XCOM: Chimera Squad Review – Intergallactic Disharmony Is Punishable By Death
Developed by Firaxis Games
Published by 2k Games
Available on PC through Steam
I’ve been curious where the XCOM franchise will go. While critically acclaimed, the recent storyline is somewhat of a mess. To recap, XCOM: Enemy Unknown was a reboot serving as a new square one for the franchise. It was tight, self-contained, and ended with you taking down the alien big cheese and your psionic teammate doing a heroism by flying their ship into space as it explodes. Then The Burea: XCOM Declassified released a year later as a prequel chapter. I have the feeling that this was a setting they wanted to continue to explore, but it was so poorly received that any new story relating to that time period is poison. XCOM 2 pulled a clever trick by basically soft-rebooting XCOM: Enemy Unkown. It took place in a timeline where XCOM failed very quickly into the invasion, treating Enemy Unknown‘s “you lose” ending as canon. While undeniably a genius way to get themselves out of the corner they had written themselves into, It’s not like they could just pull that trick again. So they left the world a bit more open at the end of XCOM 2. Alien elders are defeated, but a mysterious new threat could still come from another source.
Whatever, that’s all just story faff for lore nerds. The next XCOM could be about Gooblons from the planet Zorp invading through a portal in Atlantis. The bigger question of where the franchise will go is in regards to gameplay. The tactics genre has pretty much been the same for the last 30 years. They’ve added better calculations, environmental physics, and other bells and whistles. But the XCOM of today isn’t that different than the XCOM of the 90’s. Despite its middling reception, Phoenix Point at least did its best to significantly shake things up with a sight cone and individually rendered bullets. The good people at Firaxis Games are clearly feeling the pressure.
It’s a long intro for a review about shooting aliens with guns, but it’s important to understand the context for XCOM: Chimera Squad. It’s a $20 game, with a sharp 50% discount at time of launch. It’s understandably much smaller, but still clocks in at a respectable 12-20 hours. More importantly, Chimera Squad significantly changes the tone, feel, and mechanics of the franchise. It’s going to be quite jarring to fans. And given that it’s essentially retrofitting XCOM 2 mechanics into a new combat system, it doesn’t always work. Still, it’s a wonderfully robust package and a bold change of pace for a package that is clearly meant to be an experiment
The plot of XCOM: Chimera Squad is basically the best 80’s sci-fi buddy cop movie that never happened. After the Elders are defeated at the end of XCOM 2, the ruling Advent alien occupying force quickly crumbles. Humans retake the earth, set up a new government, and start rebuilding the planet. However, all the aliens that were here didn’t just vanish. Stranded with nowhere to go, the world began the slow process of trying to create an integrated society. It’s a pretty realistic take on the repercussions of war that most games/movies/shows just gloss over.
At the forefront of this human/alien/mutant integration is City 31. It’s been five years since XCOM 2, and a tense peace is currently held between the city’s various citizenry. But the peace is growing. That is, until a bomb goes off that kills the city’s mutant mayor. Figuring that one of the city’s three main dissident groups are responsible, the newly established eponymous Chimera Squad are deployed to neutralize the threat. Chimera Squad has the prestigious distinction of being the first integrated fighting force comprised of both human and alien/mutant combatants. They not only have the fate of City 31 on their shoulders, but must prove that humans and non-humans can indeed work together in harmony.
The first and most obvious change in XCOM: Chimera Squad comes from this mixed group of protagonists. Rather than have random guys you style and level up yourself, Chimers Squad is comprised of 11 specific and diverse members. You only start with four, but will recruit new members as the game goes on. The variance in skills/specialty is far more significant than just different weapon types. Each member has an incredibly powerful main gimmick that only gets stronger with levels. Cherub has a shield that can be used to absorb an entire attack and charge up his next melee attack. Verge is a Sectoid psionic that can stun enemies and make them go berserk. Torque is a snake (hiss hiss). Even characters I thought would be boring (dudes with gun skills) managed to surprise me with incredibly powerful and useful unique abilities. You might not think that Blueblood’s ability to shoot twice is that flashy, but you’d be wrong.
Your squad will counter this new threat by conducting a number of investigations to try and discover the leader of the dissident groups. This basically means that as you complete missions, a timer will countdown to let you know when you can tackle the next story mission. In the meantime, you’ll complete a number of side quests to gather loot, supplies, and keep the city in order. City 31 is divided into 9 districts, with missions popping up at random. Each district will grow dissatisfied over time if not attended to. You can only tackle one mission a day, so you’ll have to balance picking the mission with the best loot and missions that might lower unrest in key districts. If unrest grows to the max in a district, the anarchy meter will go up a level. If it goes up enough, it’s game over.
Balancing unrest and keeping things in order was never really that much of an issue. I played on normal, and never once did my anarchy level go above a 4 (of a possible… I think 15?). I’m going to assume that the people at Firaxis had a good reason for including it, but it’s a bit odd since XCOM: Chimera Squad has another ticking clock in the form of the investigations. At the start of the game you’ll pick one of the three groups to investigate. Then after 10 days (there are several missions that can make this shorter, so it’s more like 5-10) you’ll have to do a mission that advances that story. There are a number of story missions for each of these groups, at the end of which you’ll fight the group’s leader. After they have been defeated, you’ll pick one of the remaining groups and fight them.
This system is a brilliant way to shake up the otherwise linear difficulty of previous XCOM games. Each faction itself has a slew of different enemies with wildly different specialties. If you go up against the The Progeny, expect a good amount of psionic adversaries. The Sacred Coil, on the other hand, are the only faction that fields a large number of robotic enemies. This is coupled with a game-long ramp in difficulty that will buff each faction over time. Fight the Grey Phoenix later in the game, and expect more grenades and armored enemies. It was honestly delightful figuring out which combination of tactics would be most effective against each new evolving threat.
