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How to Desperately Win at “X-COM: Enemy Unknown”

Updated on October 1, 2014
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How to Desperately Win at "X-COM: Enemy Unknown"

Tired of seeing the Memorial Wall fill up with "dead" X-COM soldiers until it looks like a huge roster? Frustrated that top-killing Colonels and Majors have suddenly been killed after many battles and the Active-Duty roster's left with inexperienced Corporals and Squaddies? About to call it quits when sponsoring nations have pulled out and the finances hover near zero? Making no headway against the alien onslaught when their technology and firepower improves while humanity has hardly makes any headway? Frustrated with the difficulty of the game and just hope to finish it somehow, someway, anyway, if at all possible? If so, read on…

X-COM is a turn-based role-playing light strategy video game pitting an elite and secret organization of multinational human soldiers with their high-tech weaponry in a fight against an alien invasion of Earth. The game had its origins in the 1990s on the PC platform. Since then, X-COM had a few sequels on PC and then the game and story ceased production. "X-COM: Enemy Unknown" is a restart of the story and the current game developers have taken all the good characteristics of the original X-COM PC series of video games and redesigned it with better graphics, interface, and programming to take advantage of the much better performing and more powerful gaming consoles and PCs of today.

WARNING: This Help Guide contains story spoilers, cheats, tips, and hints in order for the (desperate) player to win at the "X-COM: Enemy Unknown" game. Those who have not finished playing the game, and do not want to learn about cheats, tips, and tricks may now want to read this article further.

While "X-COM: Enemy Unknown" may not be a hardcore strategy game for the veteran video game player, there are some players who may have a hard time finishing the game mainly because their attacking squad of X-COM soldiers get wiped out on the battlefield by the alien forces. As with all games, time, patience, effort, and player perseverance should overcome the odds in order to defeat the game's Artificial Intelligence. The game does have some scripting that places enemy units in the same positions on the battlefield; however, depending on where the player's soldiers are, the enemy units and battles are not 100% fixed or scripted and thus the game has variables and flexibility so that battles do not play the same twice.

This article will help the player who desperately wants to win the game in the shortest amount of time because after all, we do have other things to do. These recommendations and suggestions are not listed in order of importance or priority and should only act as a guide to gameplay.

Set the Game Difficulty to "Easy:"

The player could set the game's Difficulty level to "Easy" in the Options Menu. As a veteran of the original X-COM PC games, I even found "X-COM: Enemy Unknown" to be a bit harrowing on the "Normal" Difficulty Setting, so much so that I wanted to finish the game as soon as possible. Therefore, I set the Difficulty to "Easy." I noticed a dramatic improvement in my soldiers' survivability rates as alien enemy fire was not as accurate and more importantly, not as damaging on "Easy" Difficulty. My armored soldiers were able to take a few more enemy hits without being killed outright. Furthermore, my soldiers' firepower turned out more accurate and damaging towards the aliens, tipping the Kill Ratio over to humanity's favor despite against the initial odds of advanced alien technology.

The XCOM soldiers, each outfitted with armor and plasma weapons.
The XCOM soldiers, each outfitted with armor and plasma weapons. | Source

Cheat!:

Yes, if all else fails to progress the game forward, then…cheat! Cheat codes and tips can be found online. Cheating in "X-COM: Enemy Unknown" unlocks what are called "Secret Hero Units," soldiers with amped-up specifications, weapons, armor, attributes and training that often cannot be obtained by the player without a lot of time and effort spent into playing the game and nurturing soldiers to the highest ranks with skills and Psi Powers training. To unlock the Hero Units, go to the Barracks and select the "View Soldier" option. Click on a soldier and then select the "Customize" menu. Change the name of the soldier to one of the following names below. Type in the names exactly as shown with upper and lowercase letters or else the cheats will not work to unlock the Secret Hero Units.

Using Hero Units will not eliminate the player's ordinary soldiers from the roster as you can just substitute the Hero Unit with one of the hires. Do note that Hero Units cannot be promoted because they are already at the top of all specifications and ability levels; they are in fact Super X-COM soldiers.

