Welcome to the latest chapter in my ongoing quest/self-help guide to unlock 100% of achievements in XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Between a full-time job, part-time writing career and a range of domestic commitments – is it possible for an average, grown-up gamer to max-out a modern title? As I post my progress, I’ll be discussing hints and tips; discussing the game’s design; and poking fun anything that comes within range. Catch the start of the journey here.
My campaign to achieve 100% of XCOM:EU’s achievements had been going so badly that during my last update I decided to swallow my pride and try to get a little help. Co-incidentally, I also lost that campaign, number 19, under less-than-heroic circumstances shortly after posting the journal.
The funny thing is, even before reading my first strategy guide, campaign number 20 has been a revelation. Right from the first mission, progress has been smoother, easier, and more assured. I’ve unlocked three (admittedly fairly easy) achievements and waltzed my way to the mid-game – which means that one of the hardest achievements I called out in Part 2 (No Looking Back – beat the game on Classic-Ironman difficulty) is on-track for completion.
So what’s been the difference – the guides I’ve read over past fortnight improving my game, or a change of my luck?
Officer Training School
First off, now that I feel like I’ve finally got to grips with both the Classic difficulty setting and the community’s preferred strategies, I’d like to share some of the most useful tips I’ve found. This isn’t a bricks-and-mortar guide for new players – it’s an intermediate-plus guide to those familiar with the game who can’t quite get a grip on the higher difficulties.
For me, the most important thing has been getting the macro-level strategy right – the base management, panic management and research side of the game. Nail that and you have both more leeway and more power on the battlefield, as a result of better gear and more soldiers, and thus each fight becomes a little bit more manageable.
Have a plan. Decide before you start the campaign where you want to focus your satellites and what your research priorities are – then make sure that every decision you take aligns with that strategy. This is vital for the first three months or so of the game. In campaign 20, I started in Europe and focused on getting three satellites in the skies above Africa by the end of April, giving me a juicy +30% income bonus early on. I also focused on getting laser rifles and carapace armour as quickly as possible.
Manage panic effectively, making sure that you can achieve your plan without losing too many countries along the way. This means being very careful about abduction missions. Ignore the short-term rewards and focus on the panic impact. Remember that for each continent you ignore, every country’s panic increases by one, while any countries you ignore have their panic raised by two. If panic is high across a continent, you might want to prioritise keeping their panic down without having to resort to satellites – even if the country being attacked has low panic levels.
As a side-note on this, be careful about how you spread your satellites around. The more continents you have a foothold in, the more Interceptors you’ll need to build, maintain and upgrade – that’s a strain on your finances you don’t need in the first two months. So if, like me, you’re focusing on Africa and your home continent, you might want to prioritize Abduction missions elsewhere, knowing that your satellites will reduce Africa’s panic at the end of the month anyway.
There’s no hard-and-fast rule here: it’s all about weighing up the pros and cons and making a judgement about how you can best deal with the ensuing rise in panic. The point is to think it through – don’t just grab the money each time.
There are two more tips for the campaign – and luckily, these ones are a lot easier to follow. Firstly, getting an Officer Training School and investing in a five and six-soldier squad is crucial. Nothing trims down the difficulty on the battle-map like an extra couple of shots per turn.
Secondly, forget about building Laboratories – at least until you’re drowning in money. This is an oft-repeated maxim across the guides, because research tends to work itself out pretty quickly. Besides, researching the entire tech-tree is no use if you lack the cash to buy new equipment. Workshops and engineers help you get satellites in the air, plus get you a refund on construction (hey, every little bit helps – particularly with Alloys and Elerium).
Understand line of sight and cover rules. LoS can be unintuitive – but to succeed, you need to predict whether you’ll be able to see an opponent from a certain position. Here’s a link to help you understand LoS. Sometimes it’s hard to guess (especially when elevation comes into account), but it’s crucial – especially when you consider that the best defense is to be completely out of an enemy’s line of sight.
You also need to have a good understanding of cover, and what affects hit rates. It’s dead simple really: the enemy gets 20% defense bonus if they have half cover, 40% if they have full cover. Full cover in-between a soldier and an alien will block line-of-sight, half cover will not. Unless you’re flanking, neither the angle at which you attack, nor the amount of intermediate pieces of half-cover, will make any difference to your hit chance. Switch off your human brain and active your XCOM one.
A great way to learn what affects your chances to hit is to use the “More Info” screen. Get into the habit of checking this regularly, because it will show you the practical upshot of cover, poison, buffs and elevation. You’ll also start to see just how debilitating things like a low Aim stat are for your soldiers.
