XCOM: Chimera Squad Review – IGNApril 24, 2020
Much like it’s titular team of aliens and humans, XCOM: Chimera Squad is made up of a bunch of disparate parts merged into one package – sometimes less than gracefully. This XCOM spin-off is a full-length game set five years after the events of XCOM 2, but it’s by no means an XCOM 3. Instead, it feels more like a beta of sorts for that eventual sequel, setting up how its world has changed in the aftermath of the liberation of Earth and testing the waters with some radical alterations to traditional mechanics, but not in a way that amounts to a particularly polished whole.
Rather than fighting an alien invasion or leading a resistance movement, Chimera Squad is basically “XCOM: Cops,” which is still quite compelling despite the lower stakes. Advent is defeated, Earth is saved, and humans and aliens are figuring out how to live in harmony – well, most of them, at least. The light but well-written story has you controlling XCOM’s diverse Chimera Squad as you take to the streets of the massive City 31 to track down a series of shadowy syndicates looking to disturb that fragile peace.
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With that thematic change also comes a boatload of mechanical ones, some more successful than others. Missions have been broken into bite-sized chunks, your soldiers’ turns are interwoven with the enemy’s using a new initiative system, and you now start battles with a sudden breach directly into the fray instead of a slow tactical advance. Some of these changes are just different from what we’ve come to expect from Firaxis’ XCOM rather than better or worse, but the focus generally seems to have shifted more toward smaller-scale tactics over long-term strategic decisions, which left Chimera Squad feeling thinner overall.
One of Chimera Squad’s largest departures from previous games is that the 11 possible members of your team are unique, predetermined characters with names, distinct personalities, and excellent voice acting. There’s the lovably naive Cherub, an unindoctrinated Advent hybrid clone equipped with a holoshield; the charmingly sarcastic Terminal, a human medic with a high regard for everyone’s safety except her own; and one of my personal favorites, Torque, a deadly viper who’s more accustomed to eating humans than begrudgingly fighting alongside them.
By the end of the 20+ hour campaign you’ll have a full team of eight (with only four used during any given mission), and they are all as different on the battlefield as they are off it. Each one is essentially their own class, with unique but universally awesome abilities that can range from Terminal’s healing to the psychic manipulation of the endearingly monotone sectoid Verge to Torque using her tongue to pull an enemy across the map before wrapping around and crushing them to death.
No matter who you use, nearly every character feels like they have some overpowered ability from the get-go. It breaks the usual rules and progression of XCOM, in which fresh recruits are sent into battle and only the strong (or lucky) survive long enough to learn new tricks, in favor of putting exciting and powerful tools at your fingertips immediately. And I don’t mean “overpowered” as a bad thing here – there’s still plenty of challenge, and the strength of these abilities makes every character valuable and distinct right away. I felt encouraged to mess around with different team compositions and combos even after finding my favorites – also, it just rules to have aliens in XCOM armor on your squad.
My main disappointment in the story is that the character of each of your soldiers is only really given time to shine through mid-mission quips and some extremely entertaining but brief dialogue interactions while back at base. Despite leveling up with some basic ability progression, the fairly simple story of cracking skulls as an XCOM SWAT team doesn’t make room for any actual character development, leaving the members of your squad as the exact same two-dimensional (if interesting) characters you first meet the whole way through.
I actually felt strangely less attached to any of these vibrant personalities than I did my randomly generated but highly customizable soldiers in previous XCOM games. Those blank slates didn’t have well-scripted backstories, but they did have loads of natural story growth – moments where their unexpected heroics on the battlefield shaped my interpretation of who they were, which I could then reflect in their loadout and outfit. With such immutable soldiers and no opportunities offered to see them grow like in Fire Emblem or other RPGs (and visual customization limited only to a single armor tint option), it’s easy to enjoy them but difficult to get attached.
Another reason I got more emotionally invested in my past XCOM soldiers is due to one of Chimera Squad’s only outright negative changes: taking damage is almost meaningless now. Because everyone has a name and your squad is finite, permadeath has been entirely removed and the post-mission impact of damage as a whole has been lessened. Soldiers don’t need any time to recover between missions, so you can generally be more reckless without much consequence, significantly lowering the stakes of putting your most valuable players in harm’s way.