  • Joe Kelly (Heavy): This unlocks a "Heavy" unit with Titan Armor, Gatling Plasma gun, and Blaster Bomb Launcher (Blaster Bomb = destructive awesomeness!). His stats, talents, and health are massive, allowing him to survive enemy hits. "Will" and "Aim" are at 100%!
  • Ken Levine (Sniper): This unlocks an awesome sniper with a plasma sniper rifle and accuracy "Aim" ratings at a staggering 200%...two-hundred percent…double the accuracy that the best ordinary sniper hire could achieve! The Archangel Armor and "Improved Flight" attribute allow this sniper to fly and hover above the enemy and take shots with almost 100% hit probability-a huge "Force Multiplier" in the game. Other talents include the ability to keep firing if one enemy is killed; the game will allow you to take a shot again. If you kill that alien, the game allows another shot, and so on as long as each shot results in a kill! Having a sniper that almost cannot miss is a godsend.
  • Otto Zander (Assault): This unlocks a soldier with "Ghost (invisible) Armor" and an Alloy Shotgun. "Will" and "Aim" are at 100%. Otto makes for a great scout and with his hard-hitting shotgun, makes quick work of finishing off weak alien enemies. If the player deems the shotgun not powerful or long-range enough, substitute a plasma rifle using the "Customize menu" in the Barracks.
  • Sid Meier (Support): This unlocks a very powerful soldier complete with purple Psi Armor and the envious gifted "Psi Powers" such as Mind Control, Psi Inspiration and Panic, Telekinetic Field, and Mindfray, Psi Powers that may take an ordinary X-COM soldier a long time of Psi training and battles to obtain and perfect. "Will" comes in at a hardcore 200 +20 and "Aim" is 100%! This soldier could be the ultimate "Bad-dude" of the battlefield, able to shoot and use Psi Powers to overwhelm the opponents. I found the Mind Control and Telekinetic Fields especially fun, helpful, and powerful to use.

(These names are actually based on real people. For instance, Sid Meier is the creator of "SimCity" and the "Sims" video game).

By using these "Hero Units," I found the missions much easier to play and win because the Hero Soldiers could dish out extraordinary-accurate firepower and also take a beating as well. Do be careful because these Super Soldiers are not invincible and will get injured and even die if exposed to repeated enemy fire-just that they won't die as easily as ordinary hired X-COM soldiers.

Cheating is one extreme way of finishing the game. There may be some players who do not desire to use "Cheat Secret Hero Units" and want to build up their own ordinary soldiers to win the game themselves.

X-COM Strategy Guide:

By far the best help for the player comes from the "X-COM Strategy Guide" printed by BradyGames. The Strategy Guide contains very helpful advice, tips, recommendations, maps, and guidance for the player. In particular, the Strategy Guide offers advice on which skills to pick for the soldiers when they get promoted. Picking the proper skill is very important and I found myself researching the book to know and decide what the best skill to choose was. The Guide also shows the Research Technology tree and what alien item needs to be researched in order to obtain this weapon or that technology. While the Guide does not walk the player through each mission since each mission plays out a bit differently, the Guide does offer tips and techniques to help the player survive missions in addition to walkthroughs of the game's most important advancement missions.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown Strategy Guide

Raid, Save, Build, and Spend Wisely:

One quick and simple way to make cash is to sell damaged UFO components which have no research value. The profits may be small per each damaged item, but some cash sure is better than leaving a piece of useless junk in base storage.

Raiding enemy UFOs that have landed provides ample intact UFO technology, equipment, Alien Alloys, and Elerium all for the picking if the X-COM soldiers succeed in killing all the aliens. In fact, raiding landed alien UFOs is almost a "Must-Do" in order to advance in the game and obtain enough intact alien materials and resources to research and build with. Do be careful as landed alien UFOs come with a complete assortment of enemy combatants. Only raid those UFOs of the size you feel comfortable that your current squad is equipped to handle. In raiding UFOs, most alien threats outside the UFOs come in packs of twos, threes, or fours. Therefore, do not spread your squad out too thin or the X-COM soldier may encounter an enemy ratio of four aliens to one human and the X-COM soldier may have inadequate teammates and firepower to deal with the alien threat.

