It’s a long, grisly war out there, commanders. These alien occupiers are tough bastards, and you’re gonna lose a lot of good men and women. We’re here to help you keep casualties to a minimum.
[This article originally ran on 2/8/2016. We’ve updated it with new tips and refined some old ones.]
My colleagues Nathan Grayson, Luke Plunkett and I (Kirk) have been playing a good deal of XCOM 2 over the past couple of weeks, and we’ve put our heads together to come up with a list of things we wish we’d known before we started.
We’ll start with ground-level combat tips, then move to bigger-picture development and global strategy. We’ve just given the list a big update, now that we’ve played for another week. Lets do this.
BATTLEFIELD TACTICS AND SQUAD MANAGEMENT
First Thing You Do, Feel Out The Battlefield
XCOM 2 has a “Fog of War” effect that keeps you from seeing the full battlefield, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get a sense of how thing’ll play out. Zoom all over the map and you’ll get a feel for the bounds of the map, your objectives, and where enemies may be lurking.
ABC: Always Be in Cover
This is a very basic tip, but: Under no circumstances should you leave an XCOM soldier out in the open. Unless you’ve done a last-ditch hail mary to kill the last of your enemies, every turn should end with all of your soldiers behind some sort of cover. Preferably with that cover between you and your enemies.
Blood Those Rookies
It’s impossible to rely on the same 4-6 soldiers for every mission. Even if you can keep them alive, they’ll eventually get wounded, and some wounds take forever to heal. So you’re going to need a big roster of veteran soldiers, ideally somewhere between 10-12 in size. The best way to get everyone experience and a specialisation is to blood them in early in the game; better to have them cut their teeth in the first couple of missions than be sending rookies in against the game’s tougher enemies later out of necessity.
Learn Skills That Let You Break The Rules
In XCOM 2, characters get two big actions per turn, which usually consist of moving and attacking. Some of the game’s best abilities break the hell out of that rule. For example, the Ranger has an “implacable” skill that lets her/him move again any time they get a kill. “Run and gun” is another great Ranger skill that lets you have an extra action after you’ve moved twice in the same turn. If you combine those skills, you can theoretically take four actions in a single turn. That’s huge.
More good rule-breaking skills:
- The Specialist’s “ever vigilant” ability automatically puts them on overwatch at the end of a turn where they used both actions to move.
- “Lightning hands” lets Sharpshooters take a free pistol shot. “Serial” is a ruinous top-tier Sharpshooter ability that lets you chain together sniper kills until you run out of ammo or targets.
- “Chain shot” lets Grenadiers take a second shot at an enemy if the first is successful. It’s got a pretty steep aim penalty, though, so it’s best to use this one only when your grenadier has an alien flanked, or in times of serious desperation. “Salvo” is a higher level Grenadier ability that lets them fire a grenade or rocket at the start of their turn and also fire their weapon.
ABS: Always Bring a Sniper
XCOM 2 offers a variety of different classes you can bring with you into the field. Among them are Sharpshooters, AKA snipers, and they are absolutely crucial to battlefield dominance. You can mix and match the other classes, but you should always bring at least one sniper. If you can, put ‘em on a high vantage and leave them there. They’ll save your bacon more than once.
IF,BMS: In Fact, Bring Multiple Snipers
Have one well-versed in sniper skills, another with a mix of sniper and pistol skills (lightning hands is awesome) and frequently put both on overwatch. As long as you keep them well-positioned, they work as both a versatile offense and a defensive shield against ambushes, all while mostly staying out of harm’s way. Be sure to give them weapon upgrades that increase their accuracy.
Then Again, Don’t Be Afraid To Mix It Up
It can be tempting to settle into having a favorite squad and taking the same troops on every single mission, but XCOM 2 is a lot more ruthless with its mission variety than XCOM 1 was. Sure, in a perfect world it’d be great to bring along two snipers on every mission, but some maps (and objectives, like the shorter time-based ones) mean you may be better suited to picking a faster, leaner squad full of rangers and specialists than one which has to rely on slow-ass snipers to always be catching up.
Stop, Wait, Reload
On missions that don’t have a timer, there is one important strategy we recommend. Enemies aren’t “activated” until someone on your team sees them. Once you finish one firefight, take a turn and allow everyone on your team to reload. It’s very easy to run out of ammunition at a crucial juncture, especially in the early goings. Reload even if your soldier has only fired a single time. There’s no real penalty for waiting an extra turn to re-engage, and you never know when that last bullet will be the one that saves your whole squad.
Move In Waves
As you progress through a level, try to keep everything orderly and move in groups. Think of it as your back line and your front line. Your front line pushes forward, and your back line follows more slowly, keeping Overwatch on. That way everyone’s covered and you can fall back if we need to. Speaking of Overwatch...
