I’ve played around 300 hours of XCOM 1, and 50 of XCOM 2 [official site], for my sins. I know full well that this does not make me any kind of expert but I’m experienced enough that XCOM 2 has not yet kicked my flabby little bottom. A lot of people are finding the game very punishing though, so I thought I’d try to help – both by sharing my own advice on how to keep your soldiers alive for longer and by inviting anyone else to share their own tips in comments.
This isn’t a definitive guide, but instead a grab-bag of assorted wisdom, both early and advanced, that I’m certain will help if you’re having a tough time with this wonderful (if sadly malfunctioning) strategy game.
It’s dangerous to go alone
Obvious perhaps, but the single greatest piece of wisdom I can pass on is about the management of action points. Don’t exhaust five soldiers’ movements and actions then send the sixth hurtling forwards into the unknown on their own, because that means there’s no-one to help out in the event they stumble across a new pack of enemies. Late in the game, lone wolves become vaguely plausible – e.g. the Ranger’s Untouchable skill – but done early on it’s simply suicide.
A good habit to get into is to always have a Sharpshooter and/or Specialist still active before you send anyone into the unknown. The former can provide long-range damage, while the basic Aid function of the latter can provide a significant defensive bonus to even squadmates which are half a map away. As these guys rank up, the help they can provide becomes immense – for instance, a Sharpshooter can fire three times in Overwatch, while the Specialist’s flying robot thing can double the defence of Aid. The early Specialist Scanning Protocol unlock is also useful for identifying whether there are any enemies just around the corner.
Explosives can destroy cover, which can massively increase the to-hit chance on any enemy which was hiding behind it, or open up brand new lines of sight to aliens who were sheltering indoors. Very often, it’s smarter to not spend an action on a standard shot that will only knock a couple of hitpoints off a tough enemy or is simply unlikely to land, and instead see if your Grenadier (or indeed anyone with a grenade in their pocket) can rearrange the scenery so the rest of their squad has better odds.
As with the first point, about travelling alone, this ties back to the importance of using your squad in the correct order. Using an explosive to destroy an alien’s cover after everyone has already taken an unsuccessful shot might help you out next turn, but you might have lost a couple of soldiers at that point, or the enemy might have moved to a new location with fresh cover. The sequence that your soldiers act in as almost as important as the actions they take.
Explosives have another extra boon: they shred Armor. Those are the cheeky yellow blobs at the end of enemies’ health meters, and for each one of those any shot you land will usually lose one point of damage. So, again, a Grenadier’s bomb might do significantly less damage than a shot from her standard weapon, but it’s worth it if it takes a point or two of Armor away, so the rest of the squad can then score bigger hits. Don’t even think about taking on a Gatekeeper or Sectopod without softening it up with explosives first.
Overwatch is the bedrock of XCOM: banking your soldier’s action for a turn so that they can instead automatically fire at any enemy which enters or moves within their line of sight. It’s used both for pure caution and to set up elaborate traps, so that an enemy whose cover is removed or who makes a beeline for an apparently vulnerable player soldier ends up getting the Alex Murphy treatment the second he wriggles a toe. Learn Overwatch. Love Overwatch. More on that shortly, but first: don’t use Overwatch too much.
There are two main downsides to Overwatch: the first is that, most of the time, shots taken this way have a reduced chance to hit compared to a standard in-turn short. It’s tempting to presume that Overwatch is a get out of jail free card when all your soldiers are in cover and you think the aliens will thus have to come to you, but you might be squandering perfectly good in-turn shots that way. Also bear in mind that, bar a late Specialist skill unlock, Overwatch only triggers on movement, not on action: so an alien who stubbornly refuses to leave the pillar he’s hiding behind will be free to fire hot plasma or lob a grenade at you.
The second downside is that Overwatch only allows standard shots. Before you set all six soldiers into Overwatch, consider whether any of them have any other abilities that would have a more beneficial effect.
A Grenadier’s bomb blast might not be sufficient to totally murder anything, for instance, but it could take enough hit points off two, three or more enemies that, when the rest of the squad’s Overwatch does trigger, they kill rather than merely wound your foes. A Specialist equipped with a Mindspike could go insta-kill an Advent Shield Bearer with it, which means the blighter won’t be able to clad his chums with extra protection. A Sharpshooter who’s gone down the pistols side of the tech tree will get to take two shots once he’s ranked up a couple of times. A Mimic beacon will keep enemy fire off vulnerable soldiers’ backs for a turn. All sorts, basically: Overwatch is great, but it can be a huge, huge waste of enemy-management opportunities.
Cover is not optional
This should be obvious, but I’m including it just in case. Cover isn’t just a minor boost to defensive odds: it’s very often the difference between life and death. Leave a soldier out in the open and not only will the enemy be more likely to hit him, but every foe in sight will make him their number one target because of that. He’s dead, basically. Unless you have the Ranger’s Untouchable skill, throw an aim-confusing smoke grenade around him or use the Specialist’s quietly vital Aid defence-boost skill.
Later on, a psi-operative’s Inspire skill can also give an extra action point to someone left standing in the open – plan this in advance and you can have someone run to an exposed front line to take an easy shot, then be psionically granted an extra action so he can get the hell out of dodge.
The best time to use Overwatch
Like I say, Overwatch is the bedrock of any XCOM strategy, but it has its shortcomings. However, it loses one of those – the reduced chance to hit – if you’re firing from Concealment. (Concealment being the stealthed mode you begin most missions). The game does give you a short ambush-from-concealment tutorial near the start, so I won’t repeat that now, but I don’t think it says anywhere other than on a loading screen tip that you don’t have the aim handicap this way. Use it; especially in combination with high-ranking skills, you can end up with the most deliciously deadly traps. However, keep the following in mind:
Don’t spring your Concealment ambush too soon
It’s very, very tempting to set up an Overwatch trap on the first enemies you see on a map begun with your guys in Concealment. You thirst for blood, yes, but it’s also a frightening concept to leave any foes alive: they could come back to bite you any time. However, once the trap is sprung, your Concealment’s over for the rest of the mission (bar some Ranger abilities and hack rewards) and you’ll never get that sweet, sweet unpenalised Overwatch again. So, see if you can make it to the second pack of enemies before you unleash hell – primarily because that way you can start combat a little closer to your objective rather than have to battle the whole way to it.
A bit later in the game, your squad should become capable of dealing with more than one pack of enemies at a time too, so it pays to try and ensnare more foes into that initial trap rather than waste the opportunity on just a couple of basic grunts.
The first group of enemies you spot usually patrols the map, so if you keep out of sight there is a reasonable chance they’ll wander out of mutual sight range. However, they might instead wander closer to where your guys are crouching, so make sure they’re sufficiently sheltered – if flanks are exposed they’ll be seen and Concealment is over for everyone.
On page two, XCOM’s most overpowered gadget, tactics for taking down their most dangerous foes, some base-building tips and how to handle those timers.