XCOM: Enemy Unknown is absolutely sensational. As I discussed in our 9/10 review, it's a superb and cerebral strategy game that presents a massive amount of depth in an accessible and visceral way - making it one of the very best games of the year and a reboot for the ages. Saving the world from alien invasion has never been so tense, yet so much fun.
However, as our very own Brendan Griffiths famously loves to say, Enemy Unknown is also "b*stard hard." Not only is the challenge curve extremely steep, but the sheer amount of choice and options at your disposal can quickly become overwhelming. If you're playing it the way it's intended - minimising saves and facing the consequences - it can be a devastatingly difficult if rewarding proposition.
To this end, I've compiled a list of ten essential tips that will help you achieve victory both on the battlefield and back at base. Most of which I learned the hard way. It's a completely spoiler-free guide, so you can get involved without risk of ruining any surprises. If you've got anything to add, I'll put the best comments directly into the article, much like we did with Borderlands 2 last week.
Alright, Commander. Let's do this.
10: Squadsight Sniper Up Top
Nothing gives you battlefield domination like a well-placed sniper, but since they can't move and fire in the same turn without a restrictive perk, they can be hard to use effectively. However, by equipping the Squadsight ability, they can fire on any enemy unit that their squadmates can see, allowing you to use your frontline troops as spotters while keeping your sharp shooter stationary.
You'll want to get your sniper to central high ground as quickly as possible, preferably using grappling hook-equipped Skeleton armour to secure lofty rooftop perches. A S.C.O.P.E. gadget (more on that later) will increase his/her accuracy to insane levels, while the Gunslinger ability will give their pistol sidearm some much-needed clout if Floaters manage to compromise their position. That said, if you're in an interior environment, perhaps another heavy might be a better choice...
9: Play The Grey Market
Money will always be tight while playing Enemy Unknown, no matter how frugal you are. You can do your best to save funds by only buying essential items and not doubling up on anything you don't need, but it's sometimes easy to forget that the Grey Market is on hand to provide a steady source of income between each budgetary review.
As a general rule, you should never sell alloys and rare substances, but each mission will usually reward you with lots of damaged (hence useless) alien tech and corpses clogging up the morgue. After each engagement, head into the situation room and try to broker a deal - even an extra 20-100 credits can make the difference when times get tough.
8: Smoking Is Cool
The Support class can throw smoke grenades as their class-specific skill... and you will really, really, really want to get used to using them as soon as possible. They confer a massive boost to defence to anyone within their radius, thus allowing you to shield troops caught out of position or throw it onto units behind cover to further increase their survivability. Should you choose to specialise your Support trooper appropriately, smoke grenades can even improve critical hit chances for squaddies within the cloud, making them worth throwing at units who are about to engage priority targets.
Smoking has never been cooler. [Don't smoke, it's bad for you - Ed]
7: Rotate Your Squaddies
XCOM's experience system makes it very tempting to lead the same operatives into each engagement in order to rank them up as fast as possible. The idea of training up a core team of unstoppable veterans can be incredibly alluring, but it's also going to set you up for a massive fall. Even if you manage to keep your forces alive, any injuries sustained will put your team members out of action for several days (even weeks), thus potentially forcing you to bring unblooded rookies into battle when you least need it.
The early game is the perfect time to continually rotate your squad between each mission to create a balanced and versatile force of soldiers to rely on. Consider bringing two veterans and two rookies into early battles in order to get them some experience, thus leading to a varied and flexible army that won't break under the strain of the late-game.
However, it's worth getting at least one Support soldier up to a decent rank as soon as possible. We'll discuss why later.
6: Score A S.C.O.P.E.
It turns out that one of the first research options you'll get is also one of the most useful. Researching Weapon Fragments will let you manufacture a S.C.O.P.E, which gives a massive passive boost to accuracy for whoever equips it. Snipers, support troops and even heavies will benefit from this extra precision - and on a basic level, the more shots you land on target, the quicker your mission will be complete.
Even a rookie can deal out reasonable damage if they're packing decent optics.