Building Satellite Uplinks and possessing enough satellites are by far some of the most important tasks and strategy in the game and construction should be done early on or whenever there is enough money. A satellite over a nation will help reduce panic and also provide reconnaissance and unite the nations in their funding. The satellites do not have to be Stealth Satellites as I found that having regular satellites and a couple of built satellites in Reserve to launch if one got shot down was adequate when playing on "Easy" setting. I didn't even spend the time and money to research Stealth Satellites.

Building laboratories and workshops next to each other gives added bonuses, and the more scientists and engineers accumulated, the faster the work gets performed.

Research should be performed and spent on wisely. If pistols are not used a lot in combat, then don't spend the money and time to research every "Pistol Improvement." If S.H.I.V.s were not used a lot in combat, then researching to repair and build them may not be a huge priority, especially when there are other Research projects vying for funding and attention.

The "Officer Training School" is by far an important priority to fund when finances become available. Try to buy the training as soon as possible as each addition helps in the squad's survivability and mission success rate.

Buying and dispersing Interceptors around the globe does help in shooting down hostile aliens. If you have the satellite coverage and finances, then buy Interceptors to spread your UFO Interception rate across the globe. If the Interceptors still use missiles, buy a pair of Interceptors per continent to increase the chance of downing a ufo with missiles.

Spend the most money on weapons and armor as early on, most battles will involve ground combat. One doesn't need to buy all the items researched.

Research is the key to obtaining advanced materials, armor, and weapons.
Research is the key to obtaining advanced materials, armor, and weapons. | Source

Obtain Plasma Weapons ASAP:

A no-brainer, but seriously, if the aliens are shooting with plasma weapons, obviously that is the epitome of the weapons' hierarchy and the player needs to get some plasma guns ASAP for the soldiers, S.H.I.V.s and Interceptors. Stunning aliens with the Arc Thrower helps to preserve the alien plasma weapons from exploding when dropped when the alien dies. Researching and buying laser weapons helps as well as anything is better than firing standard bullets.

An Assault soldier armed with a laser gun, obtained through Researching.
An Assault soldier armed with a laser gun, obtained through Researching. | Source

Equip Accordingly:

Some soldiers do not need a certain item due to their slow movement rate or role. For instance, the "Assault" soldier comes equipped with a shotgun as standard, but in reality, how many times does the player run a soldier up to an alien "point-blank" to fire? Therefore, swap out the shotgun for a laser or plasma rifle if most combat firing occurs from a distance.

If the player doesn't use grenades often, swap those out for Scopes, Medikits, or Arc Throwers. I found that adding a Scope to the "Heavy's" gatling gun improved the "Hit Rate" enough to make the gatling gun a serious threat to aliens, especially since it could fire twice per action turn.

Load up on Medikits. Common sense means more than one soldier should have them in case the soldier carrying the Medikit(s) falls. I found that the soldier who could carry more than one Medikit should be equipped with them as Medikits have made a huge difference in determining mission success by stabilizing and revitalizing injured soldiers to continue the fight.

Equip soldiers with the best armor ASAP…Titan, Carapace, and Archangel armor suit. Soldiers are going to take hits and it's the armor that saves them (besides the Medikits) and buys them some time to seek cover elsewhere or to return fire.

A Heavy soldier armed with a plasma gun.
A Heavy soldier armed with a plasma gun. | Source

Load Up on "Heavy" Soldiers:

If the player just finds too many aliens and feels outnumbered and outgunned, hire more soldiers and equip the attacking squad with mostly "Snipers and Heavies" as these are the soldiers who often fire and kill effectively. Do this by editing the squad before deployment in the Skyranger and select the Snipers and Heavies. Sure, "Support" and "Assault" class provide killing firepower too, but it's the "Snipers and Heavies" that could fire more than once per action. I often went into battle early on with three "Heavies," two snipers, and a "Support" unit.

