So you wanna get good at XCOM 2. You should. With 4.5 million squaddies dead after the first week of release, it’s clear there are many, many ways to die. It’s a tough game up-front, and can be even less forgiving than that over time — enough small mistakes and suddenly you’re doomed.
Let’s avoid those mistakes! First at the strategic layer, then at the tactical.
Don’t Panic About the Avatar Project. Your main goal in XCOM 2 is to stop the mysterious “Avatar Project,” which is represented by a meter at the top of the strategic map. That meter fills up quickly, and can make it look like you’re losing in a hurry. Don’t worry too much, you’re not. First, even once the meter fills up, the game isn’t over — you’re given two weeks to knock it back down. Second, there are multiple ways to knock it down, most notably, completing plot missions in combat (like using the Skulljack) and also raiding enemy black sites.
As long as those are available to you, it’s possible to play through XCOM 2 doing very well even as the Avatar meter constantly hovers around the top. Keep your options open, know how quickly you can get to a black site, and you’ll be fine. On the other hand…
Panic When You Can’t Win Missions. You’re not going to win every mission, even with reloading saved games. Sometimes the map and enemy combinations just don’t work. But if you find you’re constantly struggling to win missions, filling your ranks with brand-new rookies, and especially if you’re behind on armor research to the point where your characters are being killed in one hit, you’re probably too far behind to win this campaign. Best restart.
Understand the Strategic Map. There are four things you can do on the strategic map: scan for resources, make connections to other regions, respond to alien missions, or do plot-critical missions. That’s roughly the level of importance as well. From least to most useful: Scanning is mildly useful but not worth worrying about. You definitely need to expand when you have the Intel to do so. Eventually you’ll learn which combat missions you can skip, but in general you can try to do them all. And the plot missions are obviously necessary, but can be held up until you’re confident in your squaddies — unless you need to knock the Avatar Project down right away.
Research Armor ASAP. It doesn’t take long to get to the Plated Armor research option, but chances are the first time you see it, it’ll be an imposing 20 days long or so. It may still be worth it, but there’s a better way: head to the Black Market and spend intel to cut that time in half. This will double your squaddies’ hit points — it’s the biggest single leap in the game. Although you can mess it up easily, so also…
Keep Your Corpses. With money tight, it’s tempting to go to that Black Market and just unload all of the enemy corpses you’ve accumulated in your bloody return to XCOM glory. This is a bad idea, and if done to extremes, potentially game-ending. See, you need those corpses for research and item-building — for example, Viper corpses are used to research the improved Nanomedikit. If you need the cash infusion, you can certainly sell those rotting bodies. But don’t go below four on any of types of enemies.
Engineers > Scientists Early. Scientists are good for research, but with diminishing returns on their bonuses — it only takes a couple until your buffs are like 17% speed improvement. That gets better if you build a laboratory, but that requires money, space, and construction time — all of which are improved by engineers! You’ll eventually need scientists — some plot-critical research requires four of them — but engineers are much more important early on.
Build to Your Power Coils. Speaking of engineers, you should have at least one cleaning up your Avenger’s rooms at all times, and they should be pointed at the nearest power coil. You’ll need power pretty early in the game, and these give huge bonuses.
Armor/Weapon Upgrades Are Permanent. In XCOM 1, any time you researched a new kind of armor, you then had to spend time and money build it. In XCOM 2, once you research it, you only have to buy it once. One purchase, and every squaddie has Predator armor; another, and every rookie has a magnetic assault rifle.
Get Special Grenades and Ammo. Heading into the tactical section of the game, it’s critically important that you have tactical options. The Proving Ground room — which is necessary for the plot, so you’ll be pushed into building it — gives you that chance. In particular, look for stuff that will help you bust through alien armor. Armor Piercing ammo and Acid Grenades are great for this. It’s random, but it’s rarely useless. Also, once you do the Faceless autopsy, you can build Mimic Grenades. These can save your ass. Take at least one on every mission.