If someone goes down or takes too much damage during a mission they can potentially get a “scar” that will weaken them until you fix it – slightly lowering things like health or mobility – but I only ever had scars occur three times in my entire 22-hour campaign, and spending time to fix them only took those soldiers out of the field for the equivalent of a mission or two at most. It’s not a good replacement for mortality, and is indicative of the general lack of depth between-mission management now has.
Deciding which missions to take and which to skip will affect the Unrest level of City 31’s nine districts, which can lose you the campaign entirely if it gets out of hand. It’s an amusing meta-puzzle to manage, but the Intel Team system that accompanies it seems like of a slapped-on Band Aid to replace base customization. You can use a resource called Intel to build and upgrade Intel Teams in each district, which in turn increase the resources you receive each week… but that’s about it. The only strategy and decision making here is really “what resource do I want more of?” but since the answer is usually all of them all the time, the best response is basically “yes.”
The excellent visual style and compelling story setup of the politics behind XCOM’s struggle in a post-occupation world does keep the conflict of managing City 31’s panicking population engaging throughout. It’s just that everything you’re asked to do outside of a fight is paper thin, making Chimera Squad feel like nothing more than a testbed for Firaxis to experiment with new gameplay concepts and setup its next big story, while the actual “campaign” structure around those experiments is just a rickety scaffolding to keep it together.
Thankfully, the combat itself is still built on the bones of the absolutely incredible XCOM 2 – that means even though some of Chimera Squad’s deviations from the winning formula have weakened it, its missions still play host to excellent tactical combat. Each fight is full of the important decisions of who to target first, where to move, and when to pop that powerful-but-limited ability or item that I love about the series. Its bespoke level layouts (with some procedural elements) are generally exciting and varied throughout as well, though you will start recognizing maps toward the end of the campaign.
The most massive change Chimera Squad makes to its combat – and probably the entire structure in general – is the decision to split every mission into discrete encounters, similar to Ubisoft’s Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle. Missions now take place over one to three encounters, each of which is rarely bigger than a single room, with every enemy (barring reinforcements) visible to you from the start without fog of war to obscure them. Once you clear out all the enemies or complete your objective, your squad reloads their weapons automatically and jumps to the next one.
The implications of this are enormous and far reaching, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse. On the one hand, missions never have a dull moment: you’ll always be in the thick of firefights and I rarely spent whole turns just moving across open space. But on the other hand, I sometimes didn’t have to move at all. For characters like Verge and Terminal, who rely far less on gun accuracy, I could occasionally spend their turns using abilities without ever even needing to move before the encounter was over. That’s not very tactical.
The immediacy of always having action in front of you is also welcome and exciting at first, but has the nasty side effect of making every encounter feel functionally identical. Whether the objective is to save a hostage, clear out a room, defend an object, or whatever else, you’re always just in a room shooting dudes. Varied and visually exciting level layouts do successfully shake that up a bit, but there’s generally one gear no matter the task you’re given, and that gear is “go.” I missed XCOM 2’s moments of downtime and building tension after a while.
Another double-edged sword of the new encounter system is mission length, which is generally shorter across the board. I like that I wasn’t faced with any hour-and-a-half marathons in Chimera Squad, but less important missions could also go by trivially fast. The three-encounter missions were always more fun because I knew I had to make tricky choices of how to ration my abilities across all three – especially the unique Team Up skill that can immediately jump one of your soldiers to the top of the turn order, but only once per mission. By contrast, single-encounter missions often had little strategy beyond just popping all my strongest stuff right away and going wild – that can be a burst of fun, but it requires no thoughtful restraint, so it’s not exactly complex.
The encounter system highlights the general shift Chimera Squad has taken away from long-term planning in favor of more moment-to-moment decision making. Those decisions are still very fun to make and the quicker pace is certainly appreciated, but that narrower focus still means this is a thinner puzzle to solve than XCOM 2, and the bite-sized combat chunks blend together even as enemies change with decent regularity.
