All X-Com Games, Ranked Best to Worst
It’s all or nothing. You’re in command. It’s up to you now.
Your squad lands at the mission site. If you fail this mission another nation will cut its funding for X-COM and it will be game over for Earth. Everything hangs in the balance of this one solitary mission. The fog clears, you see the aliens but it's too late: You’ve had your move. Your soldier dies… and the rest of your squad only just make it out alive after a narrow victory. You sit back and take a breath, look at your depleted resources and realise it doesn't look good. But at least now you have a chance to try and get your strategy back in shape before the alien bastards come at you again.
And that’s pretty much how I remember my experience of playing the original X-Com game all the way back in 1993; back when it wasn’t even called X-Com, but UFO-Enemy Unknown. Even now 22 years after its release, UFO is still revered as one of the most perfect games ever made.
When I heard they were remaking this legend of a game I wondered if it was a good idea because well, you know, nostalgia, and rose tinted glasses, and all that. Could they recreate and better the original or would it just be a damp squib? Fortunately, 2012's Enemy Unknown is actually rather good and, dare I say it, better. Unfortunately not all the X-Com games are masterpieces. There are some absolute turkeys luring in the back of the X-COM franchise.
So here’s a list I’ve made of the games from best to worst, so you know the difference between your X-COM, and your X-COMmunicated. (Do you see what I did there?)
Never mind, let's get started.
1.) X-COM: Enemy unknown. (2012)
The game that got it all rolling again
Purists might argue it’s not as head over heels micro-manageable as the original but this is a game for the 21st Century Gamer. It is outstanding in its similarities to the original. I love the either/or choices that have to be made in terms of blowing money on research or going with the technology you have already to try and win. But it’s the ground combat where Enemy Unknown makes its mark.
X-COM has never looked so good, or as playable. The graphics are beautiful to look at, and destructible scenery is always a winner. And then there’s the multiplayer option.
Unlike the strategically tactical long game of single player multiplayer battles are fast and dirty. The limited points you can use to build your squad remind me of the system used in the Total War games, and it works. I normally get huckled when I go online but it’s so much fun I don’t care.
Enemy Unknown was the game X-COM fans had been waiting for since 1997’s Apocalypse and it was worth the wait.
Headshot: If you will stand on top of a car you can expect nothing less. lolz.
2.) X-COM: Enemy Within. (Expansion) (2013)
Sshhhh. I don't think he's seen me...
I had no worries buying this after I played Enemy Unknown. The new ‘Meld’ material is fun, especially using it to create your own genetic super soldiers to run rampage around the maps, albeit a rampage undertaken one turn at a time after careful strategic planning, due process and proper risk analysis of the situation at hand. Well, a kind of rampage anyway.
The super sneaky enemy human group known as EXALT is also a welcome surprise. It makes a change to have to work against more than just aliens and let’s face it, it’s always fun to kill your fellow man in a gaming situation. It’s the megalomaniac in me that loves it what can I say.
Enemy Within also expands the multiplayer aspect of Enemy-Unknown as well with 40 (40!) new maps that really utilise proper 3D geography, thus making the most of the excellent graphics engine that propel the experience to new levels. And that’s what Enemy Within is all about at its core; more maps, more tension, and more death.
Although it is just an expansion, it’s an expansion you need to get your hands on if you haven’t already.
3.) UFO: Enemy Unknown. (1993)
...Beautiful on the inside? Yeah, sure, why not....
The original. The legend. The one where it all started. It’s aged surprisingly well, you know
UFO blew me away when I picked up my first copy in 1993. Like an idiot and like almost everyone else, I didn’t bother reading the manual. I should have done because there was a lot of useful information in it. Back then games came with manuals. I know, right these days it’s like “what’s a manual?”
The really great thing about this game was the fact that UFO was actually two in depth games in one, which is quite a rarity for a game even these days, let alone a game that was released only three years out of the 1980’s. The ‘Geoscape’ world management part of the game is a work of art and years ahead of its time. OK, so yes the graphics and the audio are getting on for it, but under the hood the game’s still got it all going on. If anything, it’s even more tactical on a world management level than the 2012 remake.
Geoscape: A simpler world, for a simpler time. All be it, a time with invading aliens.
Placing your first base in either N. America or Europe made a huge difference in how the game played itself out but you had to read the manual to figure out why, and I’m not telling you here why that was so important. Find the manual online and read it yourself! The point here though is that bad decisions at the start had consequences later in the game, but you didn’t know that until it was too late.
This was pre-internet for almost everyone. If you had a problem you had to work it all out yourself or write into a Games magazine, wait a month, and hope they printed a reply. Or you could have taken your chances and waited 5 years for Google to be invented, the point being if you got stuck you were on your own.
All this was before you even got to the actual combat bit where you took your squad out to fight the alien scum invading Earth, and that was where the real fun began…
Fog Of War; when it was taken much more seriously.
And trust me on this….
There was no failsafe if you forgot to arm your guys properly before you sent them to fight. If they went out without ammo, it was your fault. That said, if you can get the game to run today it’s worth a look. Or you could just play the 2012 one. Yeah, you should probably just play the new one, because, you know, it’s newer and shinier and stuff, but do so knowing that without the age defying brilliance of the original UFO it would never have existed.
4.) X-COM: Apocalypse. (1997)
Cityscape. Different from Geoscape. But exactly the same.
