Character builds; research priorities; strategy. All the training you need to take on Advent at the next level, Commander.
The idea of an “XCOM2 guide” is somewhat oxymoronic — there are very few “objectively” best classes, best builds, or best paths. Sure, there is a specified way to beat the game quickly, or to unlock certain items, but in general, you should play this game as you like it. My goal, rather than prescribing “The Correct Path”, is to describe several successful paths. I should know — I’ve played hundreds of hours of XCOM 2, everything from scrub-level-Rookie to Commander Ironman, Commander speed-run to Legendary vanilla.
Suffice it to say I’ve experimented a LOT with this game, enough to know there can’t be a single “optimal” way to play, because the strategy is so situational. That’s my guiding philosophy with XCOM strategy — any given decision depends on everything else.
Therefore, this guide isn’t just for complete newbies, for veterans contemplating an Ironman run, or for dejected Commanders who have just been squad-wiped. It’s for all of the above, because that’s XCOM, baby. Let’s get started, Commander.
One note: I know I literally just said “no optimal paths”, but this guide would crash Steam if I delved into every corner case and exception. I’ll try to hit the big exceptions, but use your discretion and feel free to be creative in your playthroughs.
- Medic builds are a little stronger in the early rounds of an Ironman run than they are anywhere else, when you’re constantly suffering from RNG. You can always respect in the AWC/Training Grounds later.
- If you’re playing normal, though, you shouldn’t ever need more than one healing tree skill (even if you only reload saves where you mis-click or don’t notice the fuel tank you took cover behind, that avoids the majority of fatal encounters).
- Scan every Advent tower and crate with your Specialist to farm for the +20 hack bonus (you can always hit “cancel” and you’ll be fine, even in concealment). Best bonus in the game.
- Most of the abilities are negotiable, except for the Captain and Major tiers. I dislike Ever Vigilant, because the Specialist almost never dashes if they’re scanning, hacking, or healing. Because I always pick Guardian at Major rank, then Covering Fire is the natural synergy at Captain.
- Items: Specialists love Medkit, Skullmine, and generically good weapon upgrades like Repeaters and Stocks. Guardian users appreciate Magazines, especially.
- Always bring Specialists on Guerrilla Ops that involve hacking (or “retrieving items”, or whatever), since they can hack long-distance. When you’re able to complete that objective on the last possible turn without exposing yourself to flanking fire, you’ll thank me.
- In WotC, I like my Specialists to have at least Above Average combat intelligence, if not higher, so that I can take both Revival and Haywire Protocols. Revival Protocol is one of the best Ironman abilities in the game (more on that later), while Haywire is sometimes your silver bullet to stun the Sectopod that just ambushed your squad (how did those soldiers not see an evil robot the size of a building? I don’t know either).
- Rangers are a hugely variable, hugely versatile class, with a lot of room for tweaking to your squad needs and personal preferences, so take this input with more grains of salt than usual!
- However, for Ironman, I prefer: Phantom, Shadowstep, Conceal, Implacable, Untouchable, Rapid Fire. This build gives the Ironman player 2 irreplaceable tools: stealthy scouting and damage immunity.
- Blademaster builds are good too, but their melee range is dangerous in Ironman, and in Legendary most enemies have too much HP to OHKO, even with the Assassin’s amazing Katana. But, at lower difficulties, these soldiers can be OP, so knock yourself out! (One time, I beat the Network Tower with three “Blademaster” units, and you are correct in assuming it was the easiest mission ever.)
- Items: Talon Rounds are so awesome here. Otherwise, the utility slot is 100% preference, depending on your inventory. Rangers love Serpent/Wraith Suits and RAGE armor for mobility boosts. Use Rangers to take up any Hair Triggers and Laser Sights you aren’t using elsewhere, since they don’t need aim boost or tons of ammo. Be flexible, since Rangers are the most adept at filling any combat role effectively.
- In WotC, Rangers love having high Combat Intelligence — since every one of their skills can be amazing, it pays to double-dip on things like Run and Gun and Bladestorm.