The other management elements have been similarly reduced and streamlined. Gone is the need to manage an entire base. Instead, all of the management aspects revolve around training and equipping your squad. There’s an assembly you’ll use to research new upgrades, a training facility that can be used to heal wounds or provide permanent upgrades, and a third option that allows you to assign a squad member on a special mission to collect resources. It’s all pretty basic, but there’s enough here to keep you engaged and invested in constantly switching your team into new training regimens to optimize your dudes.
As incredibly sexy as base management can be, the real core of XCOM: Chimera Squad is the combat. This is where the game takes the most risks. There are two main changes to XCOM: Chimera Squad. First off is the breach system. Breaching is a new mechanic that isn’t nearly as groundbreaking as they make it out to be. You start off each combat round with a breach. There are generally multiple breaching points, sometimes requiring items to use. There’s almost always some kind of buff or debuff associated with each breach point (last unit through gets extra accuracy, first unit through is rooted for a turn, etc). As you breach you can take shots before entering combat. That’s it. It’s basically just a new kind of ambush attack round. It sometimes annoyingly sets units right next to explosives, but the biggest impact of the breach is that it sets your squad’s turn order.
The turn order element is key, as XCOM: Chimera Squad has completely altered combat so that both teams take their turns simultaneously. Your squad and the enemies will be placed on a list that is visible in the upper right of the screen. This allows you to plan your attacks and pick priority targets. While you might have a particularly juicy target right next to you, it might be more advantageous to aim for a target that acts sooner. This is certainly not a system that Chimera Squad invented, but it is the first time that XCOM has tried something in this style. And while I applaud the attempts to innovate, it doesn’t always work.
Most tactics games that use a simultaneous turn system generally have some kind of initiative stat. Something where you can invest points/change gear to make sure certain units move first. In Chimera Squad, the order of your squad’s actions is determined by their positioning in the breach. If your Muton goes in first, he will be the first to act in the combat round. From there, it’s an equal split of your turn and enemy turns. However, you will only ever have 4 units in your squad. The enemy squad can have up to 12 in some encounters. So you can go first, and then three enemies move. Since you don’t get to pick where your units take cover after this breach, this can quickly mean one of your squad members can take a lot of damage before they have any chance to respond. From there, the combat issues just compound.
Many abilities seem to have not been designed with this new turn order in mind. The most obvious examples are the disable abilities. If you stun an enemy for one round, this will count the current round. That means when it’s their turn to act, they will recover from the stun. It functionally does nothing and makes skills that stun for 1-2 turns useless 50% of the time. The only real use would be to interrupt a channeled ability, which makes sense in an older style XCOM game. However, there aren’t nearly enough channeled abilities in Chimera Squad (I think I ran into 3?). Which is really a good thing, since this system doesn’t allow for proper reaction time to more powerful channeled skills. In older XCOM games, you’d have a full turn cycle to try and free a unit under the effect of mind control. In Chimera Sqaud, if the team member they mind-controlled just happens to go next, you’re straight fucked. There’s really no way to fix this other than to completely redesign all skills to better fit the new combat system. More minor issues include reinforcements, which can very awkwardly jostle the turn order and are basically impossible to properly plan for.
It’s a shame the system feels so clunky, since I really do love the new scope of Chimera Squad‘s combat. As the Chimera Squad is a police force and not a military unit, their weapons reflect this smaller scale role. There’s no rocket launchers, miniguns, sniper rifles, or other large military arms. Your whole loadout consists of shotguns, rifles, SMGs, and pistols (and one lady punches). You also won’t have access to more destructive ordnance outside of the black market. Explosive grenades and specialized ammunition is bought from this timed shop. This is also where you get the game’s more interesting guns. These guns don’t add a damage bonus, but come with special abilities that can dramatically increase your unit’s lethality. It was nice to play a game where it actually felt like getting a new acid grenade was a big deal. Likewise, landmark enemies from XCOM 2 return as bosses. It was cool to see Berserkers and Sectopods feel like giant looming threats and not as just another enemy.
That feel goes a long way towards making up for Chimera Squad‘s shortcomings. I also really enjoyed the colorful cast of characters. Their dialogue is corny, but it was a welcome juxtaposition to viewing my soldiers as just numbers on a board. The unfortunate thing is that you only get to experience 8 of them in one campaign. I really have no idea why they went with this arbitrary limitation. There are 11 Chimera Squad members in total, but after 8 you don’t get to recruit any new ones. As an extra kick in the nuts, it doesn’t warn you of this. I spent a good chunk of the second half of the game wondering when I’d pass the invisible checkpoint that would allow me to get new dudes. What’s extra-weird is that the whole layout seems primed for this 11 unit roster. This would allow for two squads to complete missions while three stayed at the pace to man the assembly/special ops/training stations. This might have been the plan at some point, but was eliminated for whatever reason.
Despite the shortcomings in the new combat system, XCOM: Chimera Squad does get credit for trying something new. And for a $20 package, it’s really an absurd amount of content. Alternate run-throughs with new characters/faction order can stretch this already robust package into a hell of a lot of fun. I really love this new setting, and I hope that future games expand upon this more personal world. My only hope is that they tighten it up a lot in the next one. But that shouldn’t prevent you from checking out this innovative new package.
Though there are certainly some issues with the new combat style, the sheer amount of content for the price is incredible. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done for the next installment, but the future is bright for the franchise.
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