Another prime example of this shift in priorities is the new Breach Mode that kicks off every encounter. This cinematic spectacle is cool to watch – even if you are sometimes nonsensically “breaching” a chain link fence or glass door that the enemy can clearly see you through – but similarly slims down strategic choice. You don’t get to control your initial positioning once you’ve breached through, just the order your soldiers enter and who you’ll fire at when they do. Each breach point has different boons or debuff modifiers associated with them that can give you temporary defense, stun enemies with breaching shots, or mark or root any of your soldiers that use it.
XCOM: Chimera Squad Gameplay Screenshots
It’s an entertaining way to distill your approach strategy into a single quick decision, but it offers far less tactical control than planning how to advance on a position as a squad. All this streamlining and simplification likely makes Chimera Squad the most approachable XCOM yet, which certainly has value. I could easily see this being the gateway game that eases people into the deeper waters of the main series, but it undeniably leaves veteran players like me in a lurch as a result.
Breach Mode also ties into another major change Chimera Squad tests out: initiative order. Instead of moving all of your troops and then letting the enemy do the same, your turns jump back and forth and only specific abilities and items let you push people around in that order, which is clearly displayed on the side of the screen. This new system feels more like a sidegrade than anything – not really better or worse, just a different approach to turn-based gameplay. I enjoyed manipulating that timeline to my advantage and it certainly changed the way I thought about how and when to take down certain targets, but I also missed being able to more easily set up combos between my characters. In the end, it’s sort of a wash.
In keeping with the fact that you aren’t commanding a wartime army anymore – just insanely aggressive and alarmingly free-of-consequence law enforcement (you aren’t technically cops, but you are working with the cops) – there’s cool new encouragement not to simply murder everyone you see. Getting civilians killed as collateral damage can raise Unrest, making them interesting map hazards, and subduing enemies with non-lethal melee attacks or other special items and abilities will reward you with bonus Intel at the end of a mission. The extra melee option across all characters felt appropriate given the more intimate maps, and was generally a neat tool I felt actively encouraged to and rewarded for using.
The Only Good Bug Is a Dead Bug
Unfortunately, entirely removed from the copious amount of ways Chimera Squad morphs the XCOM formula, good or bad, are the copious amount of bugs that bring this game down a notch. I am naturally accustomed to a certain amount of rough edges in an XCOM game, but these issues ranged from minor annoyances to major inconveniences. They didn’t outright ruin my enjoyment, but there were just so many. Where to even begin…
First, you’ve got an assortment of oddly familiar visual issues: soldiers randomly floating in the air, guns constantly pointing the wrong direction while firing during a breach, the roof occasionally appearing during indoor missions to block my view, enemies inexplicably freezing at the start of their turn, and more. Then there were issues that made it actively annoying to play: stuff like the tooltip for the flash grenade saying it doesn’t affect allies when apparently it actually does (I learned that the hard way), the UI on one of Verge’s abilities sometimes indicating it will damage himself too when it really won’t, or line-of-sight indicators not appearing properly when deciding where to move.
But then there are the worse issues – the ones that had me audibly cursing at my screen. Once I moved a soldier out of a fire to punch an enemy, only to have him teleport back into the flames at the end of his turn. You can find a handful of special guns through missions or a limited Scavenger market, but equipping one would sometimes (not always, mind you) delete that soldier’s regular gun from my inventory, preventing me from ever being able to unequip it because they had nothing to switch back to.
But by far the worst bug I encountered was when the body armor for one of my soldiers randomly deleted itself in a similar fashion. You can’t buy more armor or get any replacements, so he was permanently left with less health and armor for the rest of my campaign, which basically forced me to put him (and his un-unequippable special weapon) on research duty from that point on. Issues like this frustratingly hampered my strategic options and left me playing in constant fear of it happening again down the road.
Weapon and armor-swapping bugs aren’t helped by the fact that the equipment UI is generally as ugly as it is difficult to use – far worse than XCOM 2’s already cumbersome interface. It looks borderline unfinished, making it difficult and confusing to swap items – especially when odd glitches occur, like my persistent medkit item inexplicably multiplying in quantity between every mission, apparently leaving me with over 200 extras by the end of the campaign. No matter how much time was paid to the story, characters, or gameplay alterations, the housing for those things clearly didn’t get the same attention.