- This is where all the Internet controversy is — aggressive pistol-slinger or deep-cover sniper? I’ve used both builds successfully, so I can say that it is TOTALLY your preference.
- In my experience, Gunslingers fulfill a similar role to an aggressive Ranger — they reliably polish off weakened enemies and can sometimes execute degenerate combos involving killing a full-health Avatar in one turn.
- On the other hand, Snipers have amazing Overwatch skills and can assassinate that full-health trooper in high cover who’s clearly anxious to use his grenade. Personally, I slightly prefer the Sniper, since they tend to take cover farther back from your squad (which increases your troops’ spacing and decreases the likelihood of grenades) and I generally find myself more interested in killing one dude than weakening 18.
- Since both these paths are all-or-nothing, and they don’t mix very well, it’s fine for your WotC Sharpshooters to be Standard combat intelligence. They’ll be able to pick up one useful XCOM skill, but they don’t need to double-dip like the Grenadier or Ranger. (I can just imagine the hazing in the Avenger bar as the Rangers insult everyone else’s intelligence and the Sharpshooters are all too dumb to realize they’re the butt of the joke.)
- Items: Damage-boosting ammo is a must for Gunslingers, but upgrading their rifle hardly matters. For Snipers, Auto-Loaders/Magazines/Scopes are perfect (why reload when you could snipe?), and grapple-equipped armors are the peanut butter to Death From Above’s jelly.
*Hot take alert* Grenades are perhaps the trickiest tool in your arsenal. They’re great for destroying cover, shredding armor, and guaranteed damage, but my hot take is that they are not a staple of a late-game squad. Here’s why: 4/7 > 9/32. 4/7 is a Squaddie grenading to put an Advent Captain into OHKO range; 9/32 is a Colonel’s ‘nade barely making a dent in a Sectopod. Prioritize variety and quantity of explosives over pure damage, because in the late game, the damage is worth far less than the guaranteed effect of explosives. With that in mind, here are my thoughts on Grenadiers:
- The Grenadier has very few “bad” skills. However, I always try to pick up Heavy Ordnance for the extra ‘nade, and Shredder is too good to pass up. Since Volatile Mix is just bad late-game, I try to pick up Chain Shot for a hybrid gunner/bomber build. The other skills depend mostly on your team.
- Items: Obviously, give these soldiers your best grenades. Maybe give them a WAR suit too, if you’re ambivalent about that third slot. Put your best Scope and Magazine on their cannon (yes! I said it), so you can combo together highly-accurate Chain Shot/Rupture/Hail of Bullets without reloading. You’ll thank me later.
- Grenadiers benefit from high combat intelligence in WotC, since they have such powerful skills.
- We all agree that Domination, Stasis, Inspire and Void Rift are baller. ‘Nuff said.
- Solace has also saved me more times than I can count, as an automatic Revival Protocol (just don’t run up next to a mind-controlled Blademaster Ranger!). My pick order in Ironman, where status conditions make or break missions, actually places Solace above everything except Stasis and Inspire.
- I like my high-level Psi Ops to use Bolt Caster, since they spam abilities too often to care about the reloads. I also give them Scanners, Mimic Beacons, or other non-damaging items, since they can’t gain EXP from kills.
- It’s my opinion that Sparks, with their mediocre aim, no ability to take cover, and awful Hack stat, are the game’s weakest unit unless you have WotC and slap a Superior Scope onto its gun.
- However, a Spark can do a decent imitation of a Grenadier with armor-shredding, crazy powerful heavy weapons, and huge health, so I always try to train at least one, even if it takes some dedicated effort to feed the Spark mid-game kills.
- Skill-wise, don’t pick Intimidate (it succeeds like once per campaign), but do pick Rainmaker (because who doesn’t like a 3-tile-wide Plasma Blaster? no one, that’s who). Bulwark is a must, as is Repair.
- Use the Julian voice customization, because it’s sardonic and hilarious.
WotC Hero Units
Since all the hero units have 3 branches, it’s much more difficult to recommend particular builds, but I’ll do my best to sketch out good directions to start. (Obviously, you need War of the Chosen expansion to use these classes.)
