Announced mere weeks ago and launching with a hefty 50% discount, XCOM: Chimera Squad came out of nowhere. It’s a spin-off of the main franchise, one that quite probably acts as a testing ground for Firaxis as they craft the eagerly awaited XCOM 3. The brilliant turn-based tension of XCOM: Enemy Unknown is still at the core of Chimera Squad, but there’s some brave new ideas thrown into the mix as well. So, with loads of turn-based tactical games suddenly appearing, does XCOM: Chimera Squad do enough to warrant a purchase?
Befitting the minimal price-tag (£16.99) the scale of XCOM: Chimera Squad has been pared back – you aren’t defending the entire planet against alien invasion, instead you’re helping police a single city. Carrying on from the events of XCOM 2 and The Chosen War, aliens and humans are now trying to co-exist peacefully. Naturally there are still dissidents who haven’t taken kindly to the new order of things, but for the most part peace seems possible. The titular Chimera Squad itself is a mixture of aliens and humans who are called in after the mayor is assassinated. They need to find out who is behind the attack, and to do that they need to investigate three factions within the city, each having their own motivations and intriguing enemy types to shoot in the face.
Gone are the generic soldiers you would recruit, name, customize and become almost worryingly attached too. In their place there’s now a roster of 11 agents who have predefined names and personalities. You can swap the colour of their armour and outfit with them gear modifications but that’s it. The constant dread of losing long-serving and skilled soldiers is also gone because XCOM: Chimera Squad has tossed perma-death out of the window, perhaps losing one of the franchise’s most well known elements. Your team members can’t die, they can only be downed and then replaced by a generic android for the rest of the mission. If a member of the team goes down and there’s not reinforcement to replace him or her with, the mission is over. If you chose hardcore, then the entire campaign is over.
The levels themselves are smaller, too, with a mission typically lasting somewhere around 10-15 minutes. I love XCOM 2, but sometimes the fights could drag on, and the faster pace of Chimera Squad is nice. Even the enemies go down a bit quicker, usually taking one, two or maybe three shots to collapse. With the smaller encounters it feels like you can afford to be more aggressive. Sure, Overwatch is still very useful at times, but you can often get more done by pushing forward or finding good ways to use special abilities.
Speaking of special abilities, your diverse cast of minions gets an equally diverse bunch of skills to use. Firaxis have done a good job of making each character feel unique and useful, except possibly for Cherub who I left out of the squad every single time. Snake-lady Torque is a good example as she can use her horrifyingly long tong to snag an enemy and drag it across the map, useful for opening up a target. Or she can take a dangerous target out of the fight by wrapping herself around her victim and squeezing hard, dishing out damage every turn. But more creatively you could also use Torque’s tongue to snatch a squad-mate out of danger. Meanwhile, someone like Zephyr is a purely melee focused character who can run in, kick the enemy in the teeth and then dive for cover.
You’ll quickly find favourites among the 11 available characters to pick from. Learning how best to combine abilities is satisfying work, and even a dozen hours into the game I was still finding little combos and nuances I hadn’t noticed before. And I particularly liked how knowing when and where to use abilities can turn the tide of a whole fight. Well-judged cooldown timers stop you from simply abusing abilities, but if you get it right you can occasionally push through a whole encounter without ever firing a shot. As rewarding as building your own roster of goons in XCOM 2 could be, the 11 pre-defined characters Firaxis came up with feel much more distinct on the battlefield.
Sadly, as interesting, varied and fun as they are in terms of abilities and their role in a fight, their personalities are a lot less enjoyable. Partly that’s because the story – told through static cartoon-style images that resemble a Saturday morning cartoon – isn’t very engaging, but mostly it’s because the aliens all talk like they’ve lived on Earth their entire lives and just graduated from college. Occasionally there’s a throwaway line designed to remind you that these are beings from another planet, but it’s hard not to think something horribly wrong when a giant snake sounds like an angsty teen.
The frustrating thing is that the premise of XCOM: Chimera Squad has so much potential for exciting squad dynamics. There’s the clashing of alien and human cultures to work with, and the looming fact that several alien members of the squad actively fought in the invasion of Earth. That’s grounds for some real tension, but the writers never use it. This could have been a compelling, interesting group of characters with loads of room for cool story arcs. Maybe I’m just expecting too much from a budget game.
As soon as you head out to tackle a mission one of the game’s big new features comes to the fore: breaching. Each mission is usually made up of 1-3 encounters, and at the beginning of each encounter you get to use the breaching mode. Here, one or more entrances will be presented to you, some requiring gear like breaching charges or a security keycard to access. Each entrance will tell you how much damage you might expect to take, and what bonuses or penalties will be applied, like the last person through getting a bonus action point. Then it’s up to you which entrances you’ll use and what order your soldiers will smash through the door, leap through the window or rappel from the rooftops, all while using any special breaching abilities they might have. Once you’re in you get a chance to take a free shot with each squad member, potentially killing several enemies in the process. But who to aim for? Maybe the Purifier since he wields a flamethrower that can burn multiple characters at the same time? Or perhaps the Necromancer is a better choice thanks to his pesky ability to raise the dead. It’s fun stuff, and to my surprise I never got bored of smashing through a wall and deciding which enemies had to die first.
