XCOM: Chimera Squad Review – A Welcome Surprise

XCOM: Chimera Squad Review

I’m sure that everyone plays XCOM a little differently. I like to make soldiers based on characters I like, combine them with randomly generated ones, and play to see who is a hero in this iteration of the multiverse. That’s not a possibility in XCOM: Chimera Squad, the surprise new game in the XCOM series. Announced a week before its release, Chimera Squad is a very different game from XCOM and XCOM 2, but as surprises go, it’s a welcome one.

More RPG than Tactical Strategy

Chimera Squad is a sequel, taking place after a victorious game of XCOM 2. (I mention this because XCOM 2 itself takes place after the player loses a game of XCOM and the aliens win). It takes place in City 17- erm, that is to say, City 31. After Earth was liberated, a lot of aliens were left behind and now they try to co-exist to form a new society. That’s where Chimera Squad comes in. They are an elite task force made up of humans, aliens, and genetically altered hybrids.

The most dramatic departure from classic XCOM is that you no longer can make soldiers from scratch. There are twelve members of Chimera Squad, and they all have predetermined looks, voices, personalities, and characters. Sure, you can change the color of their shirt. You can assign them new equipment and occasionally choose between two abilities, but this is much more like an RPG than a tactical strategy game.

I like Chimera Squad. Miraculously, they even get me to care about the XCOM lore for maybe the first time. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve clocked over 1000 hours between the modern XCOM games (and more when you take into account the originals, and the spin-offs), but it was never a world I really cared to consider. That changes here. I’m fascinated by Verge, a Sectoid who harbored human sympathies during the initial invasion. I also love Cherub, an ADVENT soldier grown in a tank who was liberated before he could be brainwashed. And I can’t get enough of Torque, a Viper who is unrepentant for the awful stuff she did back in the war. Placing the focus on these well-realized characters changes the vibe of the game: Now it feels more like a Fire Emblem tactical RPG, but it’s a good feeling.

Well-Designed, With Meaningful Decisions

There are other changes, large and small. Missions in Chimera Squad feel shorter than other XCOM games, marked by transitions called breaches. Basically, each time your squad enters a new room, you can position them at different entrances, which confer different bonuses on your guys. Maybe they’ll have increased dodge, or their first shot will stun an enemy. Maybe they won’t be able to move for a turn. A complex combination of items, abilities, bonuses, and detriments makes each Breach a series of interesting decisions. I found myself getting trounced by a particular level, but turned it around when I restarted with one of my weakest soldiers, who had a hacking ability. This let my team breach through an otherwise locked door, giving them the high ground for the encounter, which was enough to turn the tide. That’s when I realized how well designed this thing is. Your decisions really matter, and they add up.

If there’s one weird aspect of XCOM: Chimera Squad it’s the game’s approach to policing. From what I can tell, Chimera Squad isn’t a police task force, they are a special military unit who works in partnership with the police of City 31. It’s a lot of fun to storm into bases and slaughter cultists and terrorists, but in shifting away from an invading or occupying alien force, I can’t help but be a little uncomfortable how mercilessly your squad kills these criminals. I don’t think I would have necessarily questioned it, but for one mechanic. You can always deal a small amount of non-lethal damage, taking out an enemy and getting a small bonus at the end of a mission. And your dudes know what’s up. “You’re under arrest,” they’ll say, or “Another collar for the medic!”

And this leads to some uncomfortable questions. If Chimera Squad is authorized to make arrests, why is the game set up for you to kill 9/10 suspects per mission? Look, I’ve killed tens of thousands of aliens across my many campaigns of XCOM. I like the series. But a significant portion of the game has me thinking about issues of crime and policing in a post-alien invasion society. Should this have been represented mechanically? Should there be community service, beats your guys can walk, rehabilitation, and using political influence to attack the inequalities that result in crime? That sounds hard to do. But Chimera Squad does so much right that I almost would have liked to see their take on those themes.

Now, I hope you take this nitpick as a testament to the game’s overall quality. I’m not saying Chimera Squad is problematic in the way pseudo-military shooters like Far Cry or The Division are. It’s the fact the writing is so good in Chimera Squad that these are issues that crop up. This is a series that never overtly focused on story or character. It’s trying something new, and it is very, very good. Chimera Squad is a great game in its own right, and it has me over the moon to imagine what a proper XCOM 3 is going to play like.

***PC review code provided by the publisher.***

The Good

  • Tactical combat is great
  • Memorable characters
  • World worth exploring

The Bad

  • RNG is brutal
  • Small mistakes have a tendency to snowball