- Imagine a Rookie who’s been given access to stupid-powerful stealth: that’s the Reaper. The Shadow Mode of a Reaper is one of the single most powerful abilities of the game — non-turret enemies can only spot you if you’re in a 3-tile radius. That means Reapers are great for early Ironman runs, but you’ll also have to feed them kills or they’ll never break stealth and get EXP.
- The abilities of the Reaper focus on increasing the its stealth, the Claymore grenade, or raw damage. I especially like Soul Harvest, Blood Trail, and Sting, since I needed a flanking assassin in Ironman. However, Banish/Annihilate are excellent with mag upgrades, and I’ve even seen successful Saboteur builds.
- Skirmishers are essentially Gunslingers with the mobility of Rangers. They do really well at mopping up wounded enemies, since their extreme maneuverability and innate grapple almost guarantees a good shot. They also have a lot of buff abilities that can make them effective front-line support units.
- Choose the Hussar branch to lean into support (Manual Override is my favorite top-tier ability, since you can use it as many times as you have actions!); choose Judge branch to maximize damage output, and choose Tactician to navigate the battleground at will. I especially like Reflex and Combat Presence, but the Skirmisher is extremely flexible.
- Skirmishers love ammo items and gun upgrades, since they take so many shots in a turn.
- The Skirmisher HQ enables you to build facilities faster, which is a must for speed runs or for the impatient.
- Give a Blademaster Ranger a purple energy sword, a sweet helmet, and a god complex, and you’ll have a Templar. They excel in hit-and-run, Sectoid assassination, and tanking like there’s no tomorrow.
- Items: Because the psiblade of the Templar is so amazing, the Templar is ironically well-suited to wear items that would be useless on normal soldiers, like Mindshield or Hellweave, since they’ll be doing nothing but slashing.
- I love Deflect, Deep Focus, and Parry on their skill tree, and I’ve been disappointed in Stun Strike, Pillar, Exchange, and Aftershock. Otherwise, choose what looks cool.
- In Ironman or Legendary, their HQ is especially important because it doubles the heal rate on your soldiers. However, be careful not to trigger pods with an overzealous Templar, or you’ll lose in a hurry.
These are just random thoughts I’ve had during playthroughs (usually after making a mistake and realizing it belatedly):
- Combat Intelligence: To summarize what I’ve said in individual soldier descriptions, in War of the Chosen, you should train Savant/Genius rookies as Grenadiers, and Standard/Above Average soldiers as Sharpshooters. Rangers and Specialists are great for Above Average, and excellent candidates for Improve Combat Intelligence Resistance Ops, since they love double-dipping skills but don’t need it as bad as Grenadiers.
- Items: My essential items late-game are Mindshield (especially in WotC when soldiers get Tired), some heavy weapons, at least 4 grenades, Bluescreen Rounds, and a disruptive item like Flashbang or Mimic Beacon. This enables plenty of cover destruction, offensive oomph, and defensive redundancy when things go wrong. The rest depends on preference and the specific mission.
- Avoid spending any XCOM AP until the last set of missions, so that you won’t lose AP if you respec a soldier. The exception is in Ironman or Legendary, where you might need another skill to survive a tough mission, regardless of what it costs.
- The best place to get weapon upgrades is the Black Market, which will sell Superior items at a low intel cost in the late game. Just use the best upgrades you’ve got until then and replace them as you purchase or loot Superior ones.
- Rescue Missions for your Chosen-captured soldiers are the single toughest mission type in the game. Do not attempt in Ironman without a high-level Reaper or Ranger, and go very, very slowly. Enemy patrols go back and forth in preset paths until you shoot something or hack a door, and then all of Advent’s fury rains down on your head. It will always be better to avoid covert ops with high capture chances, if you can’t afford to lose the soldier.
- The Resistance Ring grants EXP and bond cohesion to soldiers who complete covert ops. This is a great way to level up your “beta squad” so they’re not horribly underleveled, increase the bond of your two favorites, or get that brand-new Templar up to spec.