Once you’ve blown up someone’s wall or come tumbling in through their windows like the world’s worst window cleaners being chased by a wasp the action shifts to the familiar XCOM formula. Each member of your squad has two action points to spend on moving, shooting and using abilities. But remember, shooting almost always ends your turn. The maps may be smaller but there are still opportunities to flank the enemy, and the quicker pace of the fights stops missions from becoming dull. It also means that you have to be extra careful in how you position your troops.
Normally in an XCOM game you and the A.I. take turns, and on a turn you can use your entire squad before handing off to the enemy. Chimera Squad has done things differently, using a new timeline system. Now, individual units will have a turn. Sometimes that might even mean three or four enemies going one after the other, or it could just mean a single foe doing their thing before you get to jump in with a couple of units in a row. This new system is fantastic, forcing you to really take a look at the timeline before deciding how best to spend an agent’s actions. And the game gives you numerous ways to play with the timeline, too. Of course, just killing the next enemy on the timeline works, but you also get an ability that can be used once per mission which moves any of your soldiers into the next slot on the timeline. Various other skills and items let you tweak the order to your advantage.
The only thing that’s missing is the familiar sense of XCOM dread that would sink in when an enemy’s turn came and you have to sit and watch as every enemy unit proceeded to decimate your woefully positioned squad. In fact, on the whole XCOM: Chimera Squad isn’t quite as soul-destroying as XCOM 2 could be.
All in all I really enjoyed the combat style of XCOM: Chimera Squad. While it isn’t as aggressive as something like Gears Tactics, it’s certainly more aggressive and faster than the prior XCOM games from Firaxis. There’s a health dose of unique abilities, and finding out what squad members work the best together is great fun. There’s still some annoyances in how XCOM calculates your odds of hitting something, but that’s par for the course with the series by this point. If failing a shot with a 95% chance of succeeding has made you abandon XCOM in the past then Chimera Squad isn’t going to make things better now. But those thrilling, tense firefights that come down to a roll of the dice are still captivating if you can handle mind-melting frustration of someone with a shotgun failing to hit a target 2-FUCKING FEET AWAY! GOD DAMN!
While you might not be having to deal with government funding and running a worldwide operation to fend off alien invaders any more, there’s still so admin to do. The core of this is the city itself which is split into nine districts. Ignore a mission in a district and its unrest goes up. If unrest hits level five then the city’s Anarchy meter rises, making the game tougher and pushing you a step toward a total game over scenario. Thus the whole thing is a juggling act as you choose which missions to tackle and which to ignore
On a given playthrough you can get a total of eight of the eleven agents, but only four can be taken on a mission, leaving you with a few idle hands around base. They aren’t useless though, since they can be assigned to do a few things. Assembly projects, for example, are where you research new tech that will unlock more gear for you to buy like better armor or grenades that hoist enemies into the air. Spec Ops act as a way of gathering extra resources. Finally, training lets you heal scars which agents might have picked up, as well as improve core stats and unlock powerful abilities.
It might not be quite as deep as XCOM 2 and your decisions don’t have the same long-term sense of impact, but there’s a pleasing level of management on offer in Chimera Squad. Picking what to research next, which mission to hit, what gear to buy, who to train and so on acts as a nice break from the combat. It does lack the visual flair of XCOM 2’s base though. Your little home-away-from-home is a static, unchanging place, and even sticking shiny new armour on your squad doesn’t change their appearance. Without the visual aids managing your squad and the city does feel more like number crunching at times.
Sadly the budget pricing of XCOM: Chimera Squad seems to have resulted in a janky game. The animations are a prime example – they’re clumsy and awkward, and there’s no smooth transitions. Watching a character move to a point is almost physically painful, especially if they have to turn at any point. But you also have to suffer a lot of visual bugs, including people walking through closed doors, torsos rotating wildly, enemies literally walking out of a level through a wall and then back in so that they appear on the objective and heaps more. One of those most annoying involved half of a buildings roof losing its transparency, making seeing bloody hard.
For such a meagre price XCOM: Chimera Squad packs somewhere in the realm of 20-hours of content into its slim frame. It almost feels unfair to compare it so frequently to XCOM 2 since it’s a small-scale spin-off. But Chimera Squad manages to find its own identity while still retaining the general feel of XCOM, even if the pre-defined characters and lack of perma-death might put veterans of the franchise off entirely. And that’s fair because making up your own squad and forming tales of their heroics and their demises has been core to XCOM since it returned from the dead in 2013. But if you can look past that there’s a lot to like in XCOM: Chimera Squad, and if you’re a lover of turn-based tactics games then this is well worth playing, though it has some incredibly tough competition in Gears Tactics at the moment.