Firaxis Games’ XCOM series started as a reboot of the classic X-COM (or UFO) from the nineties, but quickly proved easily good enough to stand on its own. With two games, two huge expansions for each, and one sequel-spin-off under its belt, there’s no denying the staying power of the XCOM series.
That being said, we’re here to investigate and compare XCOM: Enemy Unknown with the Enemy Within expansion, to XCOM 2 and its massive War of the Chosen add-on. We’ve broken the text into several topics, to help you navigate straight to the bits you’re interested in.
Let’s get into the answering the true question. Which is better: XCOM or XCOM 2? Forget numerical ratings, we give you the actually useful comparison for both games.
The basics: what is XCOM?
Before we get into the nitty-gritty, let’s talk about some general ideas and mechanics both games share.
At its most basic, an XCOM game XCOM puts you in control of a military organization fighting against alien invaders. As the Commander you have three layers of control over the operations. The first is base management where you make decisions about research, construction, and manage your soldiers and personnel.
The second is the map of Earth where you inspect and contact invaded regions and choose missions to go on. The last are the missions themselves, where you give orders to your soldiers in turn-based engagements.
That’s the very basic idea, and both games tweak each aspect a bit, so let’s get into the nitty gritty.
Storyline and atmosphere
XCOM: Enemy Unknown follows an international military organization formed in order to fight against an alien invasion. The story keeps a mysterious, dark atmosphere, with aliens feeling truly weird and inscrutable. Even the tutorial mission plays out like a horror scenario.
It gets even grittier once the Enemy Within expansion introduces cyborgization and genetic modification of your soldiers. The duet of Dr. Vahlen and Dr. Shen are two interesting voices debating the ethical limits of both technologies. There’s also a rival organization, EXALT, using the alien invasion to further their own world-conquering ambitions, sprinkling in a bit of spy fiction into the story.
Meanwhile XCOM 2 takes more of an action movie vibe, overall. Its story takes place 20 years after the aliens have won the XCOM 1 war. They control all cities and run their mysterious facilities unbothered, because their propaganda keeps people happy and cooperative. All you have is the disorganized resistance, guerilla tactics, and an old alien transport ship.
In the War of the Chosen expansion the alien overlords unleash three extremely powerful operatives to chase you, while you gain the support of three interesting resistance groups to even the odds.
Verdict: It’s mostly the question of tone and theme, not quality. If you’d like to fight a desperate war against an alien invasion and share the dread of fighting an unknown enemy, pick XCOM. If you’d like something closer to an action movie with a good dose of unveiling a global conspiracy, XCOM 2 is the better pick.
A big part of XCOM’s appeal is your ability to customize your soldiers on a cosmetic level. You could easily play a mission where you give orders to Ellen Ripley, your best friend Steve, and that guy who scratched your car last week and gave you fake insurance info.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown customization is a bit basic compared to the sequel. In addition to the name and voice you get to pick ethnicity, face, and several hair and facial hairstyles. You can tweak their colors a bit, but that’s it. It gets better with the DLCs, which add armor color and design options, as well as more hairstyles and helmets.
Meanwhile, XCOM 2 goes all in and lets you go hog wild on customization. In addition to the basics there are also tattoos, different designs for each armor piece, all kinds of helmets and hats, face props like cigars and bandanas, weapon and armor patterns… It’s absurdly easy to make cool, unique-looking soldiers you can instantly recognize on the battlefield.
Verdict: XCOM 2 blows XCOM 1 out of the water in terms of customization depth. If you want to, you can field proper soldiers, cyber-punks in skull masks, and grizzled outback scavengers. Even robotic SPARK units can be customized. You can also create a Character Pool with all your creations and decide if they should appear as soldiers, engineers, or scientists in future playthroughs.
HQ and strategy
In XCOM 1 your base is stationary, digging deep into the bowels of the earth with each excavation project. You have a lot of space, but much of that will be dedicated to power generators, satellite uplinks increasing satellite capacity, and laboratories that speed up research. To advance time you go to the Geoscape and scan for activity, which usually means tactical missions or a simple fighter jet vs alien craft minigame. You can also launch satellites from the Situation Room, increasing your income and control over specific regions.
XCOM 2 tweaked a lot and there are a few more strategic choices to make. The map is usually peppered with points of interest you can scan for rewards, which is your main method of advancing time. Scans can also get interrupted by missions coming up. Usually, you get three missions in a single set, each with different rewards and penalties for ignoring it, such as a buff to a specific type of enemy. Enemies are also working towards a mysterious Avatar project and improving their forces, which puts pressure on you, but you can reduce the project’s progress by picking the right missions.
Verdict: Both games increase your income for contacting new regions and grant unique perks if you build satellites/radio towers for each region on a continent. However, XCOM 2 has the edge: limited construction space in your HQ forces you to plan ahead, and every time you scan on the Geoscape, you do it to get something useful instead of waiting for something to happen.
Research and engineering
You won’t get far in either XCOM game without investing resources and time into studying your enemies and developing new tools.
