XCOM is now its own genre, as creator Julian Gollop explained on this website late last year. It’s about time. The mix of turn-based combat and overworld strategic campaign is so obviously flexible that it should be able to emulate many different scenarios in a wide range of settings. If it can work for the surprisingly great Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle on Switch, we can surely go a step further and do even more with X-Com-a-likes on PC, right? X-Com gave us a space invasion and an invasion from the sea, but there are a cluster of upcoming games that take their own angle on the formula. Let’s take a look.
Julian Gollop’s modern take on the original X-Com idea, Phoenix Point goes for a much more granular, simulation-heavy combat system than Firaxis’ XCOM reboots. Bullets are modelled individually, location damage can cripple enemies or remove combat abilities mid-fight, you can alter movement mid-run if you spot an enemy, and enemies can attack you with monsters the size of buildings.
There’s a much grittier tone, too, and the devs have talked about working Lovecraftian horror influences into the design of the enemy crab creatures menacing humanity. The creatures evolve to counter your tactics, growing gun arms to counter aggressive close combat squads, or chitinous shields to repel squads lacking in armour penetration. We played a combat demo at the PC Gamer Weekender recently (see Julian's full presentation here), and it’s shaping up very well indeed.
It's exciting to see the XCOM formula applied to different themes. Phantom Doctrine is set during an alternate history Cold War, with both KGB and CIA storylines to choose from. You run a counterintelligence agency, and you can brainwash, interrogate and chemically enhance your operatives in order to battle a global conspiracy that's basically actioning the Cold War.
You've got the option to play in a stealthy way with silenced weapons and quiet takedowns, or be noisy about how you operate. You also maintain a hideout where, among other things like pinning evidence to a conspiracy corkboard, you can change your agents' identities if they're at risk. There's a lot going on in Phantom Doctrine, then, and beating it will apparently take a massive 60 hours, but the mix here is compelling. In Steven Hansen's detailed preview last year, he described the game as a combination of XCOM and Invisible Inc, which is almost suspiciously close to our dream game.
We praised the original Xenonauts for hewing closely to the old X-Com formula but also building its own layers on top of that, including more flexibility for unit customisation. Three-and-a-half years later, Xenonauts 2 is a nicer-looking sequel that already has a pre-alpha demo on GOG Galaxy. In a January 2018 update, Goldhawk Interactive says the game is well on its way to being feature complete.
"I think we’re going to end up with the classic Xenonauts feel but with improved graphics, a more cohesive setting, more varied ground missions and a number of new/more complex Geoscape systems that will allow you a bit more freedom about how you approach the strategy side of things." Sounds like it'll be a great fit for X-Com purists once again. Goldhawk has a Kickstarter and Early Access release planned.
Attack of the Earthlings
Why not play as the aliens for a change? A corporation full of bumbling humans is moving out into space on a mission to claim more energy. When they try to absorb energy from Planet X13 they encounter the Swarmers. Playing as this insectoid hive species you hunt down human expeditions and eat them to gain new powers.
There’s a tongue-in-cheek sense of humour to Attack of the Earthlings and it looks noticeably low-fi next to the XCOMs of this world, but playing as aliens does open up some neat new opportunities in tactical battles. You can slip through vents to ambush soldiers and hide in closets, as aliens seem to enjoy doing in most horror films. You can also set traps designed to immobilise soldiers so your horde can descend and eat them in one devastating attack. Unlike the other games on this list, Attack of the Earthlings is already out on Steam.
Warhammer 40,000: Mechanicus
Warhammer 40K plugs so easily into the XCOM format that it’s puzzling there aren’t more. We’ve had Space Hulk, and a version of Mordheim based on the Warhammer Fantasy Battle skirmish game, but Warhammer 40,000 Mechanicus will hopefully be the first game to do the licence justice. It's early days, though—the game was just announced this week, and it'll be out later this year. It sure sounds XCOM-like, promising a turn-based tactical game, in addition to managing resources and uncovering new tech on a 'rediscovered planet'.
The Adeptus Mechanicus are transhuman builders and worshippers of the machine god. They work with the Space Marines, building their armour and running their massive Titan walkers, but they are an interesting fighting force in their own right. Their tendency to upgrade their limbs with experimental weapons could be very entertaining in an XCOM-style campaign. “DIFFICULT DECISIONS” are promised, as well as alternative endings and a story penned by Warhammer Black Library author Ben Counter.