I love that Jake Solomon is following his life sim passions, but just give me a minute to mourn XCOM

One of the Chosen in XCOM 2: War of the Chosen.
(Image credit: Firaxis)

Jake Solomon is one of those developers you just jump at the chance to interview. He's so full of passion for the work he does that you can't help but walk away just as jazzed as he is. Especially because you know it isn't all talk—that same passion shines through in the games he's taken the lead on. 

So I'm really excited to see what comes of his new project as an indie developer, and I wish him all the success in the world as he leaves turn-based strategy behind for life sim experimentation. He's doing what he wants to do, and after all these years, I trust his instincts. 

But just… give me a minute to mourn XCOM, yeah? 

Solomon already said he was done with turn-based strategy when he left Firaxis last year (along with other key members of the XCOM team, such as Garth DeAngelis). Even before that, I think the writing was on the wall that we weren't getting an XCOM 3 any time soon—both Chimera Squad and Marvel's Midnight Suns represented a totally different approach to the genre. But seeing him talk about a new project a million miles away from anything to do with battling aliens, it can't help but feel like the final nail in the coffin for an irrational but still lingering hope that he might have had some spiritual sequel in the works. 

The impact of XCOM: Enemy Unknown in 2012 and XCOM 2 in 2016 is hard to overstate. They revitalised turn-based strategy into one of the most popular genres on PC, and to this day an email hits my inbox once a week announcing a new "XCOM-like". But there's a strange void there—those two games were all we got from the rebooted series, outside of some excellent post-launch support, and none of its imitators have really succeeded in taking on that abandoned crown. 

(Image credit: Firaxis)

When I say that, I'm only partly speaking in terms of quality. Certainly the XCOM games are an extremely difficult act to follow in terms of pure strategy finesse, but equally we've had some excellent challengers in that regard—from Invisible Inc to Into the Breach, and even just recently I've had a blast with Capes at preview (full review coming soon!). 

What's proved much, much harder to recreate is XCOM's sense of consequence and adversity. Every top-down turn-based strategy game these days is described as an XCOM-like—I'm guilty of that myself—but I don't really think they can claim that title if they don't also tap into some of that more organic magic of the series. I'm talking about permadeath and lethality, randomly generated elements, and the sense of an ongoing struggle affected by every step you take along the way—the secret sauce that gets you heartbroken watching your favourite soldier die to a flanking plasma shot. 

Most turn-based strategy games don't even try for that simulation aspect, often featuring pre-made, unkillable characters in a linear, fully authored story. Those that do try usually struggle to hit the same notes—I enjoy leading my randomly-generated Space Marines into battle in Warhammer 40k: Chaos Gate, for example, but emotionally speaking I don't remotely care if one of them dies, or have any particular attachment to any of the planets spinning in its little star system. 

(Image credit: Firaxis)

There are exceptions, but they all feel limited in their own ways. Wildermyth wonderfully combines XCOM with the spirit of tabletop RPGs and doubles down on organic narrative, but, like a D&D campaign, it also has a looseness and a chaos that prevents it from being tightly satisfying on the tactics side of things. Massive Chalice made entire noble houses the stars instead of individual soldiers and made the little kingdom you were fighting for feel vulnerable and precious, but too easily slipped into being a cold eugenics simulator. BattleTech and Phoenix Point boast more crunchy layers of simulation than you could dream of, but getting to grips with them is an uphill climb, where XCOM makes its deep and brutal world so accessible.

All of which is to say, the genre is brilliantly alive and full of fantastic experiences, but it still feels like it's missing a monarch, and the last hope of them returning seems to have finally slipped away. Sure, Firaxis will probably make some kind of XCOM 3 eventually, but who knows when, and what it will look like? We've seen the brand go astray before, and at this point a new team would be starting from close to a blank slate—it's a tall order for such a sequel to make anywhere near the splash its predecessors did.

It's just not easy to accept the fading away of a series that's been so impactful not just on PC gaming, but on my own life as a PC gamer. If you feel the same, then perhaps lets all just give ourselves that space to collectively wave farewell to XCOM this week—not by being horrible in the comments about Solomon's new venture, please, but by appreciating the series for the lightning in a bottle that it was, and perhaps loading up yet another Ironman Commander campaign for old times' sake. 

There we go—now the stage is properly set for Firaxis to make me look like a buffoon by announcing XCOM 3 during this summer's reveals. 

Robin Valentine
Senior Editor

Formerly the editor of PC Gamer magazine (and the dearly departed GamesMaster), Robin combines years of experience in games journalism with a lifelong love of PC gaming. First hypnotised by the light of the monitor as he muddled through Simon the Sorcerer on his uncle’s machine, he’s been a devotee ever since, devouring any RPG or strategy game to stumble into his path. Now he's channelling that devotion into filling this lovely website with features, news, reviews, and all of his hottest takes.