Both games feature multidisciplinary research, but XCOM: EW/EU gets the upper hand because in addition to autopsies on dead aliens and analyses of recovered materials it also features interrogations on live specimens, if you managed to capture any. It introduces an interesting extra layer to combat, because you must be careful not to kill your target alien before getting a chance to tranquilize it.
On the other hand, XCOM 2 arguably gets the upper hand in engineering. Unlike the previous game, if you want to upgrade, say, rifles to the next tier, you pay once and everybody gets the new tech. Secondly, the Proving Ground provides you with specialized armor, as well as improves your medkits and grenades. Its “Experimental” projects give you randomized items with extra oomph, such as ammo efficient against robots, heat resistant armor underlay, or extra heavy weapons mounted on certain armor types.
Verdict: Neither game has the definitive edge. XCOM 2 has more streamlined R&D which yields convenient and cool results, while XCOM: EU/EW is grittier and arguably more interesting, but it can be costly to actually start benefitting from the upgrades you’ve spent a lot of time and resources researching.
By default, soldiers in XCOM games fall into one of four classes with fundamentally different roles on the battlefield. Each game also features additional class options available in expansions. Classes usually feature two upgrade tracks, letting you develop them into specialized roles or pick from a different track with every rank up.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown’s classes are simple and evocative. There are shotgun-armed Assaults with high mobility turning them into great scouts. The Heavy uses rocket launchers and powerful machine guns to destroy cover and rain bullets on enemies. Snipers provide high damage output at long range, while Supports provide healing, buffs, and improved reaction fire. Some soldiers can also get Psionic training, adding psychic abilities to their class kit.
Enemy Within added two more class-types. One is the MEC Trooper, a soldier who sacrificed biological limbs in order to interface with a powerful mech suit. The other is the Gene Modded subclass, which mutates soldier’s body parts to grant them extra abilities (on top of class skills), such as bio-camouflage or psionic resistance.
Classes in XCOM 2 are evolutions of those from XCOM 1. Ranger maps onto Assault but can specialize into stealth or using swords. Grenadiers (Heavies) can be grenade experts or shred enemies with a minigun. Sharpshooters are both Snipers and gunslingers. Specialists are like Supports, but now they can also disable or control enemy robots and their drones give them extra range.
DLC Shen’s Last Gift adds a robotic SPARK class, while War of the Chosen adds three allied classes: extremely mobile Skirmishers, stealthy Reaper sabouteurs, and mighty psionic Templars.
Verdict: XCOM 2’s classes have more complexity, and their specializations can completely change how a class behaves. In WotC your soldiers can also purchase from a random (per soldier) selection of abilities learned from other classes. The downside is that it can get too complex and too random, while XCOM: EU/EW is simpler, but more controllable. Both games make a strong case for themselves, but XCOM 2 has an edge for meaningful build diversity.
There are plenty of obvious similarities between both games. Team initiative, two action points per-turn, grid-based movement, and RNG (modified by abilities and stats) deciding the chance of success are all core ideas of XCOM. There are, nevertheless, some interesting differences between the dynamics of both games.
In XCOM EU/EW you’re usually on the defensive. Enemy groups (or “pods”) are hiding under the fog of war, and when you reveal their presence, they can immediately move into cover. As a result, you must be careful and use overwatch (reaction fire triggered by enemy moving in your line of sight) often, or you’ll get smoked.
The opposite is true in XCOM 2. You begin most missions in stealth, which lets you move around the map unchallenged as long as you stay out of your enemies’ line of sight. You can complete some deployments without combat, or, more commonly, you can set up ambushes, potentially wiping out the enemy team in moments. Overwatch also works better than in XCOM EU/EW, so your soldiers won’t shoot anyway even if there are no viable targets left.
Verdict: While XCOM 2 lacks the dread of accidentally activating an enemy pod, its combat is tighter and better designed. Stealth gives you the initiative, and improved overwatch allows you to better prepare for the enemy turn. It’s also worth noting that maps in XCOM 2 are procedurally generated from several different biome-tiles, while XCOM 1 featured hand-made maps, which are an obviously limited resource and soon start repeating themselves.
Both XCOM: Enemy Unknown/Within and XCOM 2 (War of the Chosen) are excellent, satisfying games focused on turn-based tactics. It’s hard to decide which game to buy, because much of the decision process boils down to preference.
XCOM 2 is absolutely an evolution of the formula introduced in the previous game. It’s much more varied and complex both on the battlefield and in soldier management. It also is significantly more over-the-top once you get going, and it feels like a zero-to-hero story, especially once you properly bite into the features added in War of the Chosen. It also has significantly better graphics and mod support, both of which are nothing to sneeze at.
On the other hand, while XCOM: EU/EW is simpler and more straightforward, it’s also much more down-to-earth. There’s a greater sense of mystery to the aliens, and not knowing what’s around the corner creates a great, tense atmosphere during missions. There’s also more interesting stuff in the story, mostly thanks to conflicting views of your research and development staff, Dr. Vahlen and Dr. Shen.