A Sniper armed with a laser gun.  Snipers can make damagingly accurate pinpoint shots.
A Sniper armed with a laser gun. Snipers can make damagingly accurate pinpoint shots. | Source

Use Those Rockets and Grenades:

There's a saying in the military, "There are a few things in the world that cannot be solved with high explosives!" So if the going gets tough, then "Blow stuff up!"

Yes, despite Dr. Vahlen's stern warning that explosives damages alien artifacts and prevents useful research, sometimes the player just wants the X-COM squad to return to base alive against overwhelming odds. Don't worry, Doctor…there will be plenty of other opportunities and battles to collect aliens and alien artifacts for research. The game has no punishment for excessive collateral damage and the player doesn't get a Gold Star for keeping structures intact either. So if the aliens are kicking soldiers' behinds pretty well with well-aimed firepower, then time to kick back with some heavy (bazooka) firepower!

This is why I added a third "Heavy" to my squad because I wanted those extra rockets, especially when dealing with drones, Mutons, Chryssalids, and Cyberdiscs as a rocket could spread the damage to those packs of aliens that often cluster together. True, direct rifle fire often produces the game's most kill statistics, but bear in mind that rocket and grenade fire often doesn't miss when close enough to the aliens and there are times when those pesky aliens just have to be hit and weakened behind cover. Rifle fire could miss, but not a high-explosive blast! And often times, one rocket blast could take out Thin Men and Sectoids that group too close together. As a player once told me long ago, "Not my house so I'm going to blow this UFO up!" and true to advice, his barrage of rockets and grenades eliminated a huge alien threat inside the UFO to the point that he aliens probably didn't know what hit them…X-COM were here!

Do remember to backup "Heavies" with other squadmates' firepower because often rockets alone will not kill Sectopods, Chryssalids, Mutons, and Cyberdiscs with one shot.

Useful Battlefield Tactics:

