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Posted on Nov 16, 2012 in Electronic Games

Eight Tips for Aspiring Commanders in XCOM: Enemy Unknown

By Charlie Hall

XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Playing tips. PC Game. Developer: Firaxis Games. Publisher: 2K Games. $49.99 PC, $59.99 XBOX and PS3

In my opinion XCOM: Enemy Unknown from Firaxis is a stunning achievement. The House That Sid Meier Built has successfully brought an entire genre forward nearly 20 years, streamlined the user interface to fit comfortably on a controller, sped up the gameplay, and miraculously kept intact the tension from the 1998 original. Critics writing under every flag pretty much agree that this is a serious game-of-the-year contender, which is unusual for a game this brutally hard. But with families and jobs eating into the day, play time is limited. So, with over 40 hours of playing time under my belt I’ve collected a few of my best tips and present them here in the hopes that you will be able to make the best use of your time with the game.


We will be watching you, Commander.

  • First, a public service announcement about the difficulty level: Forget Easy mode, okay? You’re a strategy gamer, that’s why you’re here at this Website. Easy mode is for children. I would also initially ignore Classic mode and the Iron Man setting, which prevents you from saving and reloading as you like. Start on Normal and give the game about 4 to 8 hours of play. Normal mode gives you access to the Officer Training School early on, which opens up some additional options for fielding units and can speed the recovery of wounded troops. This allows you to quickly level-up more soldiers than Classic mode does, allowing you to preview some of the skills your troops can learn down the road. It also gives you accelerated access to the Foundry, where some of the more subtle combat tweaks can be found. The early implementation of these facilities will allow you to get a feel for how your teams will operate in the future and educate you on how you may want to plan your research path.
  • Normal mode will also let you get a feel for the controls and the HUD, both for tactical combat and base-building. Then say good-bye to your men and women and their hastily built fortress. Delete that save game … go ahead, push the button. After four to eight hours in Normal I recommend that you start fresh on Classic, and check the radial button for Iron Man. Now there’s no turning back. Every decision is final, every discovery is fresh, each advance is a tentative step into the unknown and the experimental. This is XCOM as it should be played.
  • Spread the love. And when I say love, I mean Xenos blood. You’re going to want to bring at least two, probably three, rookies on every mission for the first dozen hours. Then, maybe scale back to one or two rookies on all but the most difficult missions. Why? The aliens you’re going to meet early on are easy pickings, and getting rookies leveled up and into their combat roles quickly gives you much more tactical flexibility. And a deep bench of talent means you always have someone with the crucial early game skills, like Run and Gun and Squadsight, when you need them most. As the game progresses use your more experienced soldiers to wear enemies down and give lower ranks the chance to make the kill shot. More kills means more experience, and more experience means more growth for your soldiers. If you can, grab the bonus to experience from the Officer Training School as well. That’ll bump your bonuses for alien kills by 25 percent.
  • As you develop soldiers take care to diversify. There’s more than one way to build an Assault soldier, for instance. You can build one out to be close-combat killing machine, with bonuses to hit more enemies in sight and free opportunity fire against those who move too close. But you can also spec another Assaulter out to be the most deadly distraction, a soldier at the tip of the spear taking the heaviest fire and coming out unscathed. Both have a place on your squad depending on the nature of the mission, and with at least a half-dozen Assaulters destined to be in your stable at any one time there’s little sense in having them all spec’d out the same way.
  • Cover is the only safety. The game describes two flavors of cover, but in reality there are four. First there’s partial cover—denoted onscreen by the half-shield—and full cover denoted by the full shield. Full cover is much safer for your soldiers and should be used as often as possible, ideally in combination with the Hunker Down ability that doubles cover value. The third flavor of cover is actually the game’s fog of war. Moving slowly you can keep enemies from spawning until you’re ready to engage them, and if there are no aliens on the screen there’s no one to shoot at you. Ideally you should be uncovering new and tactically challenging areas of the map when your entire squad has full magazines and everyone has two (or more) actions left. This way you can move the point man up, trigger an alien spawn, and then dynamically react to pin it down. If all else fails you can run that point man back to full cover and out of harm’s way. The fourth and most subtle type of cover is circumstantial cover. The XCOM AI will, nine times out of ten, only fire at the closest soldier the enemy can see. If someone is taking a beating, pull that person back and push a fully armed and armored troop to the front to take the brunt of the assault.
  • Don’t focus on Laboratories or Workshops unless you’re in a bind. In Classic mode you should be able to get all the workers you need gifted to you by doing story missions early on and getting satellites in the air.
  • Speaking of satellites, the most important job your base has is getting satellites in the air. Devote all your resources there rather than toward laser weapons or new armor. The continent bonuses you can receive, especially the +30 percent funding increase for Africa and the Future Weapons discount from Asia, are critical in the long game. Have Africa locked down and Asia in the green before you go spending money on luxurious equipment for the grunts.
  • Use stun weapons liberally. Unlike in the original game, the only way to capture alien weaponry is to stun a living alien and bring it back to base with you. This is the key to leapfrogging laser weapons and heading straight to plasma. Ah, sumptuous plasma pistols, gorgeous alien grenades, delicious heavy plasma MGs and sexy plasma sniper rifles. Armor can soak up damage in the early game, but dead aliens don’t fire back.

A quick note on multiplayer. It’s a fun little sandbox for sure, but if you want to spoil this game for yourself the very best way to do it is by messing around in multiplayer. Having access to all the alien forces right off the bat seems like a good idea, but it removes some of the fun from the late single-player game. Also, know that many of the special abilities held by the alien forces are a bit gimmicky. A lot of what makes them potent is where and when they spawn on the battlefield in single player. During multiplayer, when you’re marching your forces in from the far side of a rectangular map, it’s hard to make potent use of your troops’ abilities before they’re cut down.

Good luck out there, Commander. You’re going to need it.

About the Author

By night Charlie Hall is a writer for Gamers With Jobs. His relevant interests range from pen-and-paper role playing games to board games and electronic games of all types. By day he is a writer for CDW Government LLC. He, his wife, and daughter make their home in far northern Illinois. Follow him on Twitter @TheWanderer14, read his blog at, or send him hate mail at


  1. Best tactics game out now. I can’t even begin to count the hours i’ve put into my squads on this game.

  2. And its a damn addicting game!


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