XCOM: Chimera Squad — No pain, no gain

XCOM: Chimera Squad is set five years after the events of XCOM 2 within City 31, a place where the liberated humans and aliens are trying to peacefully coexist. The titular Chimera Squad is a special unit, the first to consist of both humans and aliens, tasked with keeping the peace in a place filled with resentment and unrest.

The very first thing that must be understood about me before this review goes any further is that I bloody love XCOM. I enjoyed the original games (my first was Terror from the Deep) but really what I’m talking about here is the Firaxis reboots. I have sunk hundreds of hours into XCOM, XCOM 2 (and again when War of the Chosen was released) and Pavonis’ Long War mods for both. The first game managed to be thoroughly modern without losing the heart and soul of what made the original so good. The second did the unthinkable by being a better game in every single way without losing any of that core.

With that understood, the news of the release of a new XCOM game should have been music to my ears but the announcement of Chimera Squad, only a few weeks before release, left me with questions. “Where is XCOM 3?” was the first, and loudest. It’s been four years since the release of XCOM 2, and three years even since War of the Chosen. One of my big videogame hopes of 2020 had been for news of, or even (whisper it) a surprise release of XCOM 3. XCOM: Chimera Squad, then, left me confused. Was this XCOM 3 but branded differently? It certainly seemed not; the price point (£15 full price on Steam) indicated not and the information about the game made it seem like a smaller, tighter experience. Does the release of Chimera Squad, then, indicate XCOM 3 is nowhere near? It has been suggested that the release is being used as a testing ground for some new concepts for the full sequel and this could be one explanation for the release.

The traditional XCOM isometric view
Much of the UI will be familiar to veterans of the previous games.

Once question I never had was whether I would get XCOM: Chimera Squad. On the day of release I launched the game with some trepidation. As expected, Chimera Squad, is stripped down in many ways from it’s older, bigger siblings. The scope is one city, rather than the whole world, and the game consists of a mixture of semi-familiar turn-based squad combat and some resource management and strategic planning between fights.

A big departure from previous games is that you no longer get to customise and project your hopes and dreams onto your soldiers. Each member of Chimera Squad is a pre-defined character with their own name, background and personality. The benefits of this approach are readily apparent with the writers being able to give squad members dialogue, interactions and personalities that you would have just had to imagine in previous games. This does work well and some of the banter and sniping between the different team members is amusing and revealing. There isn’t cavernous depth to any of the squad members but it certainly helps to give a fleshed-out feel to the little guys being ordered around the map. Even with these positives though, it somehow just doesn’t feel right that I can’t put all my friends in the game and give them ridiculous moustaches. This is something absolutely intrinsic to the series and, without it, it loses something. I’m by no means a traditionalist and am not averse to change or progress in games but the thing that was so wonderful about XCOM and XCOM 2 was that, even with all the changes, they still felt like XCOM games. Removing the character customisation is an indelible step away from that.

The squad loadout screen
I don’t care how psychic you are, you should always wear shoes before going into combat.

Every squad member is unique in more than just character though. Gone are soldier classes and, instead, each character has their own skills and abilities that are not replicated in any other character. Verge is a Sectoid whose telepathic mastery can endlessly disrupt enemy activity, Cherub is a hybrid tank with some kind of giant energy shield who can draw and absorb fire, Blueblood is a gunslinger with lethal accuracy but a lack of support skills or tactical options. Firaxis have done a good job of making sure each of these characters brings something different to the table and you will find yourself quickly finding combinations between their skills and identifying the optimal ways to use them.

This is good because XCOM: Chimera Squad fundamentally shakes up the tactical combat game as well. Gone are the days when you can activate your entire squad before the enemy can react. Instead the game comes with an initiative tracker down the side of the screen and individual act in the order they appear on it. This adds a new dimension of planning to the game as you can no longer activate your squad in such a way to maximise your threat and minimise your risk. Now you have to consider which opponents will activate when and which of your team that endangers most. Handily there are plenty of ways to mess with this turn order and managing how and when opponents activate is key to success. Characters like Verge are particularly key in this area as his ability to stun an opponent with his first action and shoot with his second can allow you to cripple the opponent about to act without losing Verge’s ability to cause damage.

An XCOM soldier about to shoot an enemy
The Faceless are now just wandering around in melty-candle form; somewhat defeating the point of them.

That actually leads on nicely to something that sets the game back though. Each character has two actions on their turn and, historically in XCOM games, most actions other than movement would end the character’s turn. Essentially you got one action to reposition and then another action to take an aggressive action; be that shooting, psychic power, lobbing a grenade or activating a special ability. Chimera Squad has backed off that brutal action economy quite a long way. Far fewer actions are turn-ending than in previous games, and some are even free. This makes each turn potentially much more effective than previous, which I guess has been done to mitigate the fact you can no longer activate your whole team at once. What it means in reality is that a character like Verge can throw a grenade (now, inexplicably, a free action) to kill or cripple one or more enemies, stun another with a psychic attack and then shoot a third. Other characters are similarly powerful in this regard and it just made the game feel… well… easy.