Overwatch, Overwatch, Overwatch
The “Overwatch” move is one of the most valuable in XCOM 2, just as it was in the first game. It lets you set up a character to react to enemy movement by attacking, which is crucial for defending against flankers and setting up ambushes. It’s technically a defensive move, but it should be a part of any good offensive strategy. At first, try to end every turn with at least one of your soldiers on overwatch. You’ll almost always be glad you left someone watching the back door.
Suppress, Suppress, Suppress
Teach your grenadiers the “suppression” skill. It lets them pin down an enemy with fire regardless of any aim penalties. If the enemy moves, your grenadier will then take a normal shot, and if you combine that with the “holo targeting” skill, it’ll mark the enemy so your grenadier and the rest of your squad will have a much better chance of landing a hit. Bonus: Suppression also knocks enemies out of overwatch. Putting jerk-ass enemies in unfair situations is delicious.
G is for Grenade
Your Grenadiers may carry two weapons into every mission, but you should only be focusing on one of them. Their primary gun is a bit weak, lacking in both accuracy and range, but their grenade launcher will grow to become one of the most valuable weapons in the game, especially when you’ve developed better explosives (and the perks to carry more grenades into battle). Tougher enemies need their armour cracked before you can get their health down, and nothing does this better than a Grenadier or two raining plasma grenades down on them.
Practice Your Ambushes
Lots of missions in XCOM 2 will start out out with your squad hidden, and will give you the opportunity to set up an ambush on an unsuspecting enemy patrol. Practice working these out so that you can kill every enemy in a single turn. That usually means setting a variety of overwatch vectors and having a single character rush in and go weapons-hot. The more skilled your soldiers get, the more overwatch shots they’ll land and the better your ambushes will work.
Ambush With Explosives
When setting up an ambush, put the majority of your squad in overwatch. You can kick off the ambush with anyone on your team, but if it’s possible, use a grenadier to start it. Unaware enemies will usually be close together while on patrol, and it’s possible to hit three at once with an acid or incendiary grenade before kicking off the overwatch ambush-fest. That’s almost always your best bet for clearing out the whole squad in a single go.
It sure is annoying when an enemy flanks you and still manages to cover up like a turtle. When that happens, remember that pretty much every object in XCOM 2’s environment is destructible. If an alien’s giving you hell from behind nigh-impenetrable cover, blow up their cover with a grenade or heavy fire. (Grenadiers are great for this.) With cover gone, you’ll likely see that 33 percent hit-chance rocket to 80, 90, or even 100. It’s glorious.
If Enemies Are Standing Near An Explosive Tank Or Canister, Blow That Motherfucker Sky High
This tip seems self-explanatory.
Watch That Timer
A lot of the missions in XCOM 2 are on a timer, and it’s very easy to lose track of time and lose the mission. When the counter hits zero, you’ve lost—there’s no “bonus” extra round at zero. Be absolutely sure you can get everyone to the evac zone (or otherwise achieve your objective) with time to spare. Sometimes that means making a dangerous run straight past an incoming alien dropship. Grit your teeth and go for it.
When Civilians Are In Play, Keep Focus On The Aliens
The “Terror” style missions from Enemy Unknown return in XCOM 2, wherein your squad will have to rescue at least six civilians from a starting number of 12 or so. Each turn the aliens will likely kill a civilian. It’s tempting to prioritize rushing to the civilian positions, but it’s usually equally effective to simply focus on maintaining good positioning and clearing aliens as efficiently as you can. You’ll almost always wipe out the aliens before they can kill too many civilians, and your squad won’t have to rush out to exposed positions.
Focus On Puppet Masters, Not Puppets
One type of early alien in the game is able to mind-control your soldiers and reanimate dead enemies, among other things. It should go without saying that you shouldn’t shoot your own people even if they are mind controlled, but we also recommend skipping the reanimated enemies. If you kill the alien behind it all, the zombies will become re-dead and mind control will wear off. In fact...
AKS: Always Kill Sectoids
Let’s just get specific: We’re talking about Sectoids. The Sectoids’ reanimation ability is a pain, and so is their mind control skill. Don’t let them do either of those things. As soon as they show up, shoot ‘em dead. (Failing that, make sure your frontline characters are equipped with mindshields, an item you can research fairly early in the game.)
Increase Your Squad Size ASAP
One of the first facilities you can build is the Guerrilla Tactics School. You can use it to produce a number of upgrades for your troops; go with an increased squad size off the bat. Five soldiers are much more dangerous than the four you start with, and will give you the opportunity to advance your soldiers more quickly.
