XCOM games have been around for nearly three decades at this point in some form or another. While XCOM never managed to reach the same heights of success as other long-running franchises, the series definitely has its fair share of fans. With XCOM 3 likely still a couple of years away, we figured we’d reminisce a bit about previous games in the series and try to rank them all from worst to best.
There are 10 XCOM games we’re going to look at, including a couple of spin-offs. We won’t count expansions as separate entries, though. Also, for the sake of consistency, we will sometimes use ‘XCOM’ instead of ‘X-COM’ when referring to both the newer and the older games.
2K decided to do a bit of relabeling after they purchased the IP. But in spite of the slightly different spelling, all of these games are part of the same franchise. With that introduction out of the way, let’s just jump straight into it, shall we?
10. X-Com: First Alien Invasion (1999)
First Alien Invasion was a play-by-email game, which is a concept that sounds fittingly alien these days. PBE games have never been hugely popular but by the time First Alien Invasion came out they were pretty much non-existent. As a result, this game was overlooked by most people and that’s probably for the better because it wasn’t very good.
First Alien Invasion was a multiplayer-only game that played like an extremely dumbed-down version of the original X-COM. This made the game more accessible to newcomers but didn’t sit well with veterans of the series. The play-my-email model wasn’t exactly a big selling point either since you would have to wait potentially hours or even days for your opponent to play their turn.
If you’re on an XCOM games binge and want to play First Alien Invasion out of pure curiosity I have some bad news for you. The game’s servers were closed when its publisher, Hasbro Interactive, shut down back in 2001. You can technically still play it if you’re willing to download a bunch of files from some sketchy sources and fiddle around with them. But it’s honestly not even worth the hassle.
9. X-Com: Interceptor (1998)
XCOM games have never been shy about experimenting with multiple genres. With Interceptor, developer MicroProse wanted to try something completely different and made a space sim that bears a striking resemblance to Wing Commander in terms of gameplay. Unfortunately, it wasn’t nearly as good.
X-COM: interceptor takes players to space and tasks them with protecting and managing human colonies that were established in the aftermath of the First Alien War. You spend most of your time shooting at aliens while flying around from place to place in your fancy spaceship.
Base management and research haven’t been forgotten, but they play a much smaller role in Interceptor compared to previous games.
While the idea of an XCOM space sim sounds good on paper, the execution leaves a lot to be desired. Interceptor had tons of problems even back in the day but on modern systems it’s pretty much unplayable. Same as most of the other old XCOM games.
8. X-Com: Enforcer (2001)
Enforcer was a last-ditch attempt at cobbling together a final X-COM game before Hasbro Interactive went out of business. And I do want to emphasize cobbled together. X-COM: Enforcer was made using bits and pieces from two canceled games – X-COM: Alliance and X-COM: Genesis.
You know how I said earlier that XCOM games like to experiment with various genres? Well, Enforcer is the most extreme example of that. The game is a third-person shooter with no strategy elements to speak of. Enforcer is a mindless action shooter that bears only a passing resemblance to previous entries in the series. The shooting part is pretty fun but there’s not much else to recommend it.
Considering this was put together almost overnight, it’s a wonder that it even works at all. It’s honestly not that much better than Interceptor but it does run just a little bit better on modern systems.
7. Xcom: Chimera Squad (2020)
As of this writing, Chimera Squad is the most recent XCOM game we’ve got, and one of the most disappointing ones so far. By 2020 most of us were hoping to hear something about XCOM 3 but instead, we got a half-baked spin-off that feels more like a parody than anything else. Chimera Squad does feature the turn-based tactical gameplay we all know and love but there’s little else here to write home about here.
Chimera Squad takes place after the events of XCOM 2 and puts you in charge of a rag-tag team comprised of both humans and aliens. While having aliens on your team is an interesting idea, these particular aliens are some of the most annoying characters ever seen in a video game. The writing, dialogue, voice acting, and pretty much everything else aside from the combat are simply abysmal.
The worst part about Chimera Squad is that it spends much of its runtime trying to be funny. Spoiler alert: it’s not, and I’m not sure why anyone at Firaxis thought it was a good idea to try to make a humorous XCOM game. It just doesn’t work.
Luckily, this is a very short game so you won’t have to suffer long if you decide to play it. Chimera Squad is definitely better than all the previous XCOM games we’ve discussed so far but, let’s be honest, the bar was pretty low to begin with.
6. The Bureau: Xcom Declassified (2013)
I’m a bit conflicted when it comes to The Bureau. On one hand, it’s another spin-off that has very little in common with previous games. But on the other hand, the concept behind XCOM Declassified is very interesting and the resulting game could have been amazing. Too bad it ended up being just a little bit above average.
The Bureau: XCOM Declassified takes place in the 1960s against the backdrop of the Cold War. While most of the US was worried about a potential war with the Soviet Union, a top-secret government agency known as The Bureau was investigating something even scarier – an impending alien invasion.
The game has a pretty unique setting and gives off strong X-Files vibes, which I very much appreciate. The combat isn’t horrible either even though it only incorporates some of the tactical elements found in previous XCOM games.
