XCOM: Enemy Unknown Beginner’s Guide

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Posted on October 9, 2012, Ben Richardson XCOM: Enemy Unknown Beginner’s Guide

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XCOM: Enemy Unknown can be an unforgiving game — that’s why it’s so good. As explained in C.J. Miozzi’s glowing review and his and my similarly positive joint preview article, XCOM creates a constant sense of risk and danger which is crucial to enjoying it. If you didn’t have to worry that everything could go wrong at any moment, it wouldn’t be nearly as fun.

That being said, it’s hard to like a game that’s too punishing. Not everyone is familiar with the intricacies of turn-based tactical combat, and for every seasoned alien-fighter who wore out the 90′s originals, there are plenty of new players just coming to terms with alien threat. Those beginners should read on for a handful of key strategies that could prove the difference between victory and a future of planet-wide extraterrestrial subjugation.

Tactical Combat

XCOM has two main gameplay components: strategic base-building and tactical combat. In the tactical combat missions, you’ll direct a squad of soldiers, turn-by-turn, through an isometric map divided into tiles and peppered with various forms of cover.


Unlike in the old XCOM games, you’ll want to ensure that your soldiers end their turns concealed behind cover, every turn. Not doing so will improve the aliens’ accuracy and lead to rapid casualties. There are two types of cover in XCOM: Enemy Unknown: full and partial. When possible, always search out full cover, which is represented by a full shield icon in the movement heads-up display. Partial cover can work in a pinch, but using it is always a risk.


Un-upgraded soldiers can perform two actions per turn — they can either move and shoot, or move twice. Use this to your advantage by using the first half of each soldier’s turn to gain a tactical grasp of the situation by establishing a perimeter. Then cycle through each unit for the second half of his or her turn, moving into cover or attacking threats as necessary.

Try to keep good squad spacing — close enough to heal each other if necessary, but not so close that an enemy AOE attack can damage multiple soldiers. Squad shape is also important — maintain a continuous front and be sure to protect your flanks from hidden threats.

Don’t be afraid to retreat if the going gets tough, or if you have a wounded soldier without access to a medpack. Seek out strong cover positions away from the enemy, and let the aliens come to you while you set up a counter-attack.


Two pieces of perennial video game wisdom apply here: always try to flank, and always focus-fire. In the first case, you’ll do much more damage and shoot more accurately if you manage to flank an alien position, but be cautious — the extra firepower won’t be worth it if you expose a valuable soldier to unnecessary risk. In the second case, two wounded aliens can do more damage to you on their next turn than a single live alien, so try to burn down targets one at a time using multiple soldiers.

Thirdly, make liberal use of the Overwatch, which enables soldiers in cover to fire on enemies if they move through their field of view. With a few exceptions, there’s no reason to rush through an XCOM mission; moving your squad slowly and intelligently will lead to fewer casualties and more success in the long term. If a soldier has a shot at an enemy with a low-percentage chance of hitting, consider using Overwatch instead; I usually opted for Overwatch if my chances were less than about 40%, depending on the situation.


Get to know the different alien types, along with their strengths and weaknesses. Sectoids can use a psychic link to buff each other, but if you kill the buffer, the buffee dies as well. Try to get two-for-one shots. Floaters can use their jetpacks to leap great distances across the map to try to flank you, but when they do, they’re often vulnerable to being flanked themselves. Melee enemies like Chrysalids and Muton Beserkers do huge damage if they get up close — make sure to always leave a healthy cushion between them and any vulnerable squad members when you end your turn.


Since the game was only released today, people haven’t had time to fully theory-craft all the class abilities. That being said, there are some that seem like strong favorites — almost too good to pass up:

  • Support

The support class combines the talents of a scout and a medic, and having a good support soldier is the foundation of any effective squad. Take “Sprinter” for three extra tiles of movement — good for scouting, but useful in many different situations — and “Field Medic” for the ability to carry three medpacks at a time. Trust me — you’ll need them.


Armed with shotguns, the Assault class is designed to close with the enemy and deliver critical hits at short range. The “Run ‘n’ Gun” ability, unlocked immediately after a rookie is promoted to the class, allows an Assault soldier to either fire or go into Overwatch after moving twice. Use this ability to scout and act as a point man for the rest of the squad. Farther down the tree, “Rapid Fire” allows an Assault soldier to fire his weapon twice in a row — more shots per turn are always better.


The Heavy’s Rocket Launcher is an ideal tool to damage multiple enemies and destroy their cover. Try to position your Heavy so that he or she always has line of sight on the main enemy formations — the rockets can travel accurately over a long distance. In terms of upgrades, the “Bullet Swarm” ability enables the Heavy to fire his or her weapon at the beginning a turn without losing the ability to move or fire again. Like with “Rapid Fire,” more shots per turn is a no brainer.


Though they’re squishy to start out, Snipers quickly become the most important members of your squad. Try to keep them alive to unlock their powerful upper-tier abilities, including “Double Tap,” which enables a sniper to fire twice in a single turn. Armor upgrades will allow them to quickly and easily command the high ground, making them even more deadly. As the game wears on, expect them to be your main source of damage.


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