XCOM: Chimera Squad Review14 May 2020 0
XCOM: Chimera Squad Review
Released 24 Apr 2020
The XCOM franchise enjoys a spot alongside Civilization, Total War, and Paradox’ titles as members of the ‘high profile’ strategy franchises in the current zeitgeist. The military sci-fi series about Earth coming together to overthrow a technologically superior alien invasion captures that elusive 'one more turn' feeling, thanks to a unique mix of long-term strategic goals and short-term, by your seats high-stakes tactical combat.
This formula generated two main games, two giant expansions, and six DLCs that together dwarf the popularity of even the original X-COM series (which is now thirty years old!). Now, XCOM: Chimera Squad is here to offer yet another take on that formula, for better and for worse. As a result we feel it loses much of the unique appeal and vast replayability that makes the main games so enjoyable.
Chimera Squad is a turn-based tactical game where you take control of a SWAT-like police force tasked with maintaining the peace in City 31 -- the first real shot at having a combined society of humans and aliens following the events of XCOM 2. With a squad composed of 8 out of 11 different predefined characters, the player must keep the city from falling into anarchy.
Unlike XCOM and XCOM 2, there are no customisable soldiers -- instead, you get named characters with a backstory and a fixed appearance and loadout, including a Viper, a Sectoid, and a Muton operative that in previous games were only present as enemies. These characters cannot die and have very little in terms of story development, with just a light smattering of lore cumbled over them to give a background and some banter. They don’t really fit into the universe X1 and X2 created -- both because their backstories are shoehorned in, and because their appearances are inexplicably different from those of previous games.
Starting the game with four agents and steadily choosing another four, Chimera Squad’s campaign takes place in roughly the space of a month. Instead of the beautiful real-time geoscape of Earth, you instead get a turn-based map of the fictional City 31 divided into nine boroughs. Each day counts as a turn, and every turn presents you with a choice of either missions that must be fought or 'situations' which are resolved instantly but also end the turn. This geoscape area is also where you research projects, send agents on assignments or training regimes, and configure your squad’s loadout.
In true XCOM 2 fashion, a doomsday timer in the form of 'City Anarchy' looms overhead, ready to judge your performance day after day. As you progress through the game and install field teams throughout the city, you increase your weekly income and gain abilities to curb the spread of unrest throughout City 31.
While serviceable, Chimera Squad’s map lacks the flair of XCOM’s geoscape and the freedom of XCOM 2’s. The game severely ties your hand by alternating battles and situations day after day, and it forces you to complete “critical” missions without the possibility of delaying them indefinitely. XCOM’s handling of this aspect, where you were able to ignore main missions for a time, was quite freeing and it’s a shame it’s not been brought back. Chimera Squad’s approach not only curtails player agency but also creates artificial difficulty spikes for players that may be lagging behind the curve.
That being said, it’s not quite as damning as it sounds. Chimera Squad was admittedly designed to be easier than XCOM, catering to new demographics in an attempt to draw them to the franchise. The tactical layer makes this crystal clear, eschewing the enormous battlefield maps of past games for very small rooms where you are forced into separate confrontations, or 'encounters'. You are no longer free to move around the environment in search of the enemy and the objective: Instead, you’re rushed straight into the relevant room via a new Breach mechanic. Every single encounter begins with you choosing the order of your squad’s actions and taking a free shot at the enemy before the battle begins.
Chimera Squad’s biggest tactical overhaul is the addition of interleaved turns. Gone is the ability to coordinate the actions of multiple operatives to gain the upper hand; instead you can only move one soldier at a time before the enemy does the same. This reduces tactical options at the squad level by adding forced linearity, which feels a bit stifling and only adds an artificial sense of challenge. Other recent squad-based games like Warhammer 40,000: Mechanicus have also used this system, and honestly it’s one of the lesser forms of squad-based TBT designs.
Much of this could be forgiven, but the game’s also a bit buggy as well, further compounding the issues. Characters float in place in every mission, armour and weapons disappear preventing progression, cars explode without warning despite not being on fire, medikits multiply after every mission, encounter numbers don’t display properly, breach grenades don’t affect enemies, flashbangs that shouldn’t cause friendly fire disable your own squad, and reinforcements soft-lock the game -- not to mention the straight up CTDs that happened to me very frequently. There’s not really been any significant attempt to address these issues either via patches, and we’re nearing a month from release.
I think what bothers me the most is that Chimera Squad is not really XCOM. XCOM is about assembling a varied team of soldiers, customising them, and sending them into battle knowing they may not come back. It’s about the gruesome high-stakes side of war, painted through the lens of hope and heroism as the best of mankind faces powerful alien invaders. Chimera Squad doesn’t really represent any of these things. It is a very clear spin-off that changes up the formula to try new things, but not all of it works and XCOM fans like me are going to be especially disappointed. It took me nearly 22 hours to finish CS’s campaign -- a sizable length of time, which is always good -- but by the end of it, all I could think about was starting a new War of the Chosen campaign.
Chimera Squad is definitely not aimed at XCOM fans. I don’t know if the stated goal of finding new audiences has worked (Steam users like it, but Metacritic users hate it, for example) but to me this is an incongruent vision of the series where you have snake squadmates and meaningless banter instead of worldbuilding and replayability. It’s fine as a one-off, slightly fun but buggy (hopefully non-canon) entry, but if this signifies the future of the franchise, I am worried.
This review was kindly donated to Strategy Gamer by the author.