly becoming bogged down by its own new BioShock IP, the project then moved to Take-Two Interactive’s 2K Marin studio. Different approaches to the franchise had been proposed by Irrational and 2K Australia, including a classic turn-based tactical strategy game run on the Freedom Force (2005) engine, but these more conservative pre-production scenarios were scrapped once the core series revival was assigned to Firaxis in 2008.

That’s a cover-based third-person shooter alright. The sheer number of waist-high and head-high crates gives it away. Credit: ChristoperOdd

2K Marin would revamp the game into a first-person shooter, according to a demo shown off in 2010. From there, it would be reworked still further into a real-time third-person tactical shooter, but would retain its mid-20th Century setting. It was finally released as The Bureau: XCOM Declassified in 2013. The game centers on William Carter, a single playable character who leads a team of two others on combat missions. The team leader can slow time to assign tasks to his or her squadmates as they confront aliens. New equipment can be acquired during missions. Unfortunately, as is often the case for games with troubled development cycles, The Bureau would disappoint fans. It felt largely superfluous in the wake of the superlative XCOM: Enemy Unknown, doing little to evoke the unique charms of the franchise. It did have the compensating virtue of a distinct setting, but this was not enough to justify unremarkable gameplay.

Gameplay still from the cancelled X-COM: Alliance. Credit:

Interestingly, The Bureau was not the first X-COM project to be proposed as a first-person shooter. X-COM Alliance was in production for the PC platform in 1999 by Hasbro Interactive after its acquisition of MicroProse, according to an article published by Unseen64. As with X-COM: Interceptor, a strategy component would still be involved between action-oriented FPS stages. On those stages, gameplay would be first-person yet rely on the coordination of a squad selected from the player’s full X-COM roster. After years in development by multiple studios, X-COM: Alliance would be quietly cancelled in 2001.


From his humble roots as a strategy board game enthusiast in the 1970s to his days as a rookie programmer in the 1980s, Julian Gollop had nurtured a love for tactical decision-making. With the rise of complex video games by the end of that decade, Gollop had the perfect palette in which he could work his craft, founding his own game development studio in 1988. X-COM: UFO Defense would represent the apotheosis of Gollop’s early career upon its publication by MicroProse in 1994. A series of questionable releases following the departure of its creator would lead the series into obscurity before a surprising 2012 resurrection. After more than a decade out of the spotlight, X-COM came to dominate the strategy game genre in the 2010s thanks to the guiding hand of Firaxis. These master strategy game designers are currently forging a path ahead for the foundational turn-based tactical strategy series, and it is impossible to know what the future will bring. Fans can be confident, however, that X-COM is finally in reliable hands.

If you are interested in reading more, consider reviewing the following sources for my article: