XCOM: Enemy Unknown class guide: how to use the Assault, Support, Heavy and Sniper

3rd Oct 2012 | 10:59

Often, levelling up a videogame character feels less like moulding a living being to your unholy will as pouring slow-working acid over the enemy line-up. 20 hours have passed and your Arch-Mage Conquistador now chops off a tidy 999 HP a hit, but how exactly said Conquistador wages war hasn't really changed, and as a consequence, the customisation element seems rather pointless.

Friend, you need to play some XCOM: Enemy Unknown. A maxed-out XCOM character isn't window dressing - he or she's a carefully nurtured and tailored entity, astonishingly powerful but only in the right circumstances. Send that trooper into the wrong circumstances, and all the hitpoints in the world won't save the unfortunate soul from being routed and slain like a yearling calf. With a view to avoiding all that, here's a guide to XCOM's initial four classes. You can also unlock a Psionic class and mobile weapons platforms (remote-controlled tanks) through research, but I'll let you discover those on your own.

Each class has around a dozen abilities to unlock, generally a couple per military rank, but you won't be able to unlock everything for one soldier. Ten abilities are grouped into pairs, and you can only unlock one ability per pair. Classes thus branch naturally into two specialised subtypes, depending on whether you pick the left column or the right: a Sniper, for instance, can be a super long-ranged dude who doesn't move around much, or more of a mid-range supporter, rubbing elbows with your Heavies. It's also possible to mix and match abilities from both columns, of course, creating subtypes of your own.

Every rank a soldier gains adds to his or her health, accuracy and Will stat, which governs how likely the soldier is to panic in battle. One thing to remember about Will is that it's permanently lowered when a soldier suffers a critical injury (i.e. has to be revived). In practice, this doesn't seem to happen often enough on Classic and Normal difficulty to pose problems, but if your veterans have more scars than fingers, keep an eye on them. The last thing a squad needs is a tooled-up Heavy losing his rag and hosing everybody with plasma.

Support soldiers are good for two things, in the main: smoke grenades and medikits. Unfortunately, you'll have to choose which of these you love more. Go with the Field Medic unlock at Sergeant rank, and you'll be able to use a medikit up to three times a match - allowing comrades to save precious inventory space for Nano Vests and frags. But that way you'll miss out on Smoke and Mirrors, which allocates one additional smoke grenade per match, and smoke grenades can be incredibly useful in minimal cover scenarios, upping the defence of anything caught in the pall. Add in some Combat Drugs when the soldier makes Captain, and inhaling the smoke will also boost Will and critical chance.

Besides healing and buffing their allies, an appropriately customised Support trooper also makes a decent alternative to the Heavy. Rifle Suppression works the same way as the Heavy's Suppression, lowering the target's accuracy and thus (hopefully) protecting any ally not hidden in smoke. Even more usefully, Covering Fire equips the Support with the ability to fire Reaction Shots on enemies when they attack. The upshot is that Support units make spectacularly effective defensive troops, fortifying areas so other, more attack-minded soldiers can advance.

Ah, the Assault class. It's like Christmas come early the first time you unlock one. The default class ability is Run & Gun, which allows the Assault to fire or enter Overwatch after moving twice. This is extraordinarily useful when flanking or moving in close to stun and capture an injured alien. Just don't let the thrill of mobility go to your head - the more of the map you see, the more risk you run of exposing another alien posse.

The Assault's Lightning Reflexes lets her cheat death when advancing on dug-in foes - it forces the first alien Reaction Shot of the turn to miss. There's also Flush, which drives an enemy out of cover in exchange for reduced damage, allowing the Assault to work in lethal tandem with a sniper (especially a sniper equipped with In The Zone, which grants another move when you kill an exposed enemy). But the Assault's best abilities are passive abilities which actually make her more dangerous in the face of superior numbers.

On the one hand, Tactical Sense upps your defence for every enemy you can see; fold in Close Combat Specialist later and the Assault will automatically Reaction Fire against anything which comes in close. Result: a fast-moving bullet-proof wall. On the other hand, Close & Personal awards a massive boost to critical chance against adjacent targets, and you can reinforce this later with Bring 'Em On, which adds a point to critical damage per visible enemy. With these latter two perks in play, you may want to try your hand at some tactical brinkmanship, keeping the Assault in reserve till you've stirred up enough aliens from her to chew on.

The Sniper is the coolest thing on the battlefield. He's far too cool to use a word like "cool" in reference to the fact that he is, in fact, cool. He's also a complete liability till you unlock certain abilities and get a sense of his operational range. I've lost count of the number of times I've sent a Sniper off to high ground, only to discover that he's too far from the frontline to contribute. And may the gods of Valhalla smile upon you if your Sniper gets caught up close - sniper rifles are horrendously inaccurate at proximity, and pistols don't pack nearly as much punch.

That said, a Sniper armed with Snap Shot and Gunslinger makes a decent mid-range unit - the former lets him move and fire the sniper rifle in the same turn, the latter grants two points of bonus damage when using a pistol. The Sniper's Battle Scanner can be handy where visibility is more than usually low, letting you probe the area ahead without risking an ambush.

Picking Snap Shot means skipping Squad Sight, however, and Squad Sight is the Sniper's most useful ability - it allows the unit to fire on anything a squadmate can see, meaning the Sniper won't have to move with the pack to find targets. Of course, the Sniper won't have much support if an alien patrol moves round to your rearguard, but you can up his survival chances via Damn Good Ground, which confers bonuses against enemies on lower elevations, and Low Profile, which makes partial cover count as full cover.

The Heavy looks like an indestructible killing machine, with her lumbering LMG and rocket launcher, but she won't win any battles by herself. The rocket is bad news for salvage and can only be fired once per battle (at first), making it very much a weapon of last resort, and the LMG isn't much more powerful than a rifle. You can increase the Heavy's damage-dealing potential by unlocking Bullet Swarm, which allows her to fire the primary weapon before moving. You might order her to fire where she's got a clear shot, for example, then pull her back to cover.

Later there's Grenadier, which adds an additional grenade slot, and perks which enhance the effects of equipping high tech armor and weapons, letting the Heavy weather the brunt of a Crysalid or Cyberdisc assault. But for my money, you're actually better off with the support abilities. Holo-Targeting grants the rest of a team an accuracy boost against anything the Heavy shoots at. The aim-lowering Suppression ability allows her to take more dangerous enemies out of the equation while thrill-seeking Assault units get into position.

Final thought: it's worth having equipping at least one Heavy with HEAT ammo, which confers double damage against robotic units. The latter are the upper crust of the alien invasion, encountered towards the endgame, and they're insanely tough. You have been warned.

Don't forget to watch our OXM Squad video series, if you're fond of XCOM. Here are 10 things I love about the game.

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