This is the pitch:
‘Instead of Earth, let’s set Apocalypse in a city and call the management side of it ‘Cityscape.’ We’ll call the city ‘Mega Primus,’ because it’s the future and it’ll be really political. What do you think?’
‘I like it. Let’s do it, but only if we can include ‘real time combat.’
And do it they did.
For a long time this was the last good X-COM game. The real time combat made the difference between Apocalypse being just another pretty good sequel to it being a breath of fresh air. You had the choice to play it old school turn based or in real time, albeit with the ability to pause the game to issue orders at any time, which was different and fun to try. There was a new alien race to combat, and trying to keep all the city’s varying criminal like factions onside was a nightmare.
Once upon a time, these were cutting edge graphics. Once upon a time, how a game played was more important than how it looked.
Collateral damage was suddenly a factor to consider. If you really annoyed one side they no longer just stopped funding you, but came after you. If you were lucky, they only wanted their money back. If you were unlucky you ended up having to fight them as well as the aliens. On a management point of view it was the same as the original, but the real time element while inventive, did mean you lost something of the original tension from the first two games. Still, it looked good for the time, and despite some bizarre game economics involving criminal gangs and arms dealers, it was something of a revelation.
5.) X-COM: TERROR FROM THE DEEP. (1995)
Coolest submarine, ever.
Ahh, the first title with X-COM in it. I still have the original box back in my Mom’s house somewhere. Unless she’s thrown it out the way she threw out my original copy of X-Wing; all 11 floppy disks of it. I will never forgive her.
Terror From The Deep was the same game as UFO, just underwater, and extremely more difficult. I only just found out why: Apparently it was to do with fans complaining about how easy UFO was. Nobody clocked why until it was too late.
UFO had had a facelift but underneath the tightened neck line it was the same AI and the same enemies, just with different looks. It does explain why grenades tossed underwater went as far as the ones in UFO though. It was atmospherically more gloomy and claustrophobic because of the whole water thing, but still a great game in its own right. It was still two games in one and both the Geoscape mode, and the combat was as good as ever.
X-COM: The Bureau. (2013)
Before lightbulbs were invented, the 60's were very dark.
Bureau is a beautiful game to look at and the 60’s old school B movie beat look and feel is lovely. The animation is smooth and crisp and there are big old run and gun sections that are enjoyable if repetitive. And there’s the nub. It’s another third person real time shooter and if you take X-COM out of the title, it becomes just another really average third person shooter really quickly.
"No, I don't know why somebody called the Ghostbusters either."
The AI soldiers you’re supposed to issue orders and coordinate tactics with are more often than not, moronic and sometimes Hell-bent on committing suicide. In between fights you wander around your ‘HQ’ taking part in inane dialogue conversations with characters that feel like they’ve been tacked on to simulate the Geoscape management to give the game depth, but is instead, just annoying. There are glimpses of greatness in Bureau but sadly they’re few and far between, and this feels like it was released unfinished to capitalize on Enemy Unknown’s 2012 success.
6.) X-COM: ENFORCER. (2001)
X-COM Enforcer was something of a departure for the X-COM series in that it was a third person non-stop shooter. It had X-COM in the title and that was it. It was like playing a mindless violent console game that hadn’t been polished or properly play tested. You constantly switched to whatever weapon you picked up off the ground whether you wanted to have it or not.
Even in 2001, these graphics, and this gameplay, was distinctly average.
It wasn’t that the game was bad. It was just that there was nothing all that memorable about it. If I’d wanted a tactical freewheeling third person explosion fest that was completely forgettable, I would have bought a PS1 and played any number of similar games that were released for that platform instead.
7.) X-COM: Interceptor. (1998)
Still better than a Twilight movie.
Instead of nations funding you, this time it was big business; in space. The strategic management system was still there but dumbed down, and it wasn’t turn based. Instead you flew spacecraft in real time a la Wing Commander, or X Wing vs Tie Fighter. Sadly however, Interceptor was neither. I had really looked forward to Interceptor when I heard about it. It was innovative in its own way, but the missions quickly became repetitive and there was no way to skip the same three or four basic mission types you flew again, and again, and again, and again. It got real boring real quick. Multiplayer was also disappointing because you could only dogfight other players which left many players asking the question, why did they even bother?
The game had its moments, but overall was disappointing, not because of what it was, but because of what it could have been. Great potential feels like it was squandered, and what could have been a great new direction for the X-Com franchise ended up becoming just, meh...
This was 'the good ending,' apparently. No one actually knows, because everyone had given up by this stage.
8: X-COM: First Alien Invasion. (1999)
It burns, it burns.
Don't worry, few people have ever heard of this one. You are not alone. I doubt you could play this game now even if you wanted to, which you won’t. This game passed me by and reading what little there is on the internet about it, I can understand why.
It’s X-COM, but played over Email. Think about that: EMAIL! Even in 1999 this idea sucked. It was however still better than any and all of the Twilight films.
X-Com: Combat via email....image taken from X-Com(Email Games.) Wikipedia
I will tell you how obscure this game is. I have struggled to find a decent image I can actually use. It's like the internet has judged the game, found it wanting and literally sentenced it too oblivion. In fact the only image I can get my hands on that I can post comes from the Wiki entry. And that’s all I have to say about that.
Few games start life as strongly as X-COM did. But as the 21st Century neared, and then began, the series almost drifted into irrelevance, becoming little more than a footnote in game history. Fortunately that’s changed now, and with luck X-Com can keep on going strong for another twenty two years.
But what do you think? What way would you have ranked the games? Have we missed anything out?
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