If you hadn't heard that there was a new XCOM on the way, we understand. No-one knew until Xcom: Chimera Squad was announced a little over a week ago. Traditional announcements are not the only thing that Chimera Squad breaks with. With a price of only £16.99 and a 50% discount during the first week of sale, the price is aggressive, to say the least. As if this wasn't enough, for the first time in XCOM history you can have a squad of unique characters, human as well as alien. With a plethora of new features and a refreshing police theme, there is definitely plenty to talk about in Chimera Squad, and we are ready to tell you about our experience with this exciting gamble from Firaxis.
Even if the modern XCOM games are considered a gold standard in turn-based tactical games, they too have their issues. The gameplay can be a little monotonous, and the story typically moves somewhat slowly, before everything comes together in the end. As such, there are both pacing and gameplay issues that a new title can improve on. Luckily, Firaxis seems to have noticed the same issues, since Chimera Squad seemingly wants to reconsider core features of the series' gameplay, setting and storytelling.
Chimera Squad handles this challenge by casting you as the leader of the titular Chimera Squad, which is a special division of XCOM. You are to help the local police precinct of City 31, which until recently had been a relatively peaceful place that welcomed humans and aliens alike after XCOM won the war five years ago in Xcom 2 (sorry about the spoiler, but it's hard to avoid here). In City 31, you investigate an assassination and need to take down different criminal groups to find the truth. What's refreshing about this is a lot of new locations and targets, which provides variation to both enemies, environments and mood. For instance, in one section of the game, you fight a cult of assassins who are very talented at melee combat, and in another, you fight a gang of outlaws, who focus more on psi abilities. As a whole, this setting provides great variation to the game, and while certain missions seem a little irrelevant, this focus on a single city with many challenges is a breath of fresh air.
As in earlier games, you need to be tactical about the missions you accept, to make sure you get the right resources, but also to make sure the 'Anarchy Level' of City 31 doesn't reach its max level, in which case you lose the game. As you advance through the game's story, you are punished harder for ignoring a mission or situation in the city's districts, which causes unrest to rise in that district, in the end resulting in more anarchy. At the same time, more 'Dark Events' will happen, which make missions harder to complete, for instance by including tougher aliens, like the Big Daddy-ish Andromedons. This difficulty escalation is a great idea, but the game's difficulty spikes are unfortunately a little dramatic, resulting in loads of ridiculously easy missions, and a few quite tough ones, at least on the Normal difficulty. On Normal, we rarely met a decent challenge. It's a shame since a stable challenge is quite important to truly enjoy the turn-based combat - we might have an extra playthrough to do.
It is, however, in the characters and combat of the game that the big changes have happened. Chimera Squad is a team of 11 pre-made characters you gradually unlock. This means that the old randomly created soldiers are gone, and now we have characters with backstories, exciting abilities and personalities, who gets promoted as you play. These include humans, hybrids, a muton, a sectoid, and even a viper. While you're not going to dive deeply into their personality (which is not the point of XCOM anyway), the small conversations throughout the game add a warm vibe to the experience that fits the series' tone, but also the refreshing cop-theme of Chimera Squad.
The new characters play well with the new gameplay mechanics, when you send up to four of them on a mission. In SWAT-style, they infiltrate enemy-controlled areas, first through a so-called breach, where the team can kick in doors, blow a wall to pieces, crawl through vents or jump through a window, and in this way change the premise of the battle. Larger missions have up to three breaches, and therefore they play a bigger role than one might think. As in the rest of the fights, your team can affect a breach a lot, with special breach items and abilities, such as the healer Terminal, who can heal the entire team 2 HP, which can give a boost between fights. Aggressive types such as the muton Axiom (one of our favourites) can also affect a breach with abilities such as Axiom's Battering Ram, which can cause enemies to panic when he barges through the door.