Apart from understanding the map and the game mechanics, the most important thing to remember on the battlefield is to choose your battles. Never fight from a weak position, and don’t count on half-cover (especially on Classic or Impossible). If the terrain doesn’t offer you heavy cover to attack from, back off and try to find a new way to approach. If there’s a dangerous unit in your line of sight and you can’t guarantee a kill in your turn, get out of its line of sight. If you’re outnumbered, try to retreat to a safer position.
Never break these rules, and always play it safe. As a bonus, remember that the aliens are as thick as a Chrysalid’s abdominal carapace. When they’ve seen you, they’re likely to go on the offensive once you’re out of line of sight. They love nothing more than to charge into the fog-of-war, often in single-file. Backing off and setting your soldiers on Overwatch is a far more effective tactic than it probably ought to be.
Finally, be extremely careful about the fog-of-war. You only have to uncover a single tile to activate a squad of aliens. When you’re in combat, you should do everything you can not to risk pulling more aliens into the fray. This often means you have to avoid the temptation to flank, and will often encourage you to step backwards more than you step forwards.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from playing XCOM, it’s that taking risks gets your soldiers killed. ALWAYS play it safe.
These past two weeks have been amazing: I’ve gone from struggling to get beyond June to absolutely owning the campaign; from wondering if I was ever going to get anywhere with this stupid quest, to being hopelessly addicted to XCOM all over again. As I write, I’m preparing to board the Overseer ship (the second of three major milestones in the game), I have almost a full tech-tree at my disposal, plus all sixteen council countries under my control, and absolutely no panic.
The most exciting bit is that I’ve unlocked three extra achievements. All quite simple ones (shoot down 40 UFOs, kill an alien while flying, and deploy a SHIV) – but they’re helping to raise my percentage (as well as my morale). Things are looking up. I think even Officer Bradford has started treating my with a little more respect – that old sparkle is dancing behind his eyes.
So what’s changed? Well, I’ve had a macro strategy in place for three campaigns now, but I keep messing it up. The plan is this: start in Europe for cheap workshops (hence more engineers), then rush Africa with satellites to secure the income bonus (a whopping +30% income per month). You only need three satellites in the air for this, so on a decent campaign you can achieve it by the end of April.
As my earlier tip says, sticking to this strategy, and controlling panic to maximize its chances of success, is critical. By securing Africa early, I had a ton more money to spend. That meant I could buy better gear, purchase upgrades from the Officer Training school, which gave me more chance on the battlefield. Suddenly I have more money than I know what to do with, and I’m walking my way across the alien base to close out the first third of the campaign. Once I’d got through those first couple of months successfully, the rest of the game just fell into place.
Plus, something seems to have clicked on the battle-map. I’ve been reading guides, but they haven’t taught me anything I didn’t know. Maybe they reinforced some things I didn’t make the most of – like Squadsight snipers. But more than anything, its a strict enforcement of a few key rules which have got me through the battles: don’t fight from a bad position, don’t expose the fog-of-war until you HAVE to, start operations slowly in case the aliens rush you (and they will rush you), and put your soldiers’ safety first.
But there’s also another thing I’ve noticed about XCOM, both from my experience, and from the dozens of forum posts and Let’s Play videos I’ve seen. Sometimes it rolls your way, and sometimes it doesn’t; either the game’s on your side, or it’s not. When my Classic campaign is going well, it’s actually pretty easy: even if I get a couple of bad turns, things seems to work themselves out and missions are stress-free. You begin to wonder “how did I ever find this so difficult?”. But then again, when XCOM goes badly, it goes REALLY badly. Aliens patrol out of no-where, critical hits single-shot soldiers at the wrong times, sure-things turn into frustrating failures. Sometimes you can feel a squad-wipe coming a mile off – you just know the wind isn’t blowing your way.
So I’m still not sure as to whether I’ve magically become a better player over the last fortnight, or whether my luck has just changed for the duration of this campaign. Perhaps in my next update I’ll be able to offer some more thoughts on the matter.
Until then, Commanders.
Hours Played: 25.5
Operations Completed: 45
Aliens Killed: 430
Soldiers Lost: 34
Flawless Victories: 4
Total Wipeouts: 1
Achievements Unlocked: 3
Strategy Guides Read: 12 (the In-Depth Class Guide is the best)
Achievements Unlocked: 44% (38/85)
Hours Played: 45
Operations Completed: 73
Confirmed Kills: 1180
Campaigns Started: 20
Campaigns Won: 1