XCOM with a twist
XCOM: Chimera Squad is the perfect name for this new franchise entry.
Like the mythological beast, Chimera Squad walks confidently but completely owns its Frankensteined heritage. Chimera Squad isn’t for everyone, maybe not even a certain subsect of XCOM fans, but it has enough charm to win people over regardless of their history with XCOM, or strategy games in general.
XCOM: Chimera Squad (PC)
Developer: Firaxis Games
Released: April 24, 2020
MSRP: $19.99 ($9.99 sale until May 1)
Despite the out-of-nowhere release and the budget price, this is not a knockoff, but a legit new entry by developer Firaxis Games. The core DNA of XCOM (at least, the newly revived incarnation of it) is still very much present, and all of your fixins like Ironman mode (single save), hardcore (a single failure deletes your save) and four difficulty settings are in. You’ll want to jack a few of those up if you’ve played an XCOM game before.
That said, Chimera Squad‘s uniqueness is evident mere moments after booting up a campaign. The story is told through quasi-static animated cutscenes, and the stakes are decidedly much lower than the globe-trotting planet-saving tales of yore. Instead, you’re tasked with wrangling a small-time police force of sorts — the titular Chimera Squad — who diffuse Cops-esque situations in a post-XCOM: Enemy Within future where aliens are living with humans.
This shift has the potential to deliver a more intimate tale, and it mostly succeeds. I say “mostly,” because in some regards the presentation (especially the voice acting) doesn’t quite rise to the occasion. Plus, the actual audio quality feels muddled at points and some of the performances don’t fit the characters. Chimera Squad also clashes with itself tonally, featuring fairly bloody action sequences with viscera flowing after shotgun blasts before launching into a cute “oh you!” conversation between its pally squadmates. The cacophony takes some getting used to!
The same principle applies to the narrative. It all has a very Overwatch air to it, with the death of an alien mayor (who was supposed to serve as a beacon of race relations) serving as the catalyst for uncertainty in a powder keg civilization. The story is often background noise around the squadmate banter and combat, but it’s at least a coherent framework.
Twists lack gravitas when it’s just quick text box chatter, but it puts the focus on pointed prepwork and the action at hand without getting in the way; it all makes for a more digestible game. The gist is that you need to corral three main vigilante factions one by one while maintaining order in the city, in any order you choose. A full run through all three storylines and the finale took me roughly 22 hours.
Chimera Squad also makes an effort to differentiate itself mechanically. The “breach” phase is a new strategic layer of combat that allows players to plan a mission before-the-fact by setting up their units where they see fit. For instance, you can send certain units (like a defensive-minded shield-toting riot unit) through a well-guarded door that buffs enemy damage during the breach, or safely assign light recon party members to another side door.
It’s not the first strategy game to think of this base concept (Final Fantasy Tactics anyone?) but it brilliantly fits the lower-key “squad” theme and adds some depth to how you approach each stage, even if it’s easy to optimize your choices. Plus, it sets up the idea of clearing individual and more intimate rooms (like smaller offices) instead of always fighting in giant sprawling cities or warehouses like the previous XCOM games. The act of breaching also triggers slow-mo scenes not unlike Call of Duty, allowing players to choose who to shoot in the moment of the breach before moving on to the proper strategy action: with the option to buy items or skills to enhance the act’s efficacy or even create new entry points. Some hardcore strategy enthusiasts may wag their finger at it, and I don’t necessarily want to see it in every XCOM game, but like it here.
Standard strategic combat, mind, is very in line with past Firaxis entries. You get action points to move, shoot or trigger an ability. You can dash to take up your whole turn if you need to move further. Or, units can use the classic “overwatch” power that lights up moving enemies in a subsequent turn if you can’t get a good shot. It all still works, even if Chimera Squad can waltz into the realm of tedium with excessive reinforcements from time to time. I haven’t gotten to the wild part yet though. Are you ready folks? Aliens.
Yep, Chimera Squad has an enhanced focus on adding more aliens into the mix, and the end result is more wacky antics. Some members are able to emotionally manipulate enemies to force them to attack their allies or mentally incapacitate them, which also has the added benefit of adding them to the neural network (which buffs said aliens). Others are actual snakes that can slither around and constrict enemies to prevent them from acting. It’s very fluffy and fun to play, and as an added bonus, every new squad member feels impactful.
You’ll recruit anything from humans, to humanoid aliens, to snake-people for your squad, all with pre-built names (like Terminal and Torque), roles, stats and abilities. In some cases I never even looked at any numbers, I just clicked “yes” to having a snake person join my team. It’s a finite crew pool, but large enough to warrant variation (you periodically get to choose one of three recruits from a rotating list), especially within the same playthrough.
Things can get really intense, too, even without all of the aforementioned hardcore toggles on. An “anarchy system” forces you to pick and choose what districts get out of control, which influences mission difficulty in specific areas. Of course it can be gamed later on as your squad rises in power, but the illusion of it creates some tension.
I’m mostly on board with what Chimera Squad is selling, but it could have used a bit more polish. I experienced two hard crashes when playing the game on PC, which wasn’t the end of the world as Chimera Squad allows you to instantly revert back to the last round of combat (I lost around 30 seconds each time). There’s also some light UI typos littered about and funky bugs like out of control camera angles. The UI is also very often unclear as to what you’re actually selecting, especially when using a controller. It’s nothing critically gamebreaking (even the crashes to a degree), just annoying.
While not all of the wild departures fire on all cylinders, XCOM: Chimera Squad‘s open-ended difficulty settings allow everyone to bend the strong combat groundwork to their will. Chimera Squad embraces the strange, and is predominately better for it.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]