Review – XCOM: Chimera Squad (Part 2)

In part 1 of my review of XCOM: Chimera Squad, I talked about my experience of playing the game to completion for the first time and looked at the general strokes of how the game was different to its predecessors. In this version, I want to focus more on the actual mechanics of the game.

Changing the Formula

I’m going to try and avoid doing what most people on the internet do in these circumstances and just whine about how “they’ve changed everything”. I want to look at some of the biggest changes and talk about the advantages and disadvantages more objectively.

Cast of Characters

So, instead of the roster of randomly generated (and disposable) soldiers, there is a small cast of pre-defined characters that can join your squad. This removes all of the customisation features that were one of the main things that got you invested in your procedural soldiers. They also don’t die, which is weird because losing soldiers is a key part of the XCOM experience! If any of your squad members die in a mission, it fails and you have to try again, but as long as they don’t bleed out, you’re fine.

This results in weird situations where you have to evacuate the combat area, which is swarming with enemy reinforcements, leaving two wounded soldiers behind, but they somehow end up on the vehicle with you, gravely wounded… it just doesn’t make a lot of sense. Even less so; the idea that a gravely wounded soldier can be back on their feet in two days, ready for the next mission!

There’s also some forced and failed attempts at characterisation and “banter” between the squad, but there’s no tension or character development or anything. Just clumsy exposition and what can only loosely be described as ‘humour’.

Breach Mode & Encounters

The main