Be Liberal With Weapon Upgrades
As you play, you’ll collect various upgrades that you can immediately apply to your weaponry. The more refined your A-Team gets, the more of an idea you’ll have about which upgrades you want to apply where, but at first, be liberal with upgrades. Use ‘em or lose ‘em.
Get To Know Your Soldiers
Soldiers in XCOM 2 have randomly generated names, appearances, and backstories. You can change all that, however, by going in and fully customizing each character. We highly recommend doing so: Name your characters after your friends and roommates, or your coworkers, or random celebrities, or your exes. Putting a distinct name and face on each of your characters makes it much more fun when that person pulls off a clutch save or, sniff, sacrifices themselves for the greater good. Change the color of their armor, too; it makes it easier to tell who’s who at a glance.
Higher Level Soldiers Unlock Higher Level Customizations
If you go into the customization and props menus for your rookies, you won’t have too many options. Return after earning them a few new ranks, however, and you’ll be able to add a lot more cool stuff. Check back in on your customization options every so often, and your squad will be a lot cooler looking.
Get Creative With Naming Your Saves
You can name your saves in XCOM 2, which can be useful for keeping everything organized. Keep one save for in between missions, one save for the start of a deployment, and a few named “shitshitshitshit” and “ultimate failure.” Those ones will come in handy.
BIGGER PICTURE SETUP/BASE MANAGEMENT
Better Living Through Mods
There are already a ton of mods you can download to tweak and improve your experience with XCOM 2, and thanks to the Steam Workshop, they’re easy to install. We’ve collected a list of some of the most useful mods; start with those and follow your gut from there.
Smooth Out PC Performance
XCOM 2 has some performance problems on PC at the moment, and while we’re waiting for Firaxis and 2K to release a patch, there are some things you can do to improve performance. Lower antialiasing to FXAA or turn it off entirely; lower ambient occlusion to the “tile” setting, and drop shadows to “low.” None of that will make the game look much worse, and can have a big impact on performance. Most importantly, turn off v-sync or switch to adaptive v-sync. On Nvidia cards, be sure to set “maximum pre-rendered frames” to 1 in the Nvidia Control Panel. Lastly, when you’re in your ship heading back to base, hit the caps lock key to hugely speed up the loading time. Yep, it’s a bizarre fix. It still works.
Consider Playing On Ironman
While it’s sometimes nice to be able to load a save and undo a particularly tragic turn of events, consider playing the game on Ironman mode, which removes the ability to save and reload. It’s a tougher experience, but also a truer one, and it can be thrilling and fun. It makes it harder to “win,” but “winning” isn’t really the point of XCOM 2.
Build Resistance Comms ASAP
The aliens’ secret doomsday project won’t stop itself, and you’ve got to make contact with resistances in multiple countries in order to delay the project’s progress. It’s easy, though, to reach a point where you’re ready to take on an important mission but you haven’t made contact with the country it’s located AND your communication capacity is full. Don’t let that happen. Build a couple Resistance Comms early, and always have one in the pipeline.
Upgrade Armor ASAP, Too
Gobs more HP and another item slot? This is a godsend for troop survivability, and it applies to your entire character roster. Focus on researching and building armor upgrades early.
Build The Shadow Chamber
When the game gives you the objective “Build the Shadow Chamber,” that means it wants you to build the Shadow Chamber. It might not seem entirely clear, but that’s what it wants you to do. So: Build the Shadow Chamber. Build the Shadow Chamber in the Avenger. Construct the Shadow Chamber Facility.
Upgrade Your Comms And Power Stations
The most important things in your base are your Resistance Comms stations and your power stations. If you’ve maxed out either of them, don’t forget that you don’t have to simply build another one. You can also upgrade your existing stations to save space, either increasing their output outright or opening up a second space so you can temporarily assign another engineer and increase output that way.
Engineers are crucial for maintaining a healthy base and infantry. As long as you’re keeping most of your soldiers alive, you shouldn’t need to recruit too many new soldiers at HQ, and while scientists do speed up research, they aren’t nearly as useful as engineers. Whenever possible, whether through a mission reward or a monthly recruitment, get additional engineers. You’ll never feel like you have too many.
Don’t Let Your Proving Ground Languish
It’s easy to forget about the Proving Ground and leave it without an assigned project. Most of the things you can develop there don’t cost too much, so it’s a good idea to constantly have it cranking out new one-off, specialized gear for your troops.
Don’t Be Afraid To Start Over
Sometimes you look at your roster, look at the challenges facing you, and realize you’re completely outmatched. If this happens, there is zero shame in simply quitting your game and starting over. Each subsequent time through the first few missions will give you a chance to reprioritize and figure out which upgrades are most useful to you, and restarting doesn’t make the game any less unpredictable and fun.
Hope those tips are helpful. If you have more tips of your own, please do share them in the comments below. Vive la résistance!