XCOM - Chimera Squad review: Firaxis' tactics spin-off trims the fat but doesn't lose the thrills

Credit: Fergus Halliday

The Pitch

After War of the Chosen added ample flesh to the bones of an already-ambitious sequel, I honestly wasn’t sure if we’d ever get another installment of Firaxis’ extraterrestrial tactics series. Where do you even take things from here?

Having defended the world against alien invaders and inspired an uprising to free it after failing at the former, XCOM as a series seemed to have found itself in something of a design cul de sac. With mods like The Long War filling in the gaps, any new installment has to provide more than just, well, more XCOM. 

In some ways a response to this problem, Chimera Squad brings the metaphorical and literal challenges of being a new XCOM game down to ground-level. Rather than raise the stakes, the spin-off opts to rethink them. 

Credit: Fergus Halliday

Where previous XCOM games saw you wage grandiose  guerilla wars against alien invaders and oppressors, Chimera Squad sees you fight to maintain the fragile peace between the alien, human and hybrid citizens of City 31. 

More like XCOP, amirite?

If XCOM 2 tinkered with the big picture and fleshed out the larger metagame with flashy additions like the Chosen, Chimera Squad hones in on the smaller details. While there are plenty of similarities between this and the action of previous XCOM games, the fundamental differences here are going to stand out to series veterans in a very real way. 

To begin with, Firaxis have changed up the traditional tempo of firefights. Rather than land on a map and spend the first half-dozen turns getting your squad in position before opening fire, Chimera Squad cuts right to the chase. It's less of a marathon and more a series of sprints.

Credit: Fergus Halliday

Every mission in the game is broken into a series of discrete encounters. Each of these skirmishes begin with your team breaching the enemies defenses and opening fire. This framing makes for a natural fit for the engine’s more cinematic quirks pulls you into the action that much quicker. 

There’s some room for experimentation here as certain encounters allow for exclusive or advantageous breach opportunities if you have the right equipment. Sometimes it makes more sense to split up the tea. Other times it’s worth the risk of an enemy counterattack in order to secure a guaranteed hit on a unit’s next shot. Regardless, bursting through the walls to take enemies by surprise never stops feeling cool. 

Credit: Fergus Halliday

Then, once you’ve cleared the encounter of enemies and completed any critical objectives, Chimera Squad immediately cuts to your team prepping to breach the next roomful of enemies. Rinse. Repeat. Compared to previous entries in the series, this abridged pacing feels like a real trimming of the fat. It’s a welcome bit of streamlining that almost serves to make previous entries in the series feel cumbersome and tedious by comparison.

The other big change to the pacing here is the introduction of interleaved turns. Instead of allowing you to move and act with any unit on the map at any time, Chimera Squad restricts you to controlling units in a specific turn-order. This creates an interesting dynamic where you have to weigh larger priorities (‘I want to take down that Chrysalid as fast as humanly possible’) against short term opportunities (‘If I stun that Thrall, the turn counter will skip over them and allow my medic to follow up’) on a regular basis.  

Credit: Fergus Halliday

Another major revision here is the reliance and focus on named characters. Chimera Squad offers a total of 11 unique alien and human agents, each with their own personality and unique abilities. Akin to something like Fire Emblem, many of these agents complement one another - allowing for powerful cooperative actions.

On paper, this promises to be a pretty big departure from the series usual M.O. In practice, it’s not nearly so drastic of a change. 

Sure, the developers have tried to imbue these agents with the same charm you might find within the roster of a game like Overwatch. However, the game never quite gets all the way there. There are a few fun details but the stories that I’d create around Chimera Squad’s roster ended up being much more compelling than anything Firaxis left on the narrative table. 

Credit: Fergus Halliday

There’s plenty of banter and each member of the team brings some fun gameplay-altering abilities to the table. Nevertheless, it feels like the missing piece here is some kind of Bioware-style loyalty mission or Fire Emblem-style dialogue trees. You really never really get to know these characters beyond their surface-level introductions and core abilities. 

Godmother might be written to be a stoic badass but nothing in Chimera Squad’s dialogue never conveyed that so well as my decision to kit her out with equipment and abilities that made her ‘Untouchable’ after every kill did.

A shotgun-slinging paragon of murder, my Godmother would tear through enemy after enemy with comical impunity and deadly precision. Your Godmother might not fit the same mold but that's classic XCOM.

In contrast, the abolishment of permadeath and the introduction of the scars mechanic here ends up being more of a misfire. When a unit is downed in combat, you’ll have to stabilize their injuries or risk that unit attaining a semi-permanent negative modifier to their stats in the form of a scar. Scarred agents can be treated by spending a couple of days recovering. 

If an agent goes down during a mission, you’re also able to deploy an Android in their place once you reach the next breach point.

Essentially, it's an alternative to resetting a mission outright just because you lost a single unit.

Credit: Fergus Halliday

Your Android’s core stats and equipment can be upgraded between missions but they lack in the special abilities department. This is a novel addition but it ultimately comes across as a little underdeveloped. My characters rarely went down and, minus the possibility of losing them, I rarely hesitated to throw lower level recruits into the fray rather than rely an under-equipped and uninspiring Android. Hopefully, post-launch modders address this particular aspect of Chimera Squad sooner rather than later. 

Between missions, Chimera Squad features a bevy of base management mechanics akin-to-but-less-involved-or-punishing to the base building mechanics of previous XCOM installments. 

Your endgame here is to manage and mitigate unrest in City 31 while you investigate each of the city’s major criminal organisations. To that end, you’ll have to divide your focus across each of the game’s nine districts in order to manage unrest. You’re also able to buy more additional equipment for your units, research new tech and train units to permanently increase their stats.

Some missions reward you with new items and resources. Others reward you by reducing unrest across the city or granting progress in your investigations. Most are a bit of a mix of the two - which results in everything feeling a bit samey (and a little too easy) after a dozen or so hours. 

Credit: Fergus Halliday

Rather than Just One More Turn, Chimera Squad feels bite sized and approachable in a way that previous XCOM games haven’t necessarily been. All up, my initial run through the game took around 24 hours of playtime. Still, I was delighted in the early stages of my run through Chimera Squad to find a decent amount of variety in the length of missions. The game’s longer boss missions can end up taking 30-40 minutes but most veer closer to 5-10 minutes.

The Bottom Line

Chimera Squad ends up being a fun twist on an iconic tactics formula but it doesn’t quite go far enough to merit being called a classic in its own right. As an experiment to deviate from the series’ template, it’s a roaring success. It still feels like XCOM and it’s still a blast to play for five minutes or five hours. 

While modders will likely spruce up the spots where Firaxis have fallen short, Chimera Squad isn’t just more XCOM - it’s exceptional in its own right. 

Credit: Fergus Halliday

XCOM: Chimera Squad is available on PC now.

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