Few tactical shooters stack up to XCOM. The venerable sci-fi series is considered best-in-class for the genre, thanks to a formula calcified in the widely praised XCOM: Enemy Unknown and its equally praised successor, XCOM 2. (The spinoff XCOM: Chimera Squad, released in 2020, is fine.)
But maybe you’ve played those games to death, and are craving something to fill the void. What follows is a tastefully chosen (if I do say so myself) selection of the best tactical shooters that are like XCOM without actually, y’know, being XCOM. Hopefully it’ll tide you over until XCOM 3 — or, more realistically, until the studio’s Marvel-themed spinoff performs one of those silly superhero landings later this year.
Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle
To say Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle is “XCOM but Mario” is as myopic as it is true. Both are turn-based tactical shooters in which you hide behind cover and fire potshots at otherworldly horrors, such as Rabbid Peach. The tactics game also places a big emphasis on movement, allowing you to extend turns into wild, multi-arc strategies that can involve pipes and characters throwing each other around the map. But the biggest difference between XCOM and Kingdom Battle isn’t the Nintendo-themed respray or the endless parade of Ubisoft mascot enemies. No, it’s this: When Kingdom Battle gives you a readout indicating your likelihood of landing a shot, it seems legitimately reflective of your actual chances. Plus, there’s a sequel — Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope — planned for some time this year.
Playtime: 30.5 hours
Into the Breach
Into the Breach might not fit the mould of your typical tactical shooter — it’s a lo-fi grid-based game in which you see the whole battlefield from bird’s eye view, more Fire Emblem than XCOM — but it unequivocally deserves a spot on your backlog. Every level is like a puzzle, in that there’s seemingly always a “correct” solution, if you can spot it. You pilot a trio of time-travelling mechs on a mission to save the planet from an onslaught of building-sized bugs. As you play, you unlock more mechs, plus options to mix and match them across teams, tweaking your approach. It is a relentlessly compelling tactical shooter, the sort of game you can play in bite-sized sessions or day-long marathons.
Platforms: Switch, PC, Xbox, PlayStation
Playtime: It will CONSUME YOU
If Into the Breach is the lo-fi EP, Battletech is the spit-polished studio album. Both games are tactical shooters that put you in command of giant mechs with giant payloads. Battletech, however, features a full glossy 3D treatment. Unlike most tactical shooters, you’re not limited to the confines of a grid; you can move your troops freely around a set area, demanding a different approach than what you’ve honed with grid-based shooters. There’s a riveting meta-game, which has you tuning mechs and assigning pilots to those mechs between missions. But the real clincher is its difficulty: Battletech is tough as nails. Feast, fans of the genre.
Playtime: 74.5 hours
You can’t get more “Oh hey, it’s like XCOM” than Phoenix Point, a tactical shooter that was literally designed by one of the creators of XCOM. Like its progenitor, Phoenix Point is a turn-based tactical shooter with an inter-mission meta-game based on bolstering your forces. The big deviation is that it focuses more on Lovecraftian horror and the specter of climate change rather than extraterrestrial threats. Phoenix Point is also a tad bit more complex — in terms of in-game systems and enemy variety and such — than its contemporaries, but if that’s your jam, you’ll get a kick out of it.
Platforms: PC, Xbox, PlayStation
Playtime: 79 hours
When you think of Gears of War, you probably think of the Xbox-defining series of third-person shooters. But the smartest game in the series isn’t an action game at all. It’s Gears Tactics, a spinoff set before the events of the main games. You play as Gabe Diaz (the dad of Gears 5 protagonist Kate Diaz) and lead a squad of soldiers on a series of missions with various, creative parameters, rarely ever confined to the rote structure of “kill all enemies.” A handful of primary characters have to stay alive for story purposes, but many of your recruits are procedurally generated, and susceptible to permadeath as a result. But if that’s not your speed, you can effectively clone fallen comrades using the game’s robust customisation options.
Platforms: Xbox, PC
Playtime: 31 hours
Fire Emblem: Three Houses
You can’t talk about tactical games without talking about the reigning champ. If you’ve somehow slept on it, Fire Emblem: Three Houses, the latest in Nintendo’s long-running series of “let’s have kids wage war!” strategy games, has it all, weaving an emotionally complex, multi-branching plot between brain-melting tactical battles and downtime of visual novel elements. You don’t need any series familiarity, as it is a narrative standalone. Nor do you need to know exactly how the combat works. (It slowly onboards you to its quirks and systems…and proclivity for one-hit kills.) And similarly to XCOM, there’s permadeath — if you want it — along with gut-wrenching personal relationships that will make you regret letting anyone die.
Playtime: 74.5 hours