Now, I played on Veteran difficulty. Veterans of XCOM will know that Commander and Legend difficulty are not something to be approached lightly. Veteran difficulty is usually pretty challenging for the first run through of a game. It certainly did not feel like that in Chimera Squad. My squad could blitz through most missions with minimal problems thanks to all the options they had. Only on the longest missions, where resources started to run thin, did the shadow of challenge begin to emerge.

The strategic city map
It strikes me as very weird that the city just gets taller and taller then stops. Shouldn’t all the tall bits be in the middle?

The godliness of your soldiers is not the only reason for this change though. The key concepts of consequence and risk and reward are also pretty much gone. Now, if a soldier dies, that’s game over. You reload a save and have to start again. There is no “losing” missions anymore, you just keep re-doing them til you win. Having a soldier die isn’t even that easy. Any reduced to zero hit points go into a “bleeding out” status where you have three turns to revive them. If you don’t, they die and you start again. If you do then they will develop scars after the battle. These are negative effects that they will carry with them throughout the game. This sounds pretty cool and a good way to still have consequences, and it would be but for one thing. Between missions you can choose what to do with your spare characters that are not in the APC ready to go out and fight. They can help with research, go out and meet the community, train new abilities or get rid of scars. It’s that easy to remove the consequences. The character is out of commission for a couple of days but you’re never so short of characters that it really matters. The awful tension of seeing one of your favourite soldiers, on low health, getting flanked by a Muton is completely gone. There are no consequences. It turns out they were pretty important.

Something else that was pretty important was the element of risk and reward in XCOM gameplay. In previous games the maps would be big, and covered with a fog of war. This meant you never knew where enemies were or how many of them there were. They would roam about under the fog of war in groups (or “pods”) of two to five and a big part of the gameplay was about choosing how and when to reveal these pods. The quintessential dilemma of XCOM was whether to rush your assault soldier up for a flanking shotgun shot or sword attack or not. You see, every tile moved revealed more of the fog of war, increasing the chances of revealing another of these ‘pods’. The potential reward of a quick kill from an aggressive move had to be weighed up with the risk of suddenly bringing a bunch more enemies into the immediate fight.

That is all gone now. Fights in XCOM: Chimera Squad proceed through a series of one to three encounters, with each one consisting of a single, small environment with full visibility of the number and position of all enemies. There is no unknown information, no risk of making things worse now. As a player you have all the information you need to know right in front of you, including what order the enemies will act in. Making tactical decisions is comparatively simple and doesn’t come with the thrill of potential risk. One of the best feelings in XCOM or XCOM 2 was that moment where you took that risk, it backfired and you still came out on top, against all the odds. That feeling of turning round a F.U.B.A.R. situation was glorious. Situation just cannot get that F.U.B.A.R. in XCOM: Chimera Squad. On the whole I would recommend that veterans of previous XCOM games start on Commander difficulty.

XCOM Chimera Squad: Pre-mission squad selection screen
Disclaimer: no pangolins were harmed in the making of this game.

Now, I’ve done a lot of ragging so far on all the ways that XCOM: Chimera Squad does not stack up to its predecessors. It does bring new fun stuff to the party though. The titular squad is basically a sci-fi S.W.A.T. team and the game gives you the option to employ similar tactics. Most of the aforementioned environments has different breach points, or ways into it. You can bust down a door, use a keycard to go through a secure entrance, slither through vents and blow holes in walls. Each method of entry has advantages and disadvantages, and some require specific equipment. Once through, each team member can be assigned a breach action. The defaults are shooting an enemy or rushing for cover but, as characters progress, they will unlock unique options. Equipment provides further possibilities such as smoke bombs or scanners. This is a really nice touch and the mechanics have been thought out very well.

What should also be borne in mind with XCOM: Chimera Squad is that this is not meant to be a full XCOM experience. It is less than half the price of those games and so it is not right to expect the same level of depth and reward from it. It feels, more than anything else, like a fancy mobile or tablet-based side project. Something meant to be pushed through a little more mindlessly and a little less stressfully. For all my whining about it, XCOM: Chimera Squad is fun, after all, it is still XCOM and most of the elements that made me love those games are still in place. If you go into it with your expectations tempered you will find a lot to like about it and, certainly, there are elements at play here that, if they show up in XCOM 3, will be heartily welcomed, by me at least. What it really lacks is the potential for utter and complete ruin and heartbreak and, it turns out, that was the thing I was always in love with the most.

XCOM: Chimera Squad is available now for PC on Steam.

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