Once you've assaulted the enemies, you'll meet one of Chimera Squad's most ambitious changes to the formula: the turn system. As in Dungeons & Dragons, turns in Chimera Squad are initiative based, so every squad member, enemy or bomb takes its turn in the same round as everyone else. This is in contrast to the team-based system of earlier games, in which the player takes their whole turn, followed by all enemy units. The new system gives, in our opinion, a great new tactical level, and makes the game less heavy. It also complements the character abilities masterfully, since timing is now a more important factor. If your teammate is at risk, you can use Terminal's ability to give them an extra action in her turn. Understanding this new timing aspect can make you win or lose a battle since you now can know if your squadmate can move or heal themselves before an enemy attack, or if they need to be healed or given a shield by a teammate. With a character such as Claymore, who can throw grenades, it is also important to keep an eye on when the grenade will explode. Do the enemies have time to move or will the grenade explode before their turn? This new turn system is, to us, far more engaging than previous systems, and is an exciting move for the series.
We only have one criticism regarding the gameplay of Chimera Squad, and that is the absence of enemy details, other than the damage you can inflict on them and when they will attack. In Xcom: Enemy Unknown this detailed information could be accessed by pressing F1, and several mods had to bring this back to XCOM 2, from which it was removed. If you could just click on the enemy icon in the corner and see a lot of details about their abilities, active effects and possible attacks, it would be an excellent addition. It would not only be useful from a strategic perspective, but it would also give the player access to more lore and a better understanding of the battles and the universe. It is a shame that it's missing, and one can only hope that it'll be added in the future.
While we love the new additions in terms of the well-designed characters that Chimera Squad brings, we might be even happier with all the stuff that it doesn't do. This is because it is a far more streamlined game than its predecessors, and its HQ is really slimmed down. There's just far less clutter to think about in this game when outside of battle. In HQ, you can start some projects, adjust your team, buy some equipment, and that's about it. In earlier games, it was too easy to be overwhelmed by the HQ and all its decisions, and to begin to doubt your choices. It is much simpler to keep an overview here and to focus on sending the squad into battle how you want it. This is why Chimera Squad is more fun to play if what you want to do is fight, even if it is a less complex game than its predecessor.
On the technical side, Chimera Squad is almost identical to XCOM 2, since it runs on the same tech. It looks great, and has a surprising amount of detail for this type of game. Performance is excellent, with quick load times and a pretty stable frame rate. The game should also have some praise for the fine voice work and a great soundtrack. Since we found earlier games' voices, dialogue and characters somewhat annoying at times (way too many on-the-nose comments like "Commander, we've got a ... problem"), this is a great new direction for the series.
The same technical issues that many have met with the last game repeat themselves here. The camera angles can be incredibly awkward, exactly as we remember them. Objects can fly in the air and enemies can freeze for a moment during their turn. The UI can give misinformation that then fixes itself later on. Most problematically, the game has crashed and frozen a couple of times. However, the game autosaves all the time, so it is unlikely that anyone will lose progress because of these problems.
So, does Chimera Squad succeed as an experiment within the franchise? To us, it is an improvement on nearly all fronts. It is a more focused experience than earlier games and because of this, the pacing fits better and the gameplay is improved dramatically. The city cop setting is also a breath of fresh air for the series and shows new sides to the universe, which is a massive success. The storytelling is not the focus here, and therefore we shouldn't expect much, however, with great cartoony cutscenes and a slick visual style, we'd have loved to see more involvement from the playable characters. The way in which the story is delivered is more of the same that we've seen previously, and thus you should expect a strategy-focused story without a huge amount of personality, but that instead revolves around the plot and taking down the baddies. Maybe this is exactly what you're after, but we often started a mission without really caring enough to consider what it was really about.
With 20-30 hours of fun in the campaign, Xcom: Chimera Squad is a steal at its price point, and it can easily be played through an extra time thanks to mod support and the opportunity to play with challenges such as the Ironman Mode. It's an improvement on the XCOM formula in all the right ways, while also adding a lot of fresh additions, such as an interesting squad of characters and a new turn system.
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