Title: XCOM: Chimera Squad
Developer: Firaxis Games
Publisher: 2K Games
Genre: Turn-based tactics
Available On: PC
Version Tested: PC
Official Site: XCOM.com
Release Date: April 24, 2020
Where To Buy: Steam
One of the significant combat changes Chimera Squad brings is the addition of a breach mode at the start of every encounter. During this pre-battle phase, players choose the location and order in which their squad members will enter the battlefield, after which they select what targets they want to fire at or what abilities they want to use.
While this initial round adds tactical choice and variety, the litany of breaches makes their welcome wear thin. With one to three encounters per mission, I found myself wishing for some variety to how my squad finds its way into battle. There’s also a strange disconnect when a cutscene shows my squad’s armor-plated truck swerving onto an outdoor battlefield, only to find enemies 30 feet away from all the ruckus in a state of “surprise” during the breach.
The frequency of breach sequences in XCOM: Chimera Squad is partly due to the smaller scale of the maps. Whereas XCOM 2 had vast battlefields to maneuver around and explore, encounters in Chimera Squad often take place in small office spaces or along a stretch of road.
Gone are the snipers and heavy machine guns, no longer needed in such confined environments. Instead of a large swath of soldiers and classes to choose from, Chimera Squad has a more limited roster, with more limited weapon choice though many characters are unique in their own right.
Squad members in XCOM: Chimera Squad
New to XCOM is alien squad members, allowing the use of unique abilities. Recruiting a Muton to the squad enables the use of their sheer strength to decimate foes, whereas a Viper can pull a squadmate out of harm’s way or bind enemies.
There’s a maximum of four squad members per mission, however, so this variety isn’t always there. Through my playthrough, I never even recruited either of the characters mentioned above. I primarily stuck with the four starting characters, though the game does encourage players to mix up their squad every once in a while.
One of the ways it encourages this is through scars, which occur when a squad member is downed or severely injured on the battlefield. These debuff the squad member’s skills until they spend a few days recovering through training. During this time, they can’t partake in missions. Sending a character to train when they’re not injured can also increase their HP or unlock new abilities.
Chimera Squad forgoes the engineers and scientists of XCOM 2, with squad members doing the leg work of unlocking weapon and equipment upgrades instead. Some projects can only be completed by characters who have ranked up high enough in combat, encouraging players to take their most-used characters off the battlefield.
Leveling up a character in combat unlocks new abilities, so replacing them with less experienced characters can make combat more challenging. Because of this, one character I recruited never saw the light of day as I used them exclusively to focus on research projects. XCOM: Chimera Squad wants players to mix up the squad members they take into combat, but it sometimes makes it easier not to.
The playable characters in Chimera Squad aren’t randomly generated meat shields like in XCOM 2. If a squad member dies in combat, the mission is failed and restarted from the beginning (or load a save file). Hitting zero HP doesn’t lead to character death, however, as the other characters then have three turns to try to stop the downed unit from bleeding out. As someone who save scummed his way through much of XCOM 2, I appreciated not having to worry about losing my leveled-up characters.
Having non-procedurally generated characters also opens them up to having unique personalities and interactions. Through dialogue clips between missions, I got a good sense of who these characters are, with a number of them having compelling or surprising backstories. Audio logs and text messages from city council meetings and news reports fill out the world. Diving into the details a little bit reveals a fascinating world in which those with psionic powers are discriminated against and feared.
XCOM: Chimera Squad lowers the stakes
Not worrying about characters dying does lower the stakes quite a bit. The stakes present in the plot also feel lowered compared to XCOM 2. Story-wise, Chimera Squad takes place five years after winning the war of the previous game. Compared to fighting for the future of humanity throughout the world, battling it out with factions in a single city doesn’t hold the same weight. The story being told through illustrations with voice overs instead of cutscenes doesn’t do any favors to making it feel important, either.
Chimera Squad also feels much less choice-driven than its predecessor in terms of the missions offered up. There are still choices, like what order to take on the three enemy factions in, but each faction’s story plays out pretty linearly. Sometimes even the options of what mission to go on each day feel forced because of the state of each district’s unrest in the city.
Unrest builds in each district when a mission taking place there is ignored. With multiple options for missions to go on each day, district unrest is inevitable. When unrest stays at maximum for more than a day, the city anarchy meter begins to fill. Fill the meter, fail the game. So when I’m given a choice to go on a mission in Highland Square and be rewarded with money and a weapon modification, but taking on a mission in Riverside will keep anarchy from rising, the best choice may be to ignore the reward that will make combat easier. That being said, I was serious about keeping city anarchy and district unrest to a minimum, and the anarchy meter never got more than a fifth of the way full before I was able to reduce it again.
XCOM: Chimera Squad Combat feels great
Of course, the core gameplay of XCOM: Chimera Squad occurs after selecting a mission and initiating the first breach. Despite the repetition of breaches and map size, combat itself is as fun as ever. One significant change to combat is that turns take place on a per-character basis. This change makes strategizing more crucial than ever, as there’s almost always an enemy turn just around the corner. Taking out an enemy whose turn is next is next gives the feeling of cheating the other side out of a turn, but sometimes it’s better to have units focus on a more significant threat further down the turn order list, while letting other enemies take potshots in the meantime.
Many combat abilities have cooldown timers, while the most powerful abilities can only be used once per mission. Using an ability to escape a problematic situation leaves a satisfying feeling of accomplishment.
Combat also gives a clear sense of progression as characters gain more health and abilities, as well as stronger armor and weapons. Equipping epic weapons gives powerful abilities such as firing twice at an enemy in exchange for reduced accuracy. One of my favorite combat situations occurred when one of my characters had an epic weapon with the Banish ability, which refunds an action point with each kill, and a modification on the weapon, so the first reload of a mission doesn’t cost an action point. Despite the weapon’s clip size being four, I killed a swath of seven enemies in one turn. While it can be intimidating in the end game to see dozens of enemies going up against my four squad members, there’s a great feeling of power that comes with whittling them down throughout an encounter.
Unfortunately, several bugs make combat more confusing than it has to be. Characters often attack through walls where it doesn’t seem they should be able to, and many times throughout the campaign, I encountered characters who would stand six feet in the air for the entirety of an encounter. Because of the camera angle, this floating glitch can cause characters to appear as if they’re standing in a different spot than they are, leading to frustration as I maneuver to attack them.
Verdict: XCOM: Chimera Squad is a good entry point for those looking to breach into the series or genre. It brings some unique ideas to the table, and although some of them grow old, I’m excited to see how they evolve in the next XCOM game. While the characters are compelling and combat is fun, the linear story and smaller scale of both the plot and combat encounters weaken XCOM: Chimera Squad overall.
- Combat is as fun as ever
- The world and characters have compelling backstories
- Smaller encounters leads to more repetition
- It's easy to completely ignore some squad members