That said, the story is completely forgettable, the enemy design is uninspired, and the overall gameplay starts to feel very repetitive after only a few hours of play. The Bureau definitely had potential, but it didn’t quite manage to live up to it. Not unlike the next game on our list.
5. X-Com: Terror From the Deep (1995)
Now we’re starting to get to the good stuff. Terror From the Deep is a direct sequel to the original X-COM and is set a few decades after its predecessor. This time around, the action takes place almost entirely underwater. Hence, the name.
There’s less to say about Terror From the Deep than most other XCOM games. The sequel came out about a year after the original and made minimal changes to the established formula. You can expect the same mix of base building and turn-based tactical combat the series is known for.
The only major change is the setting and there are a couple of minor additions here and there, like the introduction of melee weapons.
Despite being such an iterative game, Terror From the Deep remains one of the most beloved entries in the franchise. Sure, a lot of that is due to nostalgia, but this is a genuinely good game at the end of the day, if a bit unoriginal.
4. X-Com: Apocalypse (1997)
Apocalypse is easily one of the most divisive XCOM games out there. While there are a ton of people who love it, myself included, some purists felt it was too big of a departure from the first two entries in the series. And that’s true, but I would argue that was a good thing.
As mentioned earlier, Terror From the Deep was basically a reskin of the original while later entries like Enforcer and Interceptor had almost nothing in common with it. X-COM Apocalypse strikes a good balance between keeping a lot of the original tactical elements while also adding tons of new features. The setting is smaller in scale here but a lot more detailed, giving you a lot more things to do.
Among other things, Apocalypse lets you choose between real-time and turn-based during combat, both during missions and, more importantly, during Cityscape mode.
In X-COM: Apocalypse you can build, customize, and physically move around vehicles on the map as you attempt to shoot down UFOs. This is a lot more engaging than the simple dogfighting minigames found in other entries. I would love to see the developers bring back that feature for XCOM 3.
3. X-Com: UFO Defense (1994)
Also known as UFO: Enemy Unknown in Europe, X-COM: UFO Defense is the game that started it all almost three decades ago. Designed Julian Gollop initially envisioned the game as a sequel to Laser Squad, one of his previous projects, before he decided to turn it into something more unique. It’s safe to say that he succeeded.
The original X-COM would go on to inspire dozens of other games for years to come. Including the likes of Xenonauts, Mutant Year Zero, Gears Tactics, and just recently Chaos Gate – Daemonhunters, one of the most interesting Warhammer 40K games we’ve seen in a while. And, of course, many years later Julian Gollop would go on to make Phoenix Point, a spiritual successor to X-COM.
Despite looking like a relic from a long-lost age, the original X-COM still holds up surprisingly well to this day. In fact, the game manages to invoke a certain sense of mystery and fear of the unknown that modern titles never managed to capture.
If you’re planning to give it a try, make sure to use OpenXCOM to avoid running into any issues. Similar software are also available for Terror From the Deep and Apocalypse.
2. Xcom: Enemy Unknown (2012)
Thanks to the efforts of Firaxis, XCOM games saw a massive resurge back in 2012. The studio did an incredible job at reviving the franchise and knocked it out of the park with its first project, XCOM: Enemy Unknown.
Just as its name indicates, this is a soft remake of the original X-COM with massive improvements all across the board. XCOM: Enemy Unknown managed to modernize the original gameplay formula established by its predecessors while bringing the franchise into the 21st century.
Much like the original, Enemy Unknown is oftentimes punishing and frustrating but also addicting to the point where you can’t stop playing. The ‘one more turn’ philosophy popularized by Firaxis’ other big franchise, Civilization, definitely applies here as well.
About one year after the launch of Enemy Unknown, Firaxis decided to take things one step further with XCOM: Enemy Within. This expansion pack adds huge improvements to the base game along with a bunch of new content to boot. It soon became impossible to imagine playing the game without the expansion. You technically can, but you shouldn’t because Enemy Within is the definitive version of Firaxis’ first XCOM game.
1. Xcom 2 (2016)
And last but certainly not least we have XCOM 2, not just the best game in the series but arguably one of the best turn-based tactics games ever made. With this one, Firaxis took everything players enjoyed about Enemy Unknown and cranked all the dials up to eleven. The end result is an incredible game that was somehow made even better a year after launch with the War of the Chosen expansion.
Forget trying to stop the alien invasion like in previous XCOM games because here the aliens have already won. Luckily, all is not lost just yet. By gathering the last remnants of XCOM you can gradually beat back the alien overlords and help humanity reclaim Earth. Just bear in mind that the road ahead will be long and difficult. And will most likely involve restarting the game several times.
War of the Chose did for XCOM 2 what Enemy Within did for Enemy Unknown. Firaxis could have easily taken all the content added with the expansion, made a few changes, and released it separately as XCOM 3.
A lot of players consider WotC to be a different game, and it does feel like one in many ways, but you still need the base game to run it. Which is why we still count it as part of XCOM 2 instead of a separate thing.
If you enjoyed this type of ranked list, make sure to check out some of our other ones down below.