5: Satellites Are Your Friend
Satellites are the linchpin of your operation. They increase your funds, decrease panic levels and generally provide the key to saving the world - they're your eyes in the sky. However, not using them effectively will be the downfall of many commanders. Mark my words.
You'll want to get satellites up as soon as possible, and potentially keep one in reserve to quell any potential terror outbreaks. To do this, get your base up and running by building a couple of adjacent workshops for more engineers, then secure power generation and get cracking on a a satellite uplink. Ensure to put uplinks next to each other to grant you additional satellite slots (or better yet, a Nexus once you've researched it). While your uplinks are building, task your engineers with fabricating a couple of satellites so they're ready to launch... and give you all those delicious funding bonuses. If you don't do this in the early game, you'll probably find yourself unable to respond when things get seriously tough later on.
Of course, do remember to defend them with interceptors.
4: Flank, But Don't Freelance
XCOM always gives you the opportunity to flank your enemies, and doing so is usually the key to success. Once you've unlocked six squad members, it's often beneficial to split your team and exploit the full width of each map. I'd personally suggest creating a main assault force of four operatives and a skirmisher squad of two members on the wing, with assault/support and heavy/sniper combinations being incredibly versatile out on the flanks. A sledgehammer and a spear work brilliantly in tandem.
However, always ensure that your squad members are covered by another operative's field of fire, and your troops advance as a group. Many foes (notably those god damn Chryssalids) delight in punishing foolhardy freelancers - so unless you're charging an assault trooper into shotgun range, ensure that you're not needlessly dividing your forces for enemies to conquer.
3: Go To (Officer Training) School
As your team ranks up, you'll start to unlock officer training perks accessible through the Barracks. It can be easy to forget about these esoteric buffs when faced with the need to manufacture new weapons, base components and interceptors, but acquiring some of these key abilities will make your life a lot easier.
To start with, do your best to buy both Squad Size improvements as soon as possible. Six pairs of boots on the ground is better than four. From then on, save up for the Rapid Recovery skill that allows your team to recover from wounds twice as fast, making your force much less brittle and prone to injury in the long run. It may be a lot of money, but it will save countless lives.
Unless you're deployed into a Terror or bomb disposal mission, time is always on your side. There's nothing to be gained from rushing in headlong, so advance slowly and carefully. Check each corner. Move as a group. Use downtime to reload and heal. If you're ever in doubt or hear some worrying sounds (represented visually on your HUD), turtle up, find cover and spend a turn or two in overwatch. Wasting a little time is better than getting cut down by charging in without preparation or planning, and you'll be surprised at how many overwatch kills you'll rack up over the course of the campaign.
However, overwatch is best used when your forces are slightly spread out. Four units on the same piece of cover will all shoot at the same overwatch target, potentially wasting ammo and firepower and letting other foes move with impunity.
Keeping your troops alive is one of the most important (and difficult) facets of the XCOM experience - and the Support operative is the man for the job. Specifically: a support trooper with the Field Medic perk, which allows him/her to use a medkit up to three times per battle. Once you've ranked up a medic, slap him in a suit of your finest armour, keep him in a central location and worship him as your new deity.
Saving units from bleeding out and patching up badly injured operatives might be an obvious use for your medic, but he's infinitely more versatile than that. Healing up slightly injured forces towards the end of a mission can reduce the time they'll spend in the infirmary or even negate the need for it entirely, keeping your forces fighting fit. The Sprinter perk allows him to cover a huge amount of ground to reach critically wounded troopers quickly, while smoke grenades provide the perfect cover to administer aid under fire.
As a general rule, I'd urge you to take a medic into each battle - if not two support troopers specialised for medicine and smoke/overwatch. Even the most ferocious Heavy or deadeye sharpshooter will be no good to you when they're full of holes.
I hope this helps you, Commander, but there's no way that a ten point survival guide can do a massive game like XCOM: Enemy Unknown justice. Have any tips to share? Strategies or builds to discuss? Knowledge is power, so let us know in the comments!