Build Order and Research Paths
Build Order: This depends SO highly on what your goals are. For speed runs, Proving Grounds and Comms need always take priority. In Ironman campaigns, build that Med Center as fast as you can to heal the phobias your soldiers will inevitably acquire. Then pick and choose based on how you want to go about improving your soldiers: four-person high-tech alpha squad, well-rounded six-person squad of Corporals, or something in between.
However, I’ll make the most general of broad-stroked suggestions. First, I would say that Resistance Ring > GTS in terms of overworld benefit, especially if you’re not struggling too much in combat. Only if you desperately need the fifth squad member should you build GTS, since in WotC most of the “tactics” have been relegated to Resistance Orders. The Med Center is amazing in the early game, as stated before. Never waste your money on a Laboratory or UFO Defense. Also, without the Training Ground (or mods), you cannot spend excess AP on any soldiers except the Resistance heroes, so I try to get it once I start getting Captains (or a bunch of improved bonds).
Research Paths: The “best” XCOM research path depends on your goals and the needs of your team. However, there are a couple of research paths with disproportionately high rewards, which I’ll discuss in brief:
Muton Autopsy gives a huge gain of Plasma Grenades, which really help in the midgame (remember, I said that upgrading the grenades themselves is more beneficial than simply pouring upgrades into Grenadiers). Andromedon Autopsy yields the Prox Mine, which has a higher skill ceiling than a normal grenade but much more damage (try it on a Phantom Ranger, trust me). It should be obvious that Alien Ruler/Chosen autopsies should take first priority, since you get an OP item out of the deal. The Trooper Autopsy yields the Scanner, which is great in Ironman if you don’t have a Phantom Ranger. MEC Breakdown is another priority, since you’ll get to upgrade Gremlins and also unlock the Bluescreen Protocol (one of the game’s more powerful ammos). You probably already know how to unlock Plasma weapons and Powered Armor, so do it at your own pace. In Ironman, squad upgrades (especially armor) should take priority over the gadgets, unless your team really needs that Nanomedikit/Scanner/Bluescreen.
Ironman differs from a normal run in one important way. This is the cardinal rule of Ironman: Things Will Go Horribly, Horribly Wrong (TWGHHW for short). Remember that time during your first Rookie runthrough, where a Muton’s laser missed your dude only to hit an explosive, blowing out a wall and dropping half your squad on top of the first dude? Yeah, we reloaded that save file real quick, huh? Well, no such luck in Ironman, ergo TWGHHW.
Since TWGHHW, you can’t avoid it. You can only minimize the risk and mitigate the fallout.
To minimize the risk, bring a scout ON EVERY MISSION. Conceal Rangers and Reapers are your best friends on the battlefield. If you never dash (that is, never use both your moves in a single click), and if you keep your scout in concealment until the last pod, then you will avoid 90% of the squad-wiping situations I’ve found myself in during my 10+ failed Ironman runs. A Scanning Protocol Specialist or Grenadier with a Battlefield Scanner could also be handy in a pinch — especially when you’re doing a Retaliation mission that’s sure to have Faceless ruin your day.
Another way to minimize risk is to kill the most dangerous aliens before they kill you. Mutons, Advent troopers, and Advent MECs are all especially dangerous, since they’ll grenade/rocket more often. Officers and Lancers are less so, but can still be deadly if you leave them for last. Sectoids, Purifiers, and Priests, though, tend to use special abilities first, so they can usually be ignored if you’re willing to risk a brief stint under mind control.
While I’m on this theme, I should talk about grenades. In Ironman, since TWGHHW, you can’t rely on making that 75%-or-below shot, especially not if it exposes your soldiers to flanking and death if you miss. Usually, I take shots if they’re 70% or above, but I prefer to have a high chance-to-kill in those situations. In order to get yourself to that threshold of “safe” shots, ‘nades are your best friend. A grenadier is vital on every mission for this reason — you’ll need all the grenade radius you can get. Equip them with two damaging/cover-destroying grenades. Try to equip another solider or two with grenades as well, for taking out the isolated enemy in high cover.