  • Don't rush! Do not rush into the fray of battle. Go slow and scout out the area as there could be aliens hiding to the flanks, rooftops, and even behind the squad's initial deployment spot. Take time to move soldiers from appropriate cover-to-cover and ensure overlapping fields of mutual-supporting fire from squadmates.
  • Save often! Losing a high-ranking experienced soldier hurts in this game, especially when a squad of five has to battle aliens numbering in the teens. Thus, save often and reload the game if too many experienced soldiers have fallen in battle. Keep trying until you achieve a mission success of all aliens killed and no high-ranking X-COM soldiers killed. Do note that the game Autosaves after a X-COM soldier falls; therefore if the mission is going well, do save at that successful point.
  • Know When to End The Mission: Sometimes accepting a mission's end results even with a loss of low-ranking Squaddies and Corporals makes sense compared to replaying the mission again in the hopes of not losing any units. The player needs to preserve the higher-ranking Captains, Majors, and Corporals, the units with the most skills, kills, experience, and training abilities as the lower-ranking soldiers could be replaced more quickly by hiring new recruits. A loss of one or two lower-ranking soldiers or a S.H.I.V. may be worth the price to "bring home the alien loot," or just to get the heck out of that tough battle and come back to base to rearm, restock, and research.
  • Pair up: As in the military, don't go "Rambo" and send a soldier out solo. Pair up in a buddy-system and "leapfrog" towards the objective, having squadmates cover each other.
  • Use cover: Place soldiers behind cover, even if half-cover. This hides the soldier in addition to buying some time in case enemy fire hits and destroys the cover.
  • Use "Run and Gun": The "Run and Gun" tactic ability used by "Assaulters," once activated, allows for firing or Overwatch after Dashing. When used wisely and appropriately, this very useful ability often allows for "Coup De Grace" shots before the end of the "Assaulter's" turn. Therefore, turning on this ability allows for an "Assaulter" to fire on an enemy after moving into an advantageous position just beforehand. I used "Run and Gun" to fire off finishing shots once I moved my "Assaulter" into position.
  • If Possible, Stun! Stunning aliens allows for the capturing of alien technology and weapons intact in addition to useful interrogations. Just don't go exposing soldiers to too much enemy fire when on a quest to stun an alien.
  • Useful Medikits: Using those Medikits to stabilize fallen high-ranking units helps preserve squad experience. An injured fallen X-COM soldier has three turns before bleedout. The only way to prevent death would be to stabilize the fallen with a Medikit by having a soldier stand over the fallen, or to kill all aliens in the mission in order to have every X-COM unit, including the fallen, return to base. If the player has no units with Medikits available, or soldiers within range of the injured in three player turns, then make a priority to hunt and kill all aliens within those three turns in order to end the game, or reload a saved game before the soldier got injured.
  • Overwatch…firing firepower will win the mission. Place soldiers who have a few action points left on "Overwatch." Using "Overwatch" helps a lot instead of moving to use up the Action Points because it's firepower that will win the mission, not movement. The mission doesn't end until all aliens have been killed or captured; therefore, having a turn to fire back adds an extra opportunity to kill the enemy and make the mission end sooner.
  • Search everything: Most cases the mission doesn't end until all aliens have been killed or captured. Even with Hostage Rescue missions, saving the VIP will not end the mission if there are still hostile forces around. As such, search the entire battlespace by sending soldiers out or having them positioned high above to survey the area. Just make sure not to spread the squad out too thin or send soldiers out alone.
  • Skip the unit's Action Turn until later: Skipping a unit with full Action Points at the beginning of the player's turn and returning to it later in the turn helps the player decide what to do and use with that unit as the battle unfolds. Say the turn starts with a "Heavy" and the player doesn't know what to do with him. Skip that "Heavy" and cycle through the other units first. Then when the other X-COM soldiers have expended their Action Points and the "Heavy's" turn comes up again, the player has a better understanding of the battle and what to do with the "Heavy" or where to send the "Heavy" unit.
  • Explode things that could be exploded: Hiding soldiers behind cars or fuel pumps risks soldiers' deaths when enemy fire explodes the fuel in those objects. However, this doesn't mean the player couldn't return the favor when aliens hide behind those explosive objects as well. Firing at cars, fuel pumps, semi tractors, and other explosive objects with aliens hiding behind them could result in some sure alien kills as the explosive force detonates and sends that alien flying!
  • Hey, how about those Psi Powers? "Use 'em!" Training ordinary hired soldiers in the Psi-Arts will yield immense mental powers and weapons in the future. For example, the "Secret Hero Unit" Sid Meier comes with Psi Powers such as Mind Control and Telekinetic Field, both very useful and very powerful mental weapons. Mind Control takes over aliens' minds and allows the player to use aliens as if a "friendly" unit, weapons and all! A player-controlled alien could act as a "friendly" scout, sniper, or assaulter for up to four turns-just be sure that the alien isn't in a position to cause harm X-COM soldiers when the fourth turn is over and the alien reverts back to its enemy role.


Telekinetic Field has awesome destructive power and uses, especially against drones, Sectopods, and Cyberdiscs. Think of the Field as a hurricane chock-full of swirling debris, a barrage of stinging shrapnel, cutting and dicing anything in it! Even well-armored Sectopods caught in the Field crumple by just standing inside it! A Telekinetic Field cast in the appropriate spot could wipe out a whole group of well-armed and armored aliens behind cover and allow your stalled squad to advance.

  • Blaster Bomb-A "Heavy's" Most Destructive Best Friend: When the Blaster Bomb gets into the X-COM soldiers' inventory, use it. No other explosive firepower comes with so much guidance that the bomb cannot miss. Blaster Bombs are very useful in dealing confirmed damage against groups of tough pesky aliens, think-skinned Sectopods, Cyberdiscs, and Chryssalids. If the player needs the Blaster Bomb and launcher now, then cheat by unlocking "Secret Heavy Unit" Joe Kelly.

And if all else fails…

Cheat! (See "Cheat!" section) and unlock those "Secret Hero Units." They are humanity's best hope: Joe Kelly (Heavy) with his Blaster Bomb, Sid Meier (Support) with his spectacular Psi Powers, and the "Can't Miss" Ken Levine (Sniper) with his stunning 200% accuracy rating and his destructive Plasma Sniper Rifle. Cheating and using the recommendations above will help the player complete the missions and finish the game to see the entire "X-COM: Enemy Unknown" story.

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