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I recently attended a preview event for XCOM: Enemy Unknown and played two matches of the game's one-vs.-one multiplayer mode. I lost both of them.

So here I am, still stewing over the embarrassing beat-downs with no chance for redemption anytime soon because the final retail release of this strategy game (based on 1994's fan-favorite X-COM: UFO Defense) is still a few weeks away (October 9).

So I decided to enlist the help of Jake Solomon, lead designer of Enemy Unknown at developer Firaxis. If he can't help me put together the perfect squad of customizable soldiers and aliens (who are invasive foes in the normal single-player campaign but mixed-team allies in multiplayer), then no one can.


Below, he profiles the different unit types that players can take into the tactical, turn-based battles, and he creates a few all-star teams for me, for when I'm ready to take up the good fight again. Read on, and you can get a better idea of how multiplayer work in this traditionally single-player series. Plus, you might learn a thing or two. You don't want to start 0-2 as well, do you?

The pros and cons of each unit

Before each multiplayer match starts, each player gets a set amount of points (default: 10,000) to spend on recruiting up to six squad members and outfitting them with high-tech weapons, gear, and upgrades. You can spread out your wealth for a balanced team, or you can focus on fewer tank-like characters.

Here's what Solomon thinks of the available troopers in multiplayer:

Sectoid (400 points): "The cheapest unit in multiplayer, at a bargain 400 points, the Sectoid has the Mind Merge ability to boost a [friendly] target's hit and critical-hit percentages. He can also provide suppression fire. But at 400 points they're very fragile, and killing a Sectoid merging with a target will also kill the target as well, potentially giving your opponent a free kill."

Soldiers (800 points base): "Soldiers are the most flexible unit in the game since you can choose their specialization, skill builds, psi specialization, and equipment. A basic rookie won't cost you much in the way of points, but he's not going to be as powerful as a fully ranked Heavy with Titan Armor and a Heavy Plasma Gun.

"Be careful of over-investing in soldiers! Lavishing a soldier with the best skills and equipment can leave you without enough points for allies to help him out and vulnerable to swarms of weaker foes."

Drone (1,100 points): "Flight-capable but slow, this unit can be a cheap scout or a repair-bot for the expensive Cyberdisc. But its drone beam isn't going to do any kind of damage by itself, and its low HP means it's a very soft target."

Floater (1,300 points): "With its ability to fly and boost to the far corners of the battlefield, the Floater is going to be the bane of snipers and isolated soldiers. Its plasma weapons are stronger than those on the Sectoid, but it's still not going to deliver a knock-out punch, and most human soldiers are going to be tougher than the Floater. Still a great unit for swarming and mobbing a high-priced unit of your opponent."

Thin Man (1,400 points): "Human soldiers are stronger, and its plasma weapon is only so-so, but the Thin Man's poison spit is going to slow and damage a target long after the Thin Man is dead and gone. Reasonably priced and agile, with an awesome leap ability to get up on rooftops, the Thin Man just isn't strong enough to carry the day for your team."

Muton (2,850 points): "These tough alien frontline troops have good durability to damage, and their plasma weapons pack a punch, but the feeble-minded Mutons fall apart against psionic attacks. They'll be a match for most physical threats, especially when working the same target, but their price means you'll be making up quantity for quality."

Heavy Floater (3,000 points): "A tougher version of the regular Floater, with a better weapon and more hit points. The high price of the Heavy Floater means you won't be stacking your team with these. They work very well with their flimsier brothers."

Chryssalid (3,000 points): "XCOM's signature alien is the bane of humans — any human it kills is resurrected as a zombie under your control, and after a couple of turns, that zombie becomes a new Chryssalid! But the threat is easily countered by simply moving out of melee reach — either by flying or running away and letting snipers deal with the Chryssalid. Expensive, points-wise, but capable of destroying an incautious all-human team by itself."

Sectoid Commander (3,200 points): "Size matters not — the tiny Sectoid Commander brings the ability to mind control your opponent's forces. Nothing is tougher than having your best unit wrenched from you and then used back against you. The Sectoid Commander also has the ability to Mind Merge with multiple units, and he has a grenade, although he's best used back in the shadows. This unit is an expensive investment you'll want to guard carefully."

Berserker (4,000 points): "Capable of soaking up a tremendous amount of damage and dealing an appalling amount of damage in melee, the Berserker has great strengths that are offset by his high cost and his reliance on melee. His bloodlust also leads him into trouble, as he'll tend to go haring off after the last unit that shot him, which means skilled players will ping-pong the Berserker back and forth before finishing it off."

Cyberdisc (4,500 points): "It flies. It has a powerful ranged attack. It has a powerful close-up area-of-effect attack. It's immune to mind control. It can absorb tremendous amounts of punishment and is immune to critical hits in some cases. The downside to all this power is that the Cyberdisc is your strategy — you'll have few points leftover for support forces, and your entire tactical approach will be to get it into combat before you're swarmed by your opponent."

Creating all-star teams

XCOM's multiplayer isn't just about picking the perfect units. It's about picking the right ones to work with each other in a harmonious, death-dealing squad. I asked Solomon to create the three perfect teams, one using all aliens, one with humans only, and one mixed.

The all-alien team: All-Floater Squad

  • 3 Floaters
  • 2 Heavy Floaters

"Heavy Floaters provide punch, and the regular Floaters can suppress or provide extra flanking power. This squad excels at covering huge areas of the battlefield and running away when the going gets too hot. However, a determined strike will break the group, and the team is weak against psionic attacks — take out Sectoid Commanders or Psi Soldiers before they turn your troops against you."

The all-human team: Plasma Azrael Squad

  • Human Sniper, Agent: plasma sniper rifle, Archangel Armor, S.C.O.P.E
  • Human Assault, Recon: shotgun, Carapace Armor
  • Human Support, Medic: assault rifle, body armor, medkit

"This team is built around the sniper, his flying armor, and his powerful Archangel Armor. The Recon Assault soldier spots targets for him, and the Medic Support keeps him alive. But this team will need an open map to play optimally, and as powerful as that plasma rifle may be, he'll have to stop to reload eventually — that's when [the enemy should] rush him and take him out."

The mixed team: A balanced approach

  • Sectoid Commander
  • 2 Sectoids
  • Human Heavy, Machinegunner: heavy laser, Carapace Armor
  • Human Sniper: laser sniper rifle

"A good generalist squad, with a mix of firepower and psionics. The Sectoids can scout or buff the Sniper for timely high-power shots, and the Heavy can act as the escort for the Sectoid Commander or be an offensive unit on his own. While not strong in any single dimension, they're also not weak against any particular threat, and so [this team is] good when you're completely uncertain of what you might face."