Okay, so now you’ve done your best to scout ahead and destroy the most dangerous enemies first, using guaranteed damage on grenades and high chance-to-kill shots. Guess what? TWGHHW, still! You’ll need a backup plan to mitigate the fallout when it inevitably blows up in your face.
You can bandage a bad situation with Medikits — always bring one, because your enemies will always score a hit on you or surprise you. Just try to keep your Medikit-wielding Specialist out of the fray, so they’re not the one soaking up bullets. Build your first Specialist full-on Battle Medic for the first few promotions, so that you can heal everything from Berserk to Bleeding Out. Another good way to mitigate risk is the Flashbang, which essentially renders Advent and organic aliens totally useless for a turn (and frees your soldiers from mind-controlling effects that might be in place).
The Mimic Beacon also serves as a one-turn get-out-of-jail-free card. You’ll have to weigh the risk of the mission to see whether you need one or both items. Finally, I highly value Level 2 Bondmates and Fortress/Solace Psi Operatives, since they auto-heal all mental effects. There’s nothing better than watching a Sectoid waste their turn on disorienting your dude, only for your soldier’s bondmate to auto-revive just by repositioning to flank. The Mindshield can act as a baby Fortress in a pinch, if you’ve got a particular Phobia that you need to mitigate or whatever.
You’ve minimized and mitigated; great! But that’s not enough. TWGHHW. You need to be prepared to evacuate your squad at a moment’s notice. Unless you’re on a scripted story mission, there is no mission reward that is worth a squad wipe of your best soldiers. If somebody starts bleeding out, or if you suddenly realize you’re facing down a Sectopod with one health per soldier, or even if you suddenly realize the Chosen will stop you from getting to your objective, evacuate ASAP.
It’s usually simple to evac in a single turn, given that calling the Skyranger takes no actions, and neither does evacuation itself. (Now that I’ve said that, I should mention that pawn sacrifice does exist in XCOM. Sometimes it will be worth letting that soldier you named after your mom bite the dust for the sake of the mission. But only you can decide if that price is too high to pay…)
With those tips in mind…you’ll still fail a lot at Ironman. There will be blood. (I rage-quit the game three times trying to beat my first Commander Ironman. Obviously, it didn’t last.) But eventually, with enough experience born out of the hellish trauma of squad-wipes, you might save Earth (and get the Valhalla achievement, which is honestly why we do this to ourselves in the first place).
Okay, so you’ve beaten Ironman, you’ve memorized the Blacksite mission, you have a favorite way to beat the Chosen (mine is Repeaters, duh) — you’re about ready for Legendary difficulty.
Less than three missions in, you’ll realize some key differences from Commander difficulty. You find more enemy pods per map, tougher enemies than you’re used to (both in pod composition and in health), and EVERYTHING in the overworld takes longer. Really, those are the only differences, but they have some serious effects on gameplay.
For one, it becomes crucially important to have combat-ready soldiers, since even minor wounds can take weeks to heal. That means you should start at the Templar HQ, which lets you heal faster, or get the scanning bonus in vanilla. Buy the Infirmary as soon as you have enough engineers to staff it. Items like the Hunter weapons or Superior upgrades become more important, since they can let weaker soldiers punch above their weight class if your best team is disabled.
Secondly, combat gets longer and harder. Especially with the pressure of mission timers, you’re likely to have a wounded squad by the time you reach the objective, and you’ll still have to deal with that extra Legendary pod… Take your time, don’t take risky shots, and prioritize the more dangerous enemies, just like you would in Ironman. And also, run away from the Chosen.
Retaliation missions have the biggest jump in difficulty. You might find yourself facing 5 Berserkers, 3 MECs, Lancers, Troopers, Faceless, and the Chosen…oh yeah, and you forgot to bring a Medkit. Be super careful on these, and evac if it becomes clear you can’t save enough civilians. You’ll waste 5-16 days re-scanning the area and rebuilding your relay, but it is better than getting your squad wiped.
Whew! I think that about brings us to the conclusion of this guide. Feel free to comment if I can be more specific, or if you’re stuck in a particular situation.
Best of luck, Commander.
Original Link – Continuation of discussion