Geek Review – XCOM: Chimera Squad

It has been a long while since players got to defend Earth from alien threats in XCOM 2: War of the Chosen, but that does not mean Firaxis Games have been sitting around getting nothing done. In fact, the team behind one of the best reimaginings of a classic turn-based tactics title are trying something new. With XCOM: Chimera Squad, it is a riff on the successful formula that many know and love that makes the experience a markedly different one, for good and for worse.

Rather than casting players as XCOM fighting to push back the alien invasion or trying to instigate a resistance, XCOM: Chimera Squad is more about keeping the peace. Taking place five years after War of the Chosen, the defeat of Advent meant that aliens and humans now live in “peace”. It is a tenuous harmony, held together by threads that could easily snap if things implode. That is where Chimera Squad comes in.

In the beacon of hope that is City 31, the squad of eight, predetermined agents from a pool of 11 will need to maintain order, and that means tracking down clandestine organisations hell-bent on blowing up all the good work put in thus far. 

It is an interesting premise, giving longtime fans a story development that takes the canon of XCOM even further. The feeling is that XCOM: Chimera Squad is setting up for the inevitable mainline sequel, and it is exciting to be at the forefront of that.

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That said, the spinoff needs to change things up, and returning players will have new mechanics to get used to. Missions are now broken up into more manageable chunks, and together with Interleaved Turns, knowing who comes next becomes an important part of the strategy. 

XCOM: Chimera Squad also introduces the breach mechanic that lets you jump straight into the action, instead of a more methodical and measured approach. The sense that XCOM: Chimera Squad’s focus is more on bite-sized content extends beyond its story and pricetag.

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Instead of recruiting a task force of recruits and forging them into fearsome weapons of retribution, XCOM: Chimera Squad provides you with unique characters specific to the story. 

Each of these veteran individuals, from the humans, the aliens, to the hybrids, are chocked full of personality and display excellent voice work. The unusually quiet Zephyr is always a treat, especially when unleashing her powerful melee blows, so is the ever sarcastic healer Terminal, each member of your squad brings something to the table. 

It definitely feels strange to be competent straight from the off in an XCOM game. Chimera Squad’s agents are great at what they do, but you have the freedom to play around with the team synergy with each mission. 

Four agents are in action at any one time out in the field, and despite their combat prowess and powerful abilities, the challenge present in XCOM: Chimera Squad still requires strategic thinking on your part. The shadowy foes are forces to be reckoned with, even in peacetime. When you choose to utilise Verge’s mental abilities to stun enemies, or take advantage of Torque’s reptilian tongue to pull enemies from cover and binding them to death, will determine how successful the squad is in each situation.

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Unfortunately, having a squad of predetermined characters who are admittedly capable and interesting at the start, loses the magic that makes XCOM great in the first place. Your soldiers are your lifeblood. While the personality of Chimera Squad shines in glimpses during missions or in the many random conversations that happen in the headquarters, it just does not compare to seeing your first recruit survive all the way until the end of a campaign. 

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The characters are well-written for what material you get to experience, but it is hardly likely you will grow attached to them as the soldiers you find and lose along the way in a traditional XCOM manner. In fact, you cannot lose anyone in XCOM: Chimera Squad at all. Rather than upping the stakes, this change has quite the opposite effect. 

The lack of permadeath means that players are more likely to take risks, and the only downside is obtaining a post-battle scar. These negative effects can be easily removed by training, and never truly becomes an impediment to progress. It only reflects the more shallow nature of XCOM: Chimera Squad and a lack of prolonged depth. 

In the place of responding to global threats, Chimera Squad has to manage growing unrest and city anarchy around various districts in City 31. 

Making hard choices on which missions to take while unrest builds up can be quite the treat, however, it all really boils down to which of the three resources you are hungry for. Intel, Elerium, and Credits all have their function in XCOM: Chimera Squad, and missions and by extension, establishing their respective Intel Teams in districts will help pad your resource pool.

As long as you can keep the anarchy low enough, there really is no case of picking one mission over another. It is just the rewards you are after, and nothing else. The lack of stakes rears its ugly head once more, but at least that Epic Pistol can make it worth your while.

Aside from training your agents to unlock more abilities, the base also has a lite-version of research and resource-generating tasks. Better equipment will require time and resources to obtain via the Assembly, and victory over each of the opposing organisations will unlock new toys to play with. 

Jumping into the missions themselves remains the highlight of XCOM: Chimera Squad. The tactical combat is still some of the best times you will have in the genre, despite the many changes.

Combat is now broken into a number of encounters, often a small to a middle-sized room filled with enemies has to be cleared before moving on to the next. Or you could be securing a VIP, or collecting evidence, the best solution is to eliminate anything that is not Chimera Squad. Do that, and your squad reloads their weapons and moves on to the next encounter.

Preceding each room is the breaching phase, which replaces the strategic positioning of your team. Choosing a particular method of entry will provide different buffs and debuffs, such as a chance to stun or being marked for extra damage, and is often fun to watch it all unfold. Certain entry points require special equipment as well, and the bonuses they provide are often worth the hassle. 

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XCOM: Chimera Squad also uses Interleaved Turns now. No longer are you getting free rein to map out your moves before the opponents take a turn. It is important to plan ahead to ensure your team does not get overwhelmed or leave themselves open for a free shot. Making full use of the turn order and eliminating threats before they even get a chance to do damage can be really satisfying.

Together with the general fast-paced combat, the changes blend well into the most accessible and easily digested form of XCOM’s combat. Missions are shorter, more straightforward, and you get into the juicy combat the series is famous for. This can be a great way to get new players in to try out a snippet of a much larger experience. For veterans, however, the lack of any real strategic thinking or tactical approach to things will leave much to be desired. While we might be looking at around 15 hours of gameplay, it works out to a slog to the finish line at the end.

The tweaked visual styling of XCOM: Chimera Squad also stands out, with the more comic-book-like take on post-war peacekeeping a particular standout, and perfectly fits the tone the plot is going for. Every character, enemy, and even the random conversations you hear create a believable environment ripe for conflict.

All that would have made for a fine time spent in City 31. However, like the other XCOM games before it, XCOM: Chimera Squad suffers from plenty of bugs and glitches. The usual graphical nonsense that ranges from guns pointing the wrong direction to floating soldiers are par for the course now, but there are worse instances of things gone wrong.

Important equipment can go missing and you can never get them back, including the essential armour that your agents will require for protection. Crashes can send your progress into disarray, and having a smooth experience can sometimes be harder than governing a city filled with aliens and humans. Clearly, more work has to be done to iron out all these issues.

XCOM: Chimera Squad functions well as a spin-off, and could very well set the stage for future sequels to come. It makes some big changes to a well-loved formula that are not necessarily bad, just different, and results in an end product that certainly does not fit in the mainline series. However, if you look past that, the core enjoyment of the tactical XCOM experience still remains, even if the road remains rocky and bug-filled.

GEEK REVIEW SCORE

Summary

New ideas and changes mark XCOM: Chimera Squad as a departure from the main XCOM series, for good and for worse.

Overall
7.5/10
7.5/10
  • Gameplay - 7/10
    7/10
  • Story - 8/10
    8/10
  • Presentation - 8/10
    8/10
  • Value - 7/10
    7/10
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