Use Every Class. It may be tempting to just go with the classes you’re comfortable with in XCOM 2 — the Sharpshooter and the Ranger can seem dispensable, in particular. Resist this urge. Each class, and many of the subclasses, can be tremendously useful, and absolutely necessary in certain situations. Sharpshooters can tear through multiple weak enemies, while sword-focused Rangers can single-handedly win missions where the aliens deploy Chrysalids.
Having, and knowing, all the classes and subclasses can be critical. Making one of each of the eight subclasses should be enough to do that, but especially…
Use Specialist Medics. If there’s one class you should always have, though, it’s the Specialist focusing on healing. Being able to send a drone across the map to heal any unit, four times per mission, will prove essential.
Don’t Panic At Psionic Attacks. Two early enemies, Sectoids and Codexes, will drop Psionic attacks on your troops. This is scary! Sectoids will mind control your squaddies, or make them panic, while Codexes will drain their ammo in a psychic exploding whirlwind. And yet both of these things can be blessings in disguise: they’re not killing your potentially exposed troops. Use that.
If Sectoids are using Mind Control or Panic, aggressively take them out as quickly as possible. This won’t just free the characters, it’ll free them right away. In fact, killing a Sectoid to help a panicked character who took a shot means that you’ll have gotten a free shot for nothing. Same with Codexes: the ammo drain attack will knock Specialists out for a turn, but a Ranger can charge it with a sword, a Grenadier can launch a grenade, and a Sharpshooter can use her pistol.
Be Careful Using the Skulljack. Speaking of the Codex, the first time you meet it will likely be during the plot mission to use the Skulljack. Same with the Avatar, later in the game. Both of these things will immediately suck up all your squaddies’ time, energy, and possibly lives. So if you’re on a mission with a tight time limit, best wait for more comfortable points to try to accomplish that plot mission.
Blow. Shit. Up. The destructive environments in XCOM 2 are a huge improvement over those of the 2012 XCOM. This is cool to watch, for sure, as plasma weapons and grenades knock walls and cover down. But it’s also an essential tool in your arsenal: blast aliens out of cover to expose them to killing fire, or push them retreat. Open gaping holes in fortified alien positions, and send your squaddies through. One of my favorites: when alien turrets are on top of roofs, a single grenade will make them fall and immediately be destroyed.
Concealment Isn’t That Helpful. In most missions, you start in “concealment” which gives the opportunity to construct an ambush that will knock out alien patrols. This can be great at times, but the difference between good and great isn’t that huge, while the difference between having five turns to fight through every alien and six turns can be. As soon as you’re comfortable, launch your attack — don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.
Hold Rangers In Reserve. Speaking of ambushes, since you can’t control which enemies your squaddies on Overwatch will attack, you may end up with them focusing on the wrong enemies, leaving a few around to cause problems if they actually get to another turn. This is why keeping a Ranger around to charge and slash any stragglers is incredibly helpful. The Ranger class, especially at early levels, can be difficult to keep alive if you use them as vanguards, charging every new enemy. But if you use them as backup, mopping up weakened aliens? They’ll get strong and become essential squad members.
Aliens Are Aggressive. The bad guys make their goal killing your squaddies, not keeping themselves alive. This can be good in that it makes for a better game, as enemies push back on your squad’s attempt to beat the time limit. It also makes it easier to kill enemies, at times. But it can also mean near-suicide attacks intended to kill your troops specifically, particularly when the Stun Lancers show up. Fuck those guys. Expect them to charge suicidally — and effectively against low-health rookies.
Learn Proper Spacing. This may be the toughest, but most important XCOM 2 lesson of all. Your squaddies need to be far enough from one another that enemy grenades can’t immediately weaken two or three of your troops. But they need to be close enough to one another that they can aggressively push any enemies threatening specific soldiers, particularly, as discussed above, Sectoids and other enemies with mind control.
Will this be enough to win a campaign? That’s up to you — but hopefully it’ll prevent you from surprise disaster.