XCOM: Chimera Squad full review
Five years ago, XCOM won. After having its alien behind firmly kicked, the overseers of the alien invasion at the heart of the rebooted XCOM and its stellar sequel XCOM 2 have got back in their spaceships and bugged out, leaving behind plenty of rank and file aliens who now have to try and reintegrate with their former captives.
Now, the reclamation squad dispatch small squads of troubleshooters to resolve problems, and one of these squads has landed in City 31, a melting pot of humans and aliens living together to try and forge a new future. A shadowy conspiracy is trying to raise up dissidents to strike at the uneasy peace in the city, and that's where you come in, and the unseen commander of Chimera Squad.
It's a bold move. Randomly generated soldiers and your ability to take these characters, customise them and then drop them at the heart of your world-saving story. Here, your agents can't die (it's a game-over if they bleed out) and there are just a handful of them, each with their own voice work, personality and unique set of skills.
If this sounds like XCOM: Chimera Squad is taking a new path, you would be right. The game has a smaller focus than previous games in the X-Com series, and while it is similar in setting to the franchise's weird cousin, X-COM: Apocalypse, this newest game is lean, with most of the fat pared away, with the tactical level retooled to offer interesting tactical choices and very little else.
This is an XCOM game that can fit into a coffee break, with an easily readable game state and missions that can be played in ten minutes. However, it's more likely it'll devour your entire life for the time it takes you to beat the game. As you can't gather all of the playable characters in a single playthrough, there's a good chance it'll maintain its hold for a second playthrough, too.
Generally, Chimera Squad is a phenomenal success. I like it more than Gears Tactics, which releases this week and is a remarkable XCOM reinvention in its own right, and if you're shying away from the game because of its low price point and the fact it's not a numbered XCOM title, work past that because there's a ton of new and interesting choices here that you'll want to play now, before the tactics genre rips off a few years down the line.
Into the breach
Take the game's breach mode, for example. Every mission in the game has you fighting through several small combat encounters, often no bigger than a room or two in size. The transition between these encounters is the breach mode, where you crash into the start of each encounter in slow motion, identifying the enemies that are surprised, alert or even aggressive and prioritising who you want to take out.
It's a stellar piece of design, and as the entry point you choose will dictate both your starting position but also give you a positive or negative impact, it's an interesting choice to start every fight.
You have no knowledge of what lies beyond the door when you stack up for a breach, so do you take the safer higher vantage point that marks you for all enemies to see but probably offers a better angle, or do you go into the scrum, likely to be surrounded on all sides, because everyone through the door is getting +25 dodge for the first turn?
The answer is often a mix of both.
Later on, this gets more complicated with the addition of breach abilities: if you want someone to throw a flash bomb and disorientate everyone in the room you're entering, they'll have to be second, but then you have to decide whether you want to group people together so they can get healed or unleashing everyone from different directions to set up a crossfire.
Then there's the fact that certain operators, like Sectoid operative Verge, have abilities that can totally change things up: he can lift people into the air psychically, which stops them attacking and lifts them out of cover for your team to attack. Later, Verge gets a new talent that lets him slam them into the ground.
Then, the game plays out like a SWAT simulator.
There are no sniper rifles or gatling guns here, with the close-up combat encouraging operatives to get stuck in with pistols, shotguns and submachine guns. Damage is all much of a muchness, but new animations show your characters crouched in behind their weapons, and this focus on down and dirty combat comes across clearly.
One character, Blueblood, packs a pair of pistols and the skills to use them, and there's something satisfying about seeing him carve a chunk through opponents with well-placed cinematic shots.
Also new to the game is subduing mechanics, letting anyone run-up to the nearest criminal and twat them upside the head, dealing three damage and knocking them unconscious. Later upgrades allow you to knock enemies unconscious in a variety of ways and incentivises this by giving you bonus intel currency for bringing opponents in alive.
A lot of moves you'll make in Chimera Squad involve trying to calm the city as the uprest rises.
When a city hits max unrest, dangerous missions will be authorised, forcing you to wade in to try and salvage the situation. Every day you don't do this with add anarchy to the city. If the city hits 15 anarchy, society will collapse, forcing Chimera Squad to retreat.
As a result, you'll find yourself devoting time to try and deescalate the rising tensions, either using your field teams, or completing special projects. All of it takes precious resources, and you don't have enough to take care of everything you should be doing.
Next time, on XCOM
In a lot of ways, Chimera Squad feels like a TV show with its comic-book art stylings, recognisable characters and the way in-between missions force you to assign characters to things like community work, training or even the lab. Every character is introduced with a chat and then random conversations play out between the characters seemingly at random.
I tend to avoid these scripted snippets in games like the plague, but here I'd often stop what I was doing to listen to the little snippets of audio, which often added valuable bits of conversation: did you know Cherub's parents found him in a clone test tube (he's a clone) and then stuck together while he went through the process of being reaccepted into society, a process that ended with them getting married and then adopting him? This is one tiny chunk of dialogue from scores of these conversations, all of which imbue your soldiers with personality.
It fits with the amped up combat: these operators are hero characters, too powerful by far if they were dropped into an XCOM game, but with the interleaved turns making it tougher to combo your units abilities and the sheer difficulty of each encounter, every one of your units is an island, and as they level up they become stupendously powerful.
This is the only way you'll survive in Chimera Squad.
I've only briefly touched on several of the key mechanics that make XCOM: Chimera Squad work, but the key thing here is that while the game may look like an iterative XCOM update, it doesn't play this way at all: the smaller combat area and smaller team sizes (four rather than the XCOM standard of six) make every mission feel more tense and brutal.
In other areas it's more forgiving, or with aspects like the turn around running down the side of the screen, it's just outright more experimental.
All in all, Chimera Squad is superlative, and probably the best strategy game to come out since XCOM 2's War of the Chosen expansion.
Firaxis might have been using Chimera as an excuse to test out some ideas, but they're on to a winner here, and I hope the genre pays attention to what they've done right.