I haven’t done a game review in a while, mainly because I don’t play games close to their release dates any more. They’re just too expensive and I’ve had too many disappointments in the past. However, I not only bought XCOM: Chimera Squad soon after it was released, but I also feel qualified to comment on it, given my history with the series.
Between the brilliant reboot (“Enemy Unknown”) and its (less-creatively named) sequel, XCOM 2, I have spent over 700 hours playing these games (most of it alt-tabbing between the game and my PhD thesis, but still!). The point is, I know my XCOM!
Chimera Squad is probably best described as a spin-off, rather than a sequel, and launched at just £16.99 (which was the main reason I bought it). It is a blatant attempt by Firaxis to experiment with the XCOM formula in a self-contained sandbox (presumably in response to the launch of similar games like Gears Tactics). They’ve switched up the setting, story and gameplay to play around with various ideas, without taking such risks with a full-blown sequel.
So, here’s my two cents about these changes and how they affect the XCOM experience.
The game is set after the events of XCOM 2. Having successfully rebelled against our alien overlords, Chimera Squad is tasked with policing City 31; where aliens, humans and hybrids are trying to live together in peace. The story is told using 2D, comic-style animations, which is presumably a significant cost saving over 3D cutscenes and gives it a definite ‘Saturday morning cartoon’ vibe.
This is a significant change of setting and scale from the usual “global threat level” XCOM story, which is not necessarily a bad thing. However, I found that it just isn’t as compelling as its predecessors.
Each mission consists of a series of ‘encounters’ that take place in mostly cramped spaces, leaving less opportunity for good positioning and height advantage and more opportunity to be flanked by the enemy (with not much you can do about it!).
Your agents are somewhere between the standard disposable XCOM soldiers and the powerful hero units from XCOM 2. Learning how to use their abilities and gadgets, most of which work differently from before, is definitely the key to success.
The other side of the XCOM coin is base management. Between each mission, you train, research and upgrade your people and their gear. This is fairly familiar, but there are no medical facilities anymore and units just recover immediately from any injuries. You just need to train them occasionally to recover from ‘scars’ they gain from being wounded.
I’ll talk more about the mechanical differences in Part 2 of this review, but first, I want to talk more generally about my Chimera Squad experience.
I started the game on Hard, which turned out to be a mistake! The game is different enough from other XCOM games that there is a definite learning curve, even for someone who has spent so much time with the franchise. I soon found myself stuck on a mission where I just didn’t have the firepower to defeat the enemy team. This was not helped by the objective, which was to prevent the bad guys from activating a device, which required them to have a unit stand in a particular area for one round. However, with the Andromedon’s ridiculous health (and its damned party trick), there seemed to be no way to stop them.
In previous XCOMs, it was possible to ‘fail’ your objective, but evacuate your soldiers and continue. Or, even if all your soldiers were lost, you could accept those losses and move on. But this isn’t an option in Chimera Squad. If any agent bleeds out, or your entire squad goes down, its game over and you have to reload an earlier save. I retried the level several times, but could not get past it. Plus, to add insult to injury, there were several times when the mission failed and it wasn’t even clear why!
So, I restarted on Normal. This was when I discovered that the opening missions are basically identical in every playthrough. It does open up and become more varied after a while, but I nearly lost interest at one point. There is significantly less map variety and none of the clever procedural features that were added in XCOM 2, so Chimera Squad has much less replay value than the previous games.
Then I found myself facing another impossible scenario. Again, with no way to accept the loss and move on, you’re forced into a no-win scenario and the whole campaign becomes a write-off, which is not good in a game like this!
Progress at Last
On my third attempt, I got a lot further. It turns out that I was rushing to complete story missions and the key to success seems to be to put off those missions for as long as possible. Eventually, they become “critical” and you have to complete them immediately, but ignoring them for a while gives you the chance to train your agents, upgrade their equipment and generally give yourself a better chance.
There were still a few challenging difficulty spikes, but I finally managed to complete the game. There seems to be some variation in how the scenarios play out, depending on your choices, which is good. But the story was predictable and the ending was anti-climactic, which is not.
I have often wondered if Firaxis even has a QA Team! You can’t talk about XCOM without talking about bugs, and this time around, it feels like they’ve… just not bothered to fix any of them. There are so many glitches, odd behaviours and unexplained prolonged pauses… if you’ve played XCOM before, you know the ones I mean. None game-breaking so far though!
Next: Changing The Formula
Click here to check out part 2 of the review, where I will discuss on the various changes that Firaxis have made to Chimera Squad’s gameplay.