Release Date: April 23, 2020
Developer: Firaxis Games
“If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it.”
Nailing down the perfect balance of simulation and strategy is a hard path to tread. XCOM: Chimera Squad ventures into unexplored territory for the franchise with its narrative-focused nature and changed up core mechanics. Whether these changes are for the better, are up in the air.
Story: Who Let the Cops Out?
Chimera Squad’s story chronicles the advent of the titular task force in City 31. As the hallmark of Earth’s future, City 31 strives to be a beacon for human and alien coexistence. However, skeptics and insurgents are abound. Many cling to old world ideologies or are just too stubborn to embrace change. As such, the city is rife with species of all kinds who wish it harm.
Tasked with maintaining civil order—proving that human/alien harmony is possible—Chimera Squad answers the call of duty. Comprised of both human and alien agents, the squad is a microcosm of the city itself, working to show the new world that humans and aliens can work—and possibly live—side by side. From day one on the job, this Fresh-off-the-APC team has a lot on their plate and the story is illustrated via comic book-like visuals.
After a successful first mission, Chimera Squad’s victory is short-lived. The assassination of City 31’s first freely elected mayor sends chaotic ripples across the city. (Mayor Assassination) Why would someone do this? Who could be responsible? What is their endgame? Solving this unfolding conspiracy on top of maintaining City 31’s peace is Chimera Squads paramount objective and where their story begins.
Chimera Squad’s story setup is a vast departure from the franchise’s usual foundations. Unlike previous games, which tell the tale of humanity’s struggle against alien invaders, Chimera Squad looks to the future of human and alien cohabitation; a world that was won after the defeat of the Elders, the alien masterminds.
It is a unique direction held back by Chimera Squad’s minimalistic storytelling.
Storytelling has never been XCOM’s strong suit. It is a strategy-focused series after all. Though the games don’t ease up on tension thanks to all the micromanagement, pacing is a different story. The games’ main narrative has always taken a backseat to strategy. While Chimera Squad wanted to change that up with its introduction of canon character agents and focus on “the squad”, it does not venture too far from the backseat formula. Don’t expect any mindblowing story moments or tear-jerking scenes.
As such, the story feels like an afterthought, with primary focus placed on players losing their minds over protecting City 31 with an interesting squad of unlikely heroes.
Meeting the Squad (if you can)
As the game’s name suggests, Chimera Squad’s agents are one of the game’s core features. Each agent brings a unique backstory and personality to the Chimera Squad locker room. They react certain ways during combat situations, say different things when taking out targets, and have unique conversations during mission briefings if certain characters are present.
However, Chimera Squad’s big flaw is it spends far too little in-game time fleshing out this genuinely interesting cast. That is not to say that it’s barren of any characterization or interaction. Agents occasionally talk with one another and it’s cute when they do. It conveys the feeling that these individuals acknowledge one another compared to the customizable blank slate characters from XCOM’s past. Because of Chimera Squad’s preset characters, these interactions are possible.
A particularly memorable interaction between the Viper Torque and Sectoid Verge occurs when the two talk about Verge’s inclusion on the team. Torque refers to Verge as an off-worlder despite being an alien herself, which Verge points out. Torque quickly snaps back by saying she was born in New Arctic, technically qualifying her as an “Earthling.”
These interactions are sprinkled throughout the game and are an absolute gem to listen in on. Character development is rare in XCOM. This series has a reputation for killing off said characters without remorse, after all.
Though the writing is nothing to write home about and cheesy at times, these small glimpses are instrumental in shedding light and fleshing out what the agents are like off the battlefield—something previous XCOM games couldn’t convey.
However, they trigger at random. There is no prompt to make two characters interact. Players can go through an entire campaign without hearing certain lines, preventing them from learning interesting lore and cute tidbits on their agents. This hear-at-random design puts a hamper on Chimera Squad’s characterization and leaves a lot to be desired, especially given that this game is literally titled Chimera Squad.
Two Avenues of Strategy Gameplay
City 31 is prowling with armed hooligans and thugs. Their continued presence threatens the city’s fragile peace. The only ones who can rise up to the challenge are Chimera Squad. Their success is in the player’s hands.
Gameplay is handled through two different phases: Off and On the battlefield
Off-Field: Time to Get Cracking
When not deployed on the field, the squad is at HQ planning their next move. HQ acts as the main hub where players can observe situations occurring in City 31. The war room has a gigantic map of City 31 detailing Unrest and Anarchy and is the first layer of strategy for Chimera Squad.
Each district has five Unrest bars. When these bars reach max, they add an Anarchy point to City 31. Once City 31’s Anarchy reaches its capacity, it’s game over. Unrest occurs when criminal organizations act in these districts and players don’t respond to them. This will remain a constant struggle.
The squad can only respond to one mission per in-game day. However, the team can only be in one place at a time, leaving all other districts that need help vulnerable. Players must strategize carefully with regard to what mission to tackle to maintain city order, even if it means surrendering valuable loot and certain districts to criminals.
As the game progresses, story-relevant missions show up. These speed up Chimera Squad’s investigation into the conspiracy, getting them closer to uncovering the truth and locking up the responsible perps. Players will be forced to choose missions that either prioritize the story or City 31’s well-being. It is not an easy choice to make and the game makes sure of it with the rippling consequences. Prepare to see lots of Unrest accumulate.
The map interface is color-coded and easy to follow, making keeping up with City 31’s status an easy task. The not-so-easy one is preventing it from falling apart. Thankfully, HQ offers more than just city management.
Chimera Squad HQ is remarkably similar to XCOM: Enemy Unknown and XCOM 2’s base management without the frills and hassles of building and managing extra facilities as the game goes on.
The base is where players can research improved equipment, spend Credits to purchase beefier equipment and weapons, and customize units—sort of—and manage resources, entailing the latter half of strategizing at HQ. These resources are vital for beefing up Chimera Squad and strengthening City 31’s security measures.
Some special activities that Chimera Squad introduces are Spec Ops and Training. Spec Ops are missions agents undergo to obtain more resources for the squad. Higher agent ranks yield longer but more rewarding missions. Training gives operatives perks, allowing them to recover from sustained battlefield scars. Each activity requires an agent, removing them from the action for a set amount of time.
All these activities, including main missions, cost Days—the game’s unit of time—and some more than others. Field missions cost a single day. Research for improved weapons and armor costs several days. Spec Ops may take close to a week. Players have to juggle time to ensure their squad is well-stocked and prepped for upcoming missions.
HQ’s UI is clean and easy to use, allowing for quick navigation through all areas without hassle.
Early game will be slightly difficult to settle into for newcomers because of the limited operatives at players’ disposal. For seasoned gamers, it’s nothing new. Missions require a full APC transport of four agents. Players start with five. Performing special activities and speeding up research all require agents to accomplish. They can be removed at any time but doing so also cancels whatever activity they were doing.
Players must choose wisely where they would like to spend their time. Thankfully, more agents are available for recruitment as players progress.
Off-Field gameplay is an interesting mixture of resource management and strategy planning that will have gamers agonizing over the amount of decisions they have. Stress has never felt this good.
On-Field: Breach and Clear
On-Field work is the shining star of XCOM. Missions are adrenaline-filled slugfests that have players on the edge of their seat because of the looming threat behind every soldier under their command:
However, in Chimera Squad, that long standing feature has been thrown out. Units cannot permanently die. This change can be a bit underwhelming for fans that liked the high stakes and frustration of previous games. Deaths mean a mission restart, forcing players to slog through combat scenarios again.
Aside from the death debate, Chimera Squad’s combat is a mean, death-dealing machine—when it works.
Combat revolves around two major phases: the Encounter Phase and the Combat Phase.
Encounter is a new concept introduced in Chimera Squad. Functioning like breach and clear squads from Rainbow Six Siege, operatives bust into combat to surprise enemies lurking within. Depending on the mission, agents, and equipment, there may be different avenues for breaching.
Some locations may have vents that Torque can slither into to ambush surprised enemies. Others may have weak walls that agents could plant breaching charges on to bust a way in.
Each breach option forecasts differing perks and debuffs it will apply to the squad and enemies, making players think carefully over their approach. Some entrances may have higher enemy retaliation than others.
Once a breach is engaged, the squad enters a slow-mo sequence where agents pick their targets. Agents act according to the order they breach in, which is another consideration players have to undertake. Once in this sequence, all visible targets are at the squad’s discretion to take down.
Surprised enemies are easy to hit and won’t fire back. Alert enemies won’t retaliate but are harder to pick off. Aggressive enemies are hard to hit and will fire back once all agents act.
It is a fun way to start off the systemic style of turn-based combat and makes each operation begin with a bang.
Agents will immediately head for cover once the breach is over. While minute, being unable to place units’ starting positions work heavily against the player’s start. Certain cover can put agents in a compromised location, all without any player choice. It can punish the squad despite the player not being directly responsible. Still, it’s possible to turn things around.
With that, the breach concludes and combat begins.
Chimera Squad introduces the new turn-order system, whereby Chimera Squad and enemies act one after the other. This a huge step away from the player-first/enemy-second style turn order fans have grown accustomed to.
Turns are detailed on the right side of the screen, forecasting which unit acts next. Once all units have moved, the turn ends. This twist on combat forces players to strategize carefully during all scenarios, making each move count. It is up to the player to whittle down high priority targets or eliminate weaker threats to change up the turn order in their favor.
Luckily, Chimera Squad offers a wide cast of special units to make the job easier—slightly.
Chimera Squad’s agents have unique abilities to their classes, bringing different utility and options when used.
The large Muton, Axiom, is a tank and close-range monster. Armed with his shotgun and rage-abilities as a Muton, he can use his hulking body to soak up damage and dish out massive amounts of damage to the enemy. The plucky hybrid, Cherub, comes with a trusty energy shield, which he can cast onto allies, protecting them from incoming damage. Once the targeted ally’s shield breaks, he gains charge, allowing him to use it towards a devastating, wide-ranged shield charge, capable of hitting multiple enemies for a huge chunk of damage the more charge he has.
These are two of the eleven unique units the game has to offer, and as agents level up, they gain access to even more powerful and useful abilities.
Chimera Squad truly shines when all members of a squad work in conjunction with one another, tearing up the battlefield in true XCOM fashion. Just pray to RNGesus to be able to hit that 51%.
In terms of mission variety, Chimera Squad does not offer a lot. Many missions rehash similar objectives of retrieving hostages, contraband, or intel, and have the squad rushing to an evac point once the main objective is completed.
While this is manageable, missions also like to throw down unlimited enemy reinforcements toward the latter half of many missions to up the difficulty ante. No evac will ever be enemy free and the enemies will never stop spawning.
This can turn some missions into a complete slog, especially with the changed up turn system.
Visually, Chimera Squad is not incredibly impressive. Character models and animations are stiff and give off a heavy XCOM 2 vibe, suggesting that certain animations and assets were carried over. Units sometimes face one way while their bullets travel another—and it isn’t XCOM’s hitrate BS. Some animations are incomprehensibly rushed, like Torque busting out of an air vent after she closes the hatch on herself.
The game has its fair share of visual oddities too. Units sometimes float several feet above where they are standing and clipping through environments. While it sounds nit-picky, these visual issues are a constant occurrence while playing, capable of taking players out of the experience. No one wants to see Axiom floating in the air, as awesome that sounds.
Camera angles can now be adjusted in eight directions during combat, letting gamers see the battlefield from multiple angles, a stark improvement over XCOM 2’s meager four. However, fixed camera angles during breaches and combat actions provide jarring shots that sometimes inhibit the ability to see the action.
The lack of polish in certain areas brings down the overall presentation, but it makes sense given the price tag. It can also explain why it favors the comic book panel aesthetic over traditional cutscenes, pointing to Chimera Squad’s likely limited budget
Thankfully, the soundtrack is more than serviceable, fitting the game’s tone. Laced with heavy synths and choppy percussion beats, there is a cyberpunk-esque vibe to the soundtrack, lending itself well to the future, alien world.
In layman terms, it slaps.
Bad Case of the Bugs
No game is free without its share of bugs and glitches. With save functions and checkpoints, many games can reload to different save states to ensure players’ progress remains secure. However, on XCOM’s hardest difficulties, reloading is something players do to refill weapons.
In Ironman modes, save data is overwritten with every action players take, truly making every move count. There is no way to redo poorly fought encounters or missed shots. It stands as the ultimate test for any XCOM veteran worth their salt and a fun challenge to try at least once.
As it stands, that mode is in danger because of some of the game-breaking issues. While these are infrequent, if they occur, an entire Ironman can be easily ruined as there is no way to recover previous saves.
One common bug is unspawning reinforcements. While this may sound like a good thing, certain missions have players defend certain locations from reinforcement spam over several turns. When enemies don’t spawn, the game can’t proceed, leaving players stuck in a loop. This problem persists even on non-Ironman games, forcing restarts of entire encounters and missions.
Another error is a lot more severe. There are points in the game that cause crashes, rendering that save file unplayable past a certain turn. This also persists on non-Ironman runs.
The only way to save these Ironman runs is to fail the mission. Either losing an agent or failing the objective would count as a failure, forcing a restart. However, that would involve having to redo every single combat encounter and engagement, wasting lots of time. Also, failing a mission at a certain point can be impossible depending on the situation, rendering the save file unplayable.
While the easiest solution would be to NOT play Ironman, that would be alienating a good chunk of the fans that enjoy the challenge the mode brings and wouldn’t solve the issue. Unless Firaxis releases a patch fixing this issue, there is a huge risk in playing Ironman. (Stock Chimera Squad footage)
These are two of several issues plaguing Chimera Squad.Players online have complained about other problems that halt progress as well, including the notorious item-deleting bug. These issues are potent enough to ruin entire runs until a patch addressing them is released.
Not XCOM 3, but it doesn’t have to be
As a spinoff, XCOM: Chimera Squad ventured into uncharted waters for the series. Some of what it does works and some of it doesn’t. Its revamped combat was a fresh twist on the formula fans were used to but its style of storytelling and presentation leave a lot to be desired. The game’s cast of agents were interesting, but the game holds back on giving them the spotlight outside of combat.
Still, for its price tag, XCOM: Chimera Squad is quite the deal. It can be seen as the experimental groundwork for future titles. It is a flawed yet fun experience.
Here’s hoping for Chimera Squad’s return in XCOM 3.