2K has moved incredibly quickly on XCOM Chimera Squad. It was announced out of the blue in mid-April, and launch day was only a week later. 12 hours after the announcement, I had a review copy installed on my home PC. Fast is Chimera Squad‘s watchword. It has a much higher resting heart rate than its predecessors, and its approach to storytelling has more in common with a quippy popcorn action movie than the grim, thoughtful science fiction found in XCOM: Enemy Unknown and XCOM 2.
The war at home
XCOM Chimera Squad is set five years after the conclusion of XCOM 2. With the war for Earth settled, the humans, hybrids and aliens must find a way to co-exist. City 31 was built to be a beacon of unification. It was supposed to be a place where all three factions could live and work together in harmony, an example for the rest of the world to follow. It didn’t quite work out that way. Underground groups, unwilling to break bread with factions that threatened, defeated or subsumed their culture entirely, are tearing the city apart.
That’s where Chimera Squad come in. A group of diverse agents of every race, colour, gender and creed, the Chimeras are the Rainbow Six of the XCOM universe. They are effectively a SWAT team, specialising in dynamic entry and rapid target neutralisation. They get in, they solve the problem with bullets, they get what they came for and they get out of dodge.
I’m going to open this review with what I hope developer Firaxis will consider to be constructive criticism. There are a lot of presentational changes in Chimera Squad that bug me and, if you’re as big a fan of XCOM as I am, I fear they may annoy you too.
What sets the Chimeras apart is that they are all named, authored, fully voiced characters. They are highly individual, and all the things that make them individual were written by someone on the game’s development team. While XCOM has always had named characters with authored personality traits, your squad was always made up of proc-gen soldiers. Their names and specialisations were up to you. You were there for every mission they went on, and it was easy for the player to build out an imaginary personality in their heads. It caused you to get attached so that when they were hurt, killed or put in danger, it stressed you out.
Because of its authorship, you don’t really get that in XCOM Chimera Squad. You can certainly enjoy the characters as written, but they aren’t your own. Indeed, of all the minor changes Chimera Squad makes to the XCOM formula, I think this is going to be the one that fans take issue with the most.
It also does away with XCOM‘s dour blue and black aesthetic in favour of modern pastels and neons. Purples and yellows are the order of the day, communicating a more hopeful period in Earth’s history. To offset this, the game also changes up the art style, rendering its cinematics and dialogue boxes as though it were a comic book. Personally, this is probably my least favourite change. Your mileage may vary, but I found the in-game art quite ugly and hard-lined. On first inspection, it looked like the kind of art found in a mobile game. It never put me off so much I wanted to stop playing, but it certainly put a dent in my enthusiasm.
The art style is further let down by truly awful dialogue and some terribly flat voice over. Each actor feels like they’re doing their best to bring their character to life, but they sound underdirected and working with sub-par material. The hoo-rah Bad Boys school of writing cop dialogue doesn’t hang well on the XCOM brand. Good on Firaxis for trying something radically different, but it’s just not a good fit in my opinion.
Thankfully, the rest of the game more than makes up for these presentational bugbears.
Think this through
The area where any XCOM game must succeed is in its tactics and Chimera Squad certainly does. It plays with a few of the series’ established combat mechanics, offering some that are are wholly new and others that tweak the existing formula. I honestly feel like the Firaxis designers have been playing a lot of Dungeons & Dragons because there are a lot of similarities to D&D rules in these alterations.
The biggest change comes in the form of breaches. Battles typically take place in smaller arenas than that of XCOM 2, often in claustrophobic buildings or cluttered urban areas. Each sortie begins with your squad taking enemies by surprise with a breach charge. Smashing through a door or wall into the arena surprises any hostiles on the other side, granting a full round of combat to take out as many as you can in one fell swoop. (D&D fans: that’s Surprise Round rules, right?).
Once the breach round is over, combat begins and the first mechanical tweak appears. XCOM Chimera Squad introduces interleaved turn order to its combat. Essentially, instead of manipulating your entire squad in a single turn, you can only manipulate one squad member at a time. Think of it like chess — you move one of your pieces, and then the enemy moves one of theirs. Once every individual on both sides has used all their available actions, the “turn” concludes. (D&D fans: Sounds an awful lot like an initiative tracker, doesn’t it?)
As you dispatch your foes, you’ll have to move your squad up and likely breach into a new room, and so the loop repeats. Chimera Squad emphasises tactical positioning, ensuring you control the flanks and maintain cover without losing line-of-sight. Having characters that specialise in certain fields means also knowing how best to use them. Medics should stay in the backline and shieldbearers should be at the front.
A big part of any XCOM game is time management. Every mission takes one or more in-universe days to complete and while your attention is elsewhere, other powers push their own agendas. In Chimera Squad, this is represented by City 31 itself, a metropolis divided on the map screen into disparate boroughs. As you progress through the campaign, civil unrest in each borough begins to rise. You’ll need to manage tensions as best you can, clearing out the dissidents and restoring order.
Doing this has you completing shorter, one-person quests that take units out of action for multiple days in a row. This folds into the training system, which will also put your units out of action for a few days while they upgrade their skills. Managing your available troops is important, and you’ll spend a lot of time making sure everyone is at the top of their game.
XCOM Chimera Squad is an interesting companion piece. It’s small scale enough to be a DLC pack, but its new ideas are big ones. Not all of them are great but a few of them, like the breach mechanic, are. I’m excited to see that 2K and Firaxis are still thinking about this series but this isn’t the future I want for the series. May it stand as a solid side story in a legendary strategy franchise.
THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Highlights: Great tactics; Interesting angle; Defiantly, militantly inclusive
Lowlights: Amateurish art design; Not the full blooded XCOM experience fans crave
Developer: Firaxis Games
Publisher: 2K Games
Platforms: Windows PC
Review conducted on Windows PC with pre-release code provided by the publisher.