XCOM Chimera Squad – Review
Nobody expected a new XCOM game getting announced for this year, and released so quick. And with quite radical changes, developer Firaxis has to temper expectations by stating it’s a spin-off, and it’s sold for cheap.
Like an FBI raid squad, XCOM Chimera Squad kicked opened the doors hard, and hits you strong and fast.
XCOM Chimera Squad may be a spin-off, but plot-wise it continues the story after the events of XCOM 2. So expect the familiar cyberpunk-ish cityscapes as your background of battle, since the game’s scope is reduced from the whole world to just one city.
There’s no procedurally generated maps this time, the areas you go are all pre-defined and looked distinct according to the city district. So now you can fight in well-desinged convinence stores, warhouse, and even nightclubs.
The soundtrack is a banger, as expected. The thumping electronic beats played in the missions, with plucking instrumental guitars heard in the music back at base. You can quickly catch on the game’s memorable leitmotif. And it evolves over the course of the campaign with more instruments added in layers.
The soundtrack evokes this cop-show vibe to it, fitting since the Chimera Squad you now control are a rag-tag of specialised peacekeepers, kind of like an FBI raid squad. But with a hot snake lady and some other aliens in the team.
Unity In Diversity
The titular Chimera Squad is a small 11-person team, all named, voiced and have their own specific playstyles. XCOM’s usual customisable soldiers that you can name after your friends and permanently die are not present here.
But it’s cool to see Firaxis’ attempt of making a squad of characters like this. The squad have banter lines with each other during combat. Ambient dialogue has character moments (some lighthearted, others a bit serious) that help give each of the characters… character. I appreciate the squad is still a multi-national ensemble, now with the aliens and hybrids. And there are moments where you can feel the tension between the races, but each of them tries hard to make the Chimera Squad work.
You also get more world-building snippets too. It’s fascinating how the world is asimilating the new species by having them own pet cats, for example.
Cutscences and character portraits are now stylised with a comic book feel. With the amount of world building and characterisation, it looks like Firaxis is taking a page or two on the other famous strategy tactics game, Fire Emblem.
Graphically, XCOM Chimera Squad does looks a tad better than XCOM 2, but the improvements are harder to appreciate when there’s still many awkwardly angled camera cuts of units in action, and visual bugs and glitches. It’s still using that old modified Unreal engine from the original XCOM, and you can clearly tell.
There’s one good reason why Firaxis is saying that XCOM Chimera Squad is spin-off game rather than a sequel. Because it takes some radical changes to its established strategy tactics formula.
The pre-made characters is one thing, but it also limits the whole game to a squad size of four. So you are always outnumbered.
You don’t have two sets of turns where the player move all the units and then the enemy move theirs. Unit turns are “interleaved” so now you have a Final Fantasy X-style Timeline that shows the order of the turns for each unit, wih moves that can push up or down units from the order.
Just this slight change is enough to make the usual tactics employed in previous games less relevant.
XCOM, Open Up!
Instead of scouring a procedurally-generated area and taking the time to setup the first combat encounter, that’s been replaced with Breach mode. The Chimera Squad can place units to breach the area from different entry points, each with buffs, debuffs or specific requirements to use them. Chimera Squad is essentially the FBI SWAT team, doing raids on gang member hideouts and drug busts, so breaching makes sense.
The Breach mode is a genius new change. Not only the pre-emptive strike is set up much faster than ever, it also makes you more in the blind than ever. You don’t get to see what the enemy units are at the other side of the door, wall, or window. There’s a number that tells you how many units can be targeted from a specific entrance. But other than that, you’ll have to say your prayers the Chimera Squad can handle what’s on the other side.
It’s a great change of pace that isn’t necessarily a better version of how you begin an engagement, but absolutely works for the scale and tone of XCOM Chimera Squad.
Interestingly, missions can be split into multiple encounters, each begins with a Breach mode. Since you’re doing less exploring of the unknown, it’s another addition that keeps the game pace snappy. But with enough room for a breather. Units get their health back to 50% before each encounter on default settings.
Breach Mode is surprisingly in-depth. You’re not just selecting which unit goes to which entrance and in what order. You can deploy items or use character abilities to give you the upper hand. The problem is, you don’t know exactly what to expect, so hard decisions can still happen in Breach Mode. And that’s great- it may be quicker but it’s still a complex system that requires you to think for a bit.
XCOM Chimera Squad’s character cast also makes room for new unit types to be playable. The aliens were playable in XCOM 2’s multiplayer, but now they are part of the main gameplay, which is awesome.
I love how some of the abilities synergises well. Take the snake lady Torque, who can pull enemies toward her with the tongue. If you grab an enemy and another squad member is on overwatch, boom, they will shoot the enemy. It can be used defensively too, like grabbing a squad member or VIP from being to close to a detonating grenade.
The Chimera Squad will face three different factions, each with its own theme and unit types. And there’s always a good squad member that performs well against these certain factions. For example, Patchwork can zap the damange-sponge androids to death in one attack. Or reprogram them to join your side. This makes her valuable when taking down the Sacred Coil faction that has those units in spades.
Once you settled into Chimera Squad’s snappier rhythm that encourages you to make more on-the-fly decisions, the combat feels familiar, yet different, but all in all satisfying.
Despite being a spin-off and sold rather cheap, XCOM Chimera Squad is a proper game, in terms of length and content. The main campaign can take about 20 hours to complete on normal, give or take.
And the gameplay isn’t that pared down that you might have expect. There is still that strategic layer like in any XCOM game. It’s a bit streamlined, sure, but you still need to research new items, balance your resources, and pick the right battle to keep the city unrest low.
And there’s room for replayability too. You can only recruit 8 of the Chimera Squad members from the 11. And your first playthrough will four of them pre-selected. Subsequent playthroughs let you pick all eight characters to your liking. Also, the order in which faction you tackle first is also up to you. And they fight a bit different if you tackle them earlier or later. Plus, the game does have mod support.
I came in with an open mind, expecting a fresh new take on the strategy tactics game. But you know what, at the end of the day, XCOM Chimera Squad feels like a proper XCOM game, for better or worse.
The changes sound like a radical departure, but at its heart is still a solid XCOM game. The turn-by-turn tension of deciding which is the wiser move (or the one with the least worse outcome) is still there. The agonising macromanagement to keep you from getting game over is present again. And even the early difficulty spike for not researching the next tier of weaopns and armour is still there. Which is all well and good for XCOM veterans.
But it still has some glaring issues from the XCOM formula still not adressed. The crazy difficulty spike if you don’t research the next tier of weapons and armour fast enough is still there. The pacing drops really, really badly near the endgame where it’s a slog of hard missions after hard missions with not much reward other than keeping the campaign on track.
And don’t get me started with the technical issues. The UI can be a hit and miss. Some elements not properly shown (I want to see how much money I have before repairing my androids). Some are probably bugs (the available target icons, the blink pips indicating possible damage can somtimes not appear in combat). That UI needs another pass of bug fixing.
Seeing the wonky camera, bodies clipping into objects, roofs not properly rendered as transparent and other carry-over bugs are fun and all. But man, I had multiple hard crashes that made booting up the game a sour experience. The launch version right now is rough.
Despite these crippling issues, overall, I enjoyed my time with XCOM Chimera Squad still. When everything works, it’s as fun as I expected it to be.
XCOM Chimera Squad introduces some radical changes to the established strategy tactics formula, but it’s still a fantastic XCOM game at its core. Breach Mode is a great, faster twist to the usual slow start of each mission. The focus on a pre-built squad is interesting, with some good effort on the writing side to flesh the characters, and world, out.
XCOM Chimera Squad should continue on, not as XCOM 3, but it’s own spin-off series. There’s something special with a smaller focus strategy tactics game, and it would be a shame if this is just a one-off.
Reviewed on PC. Review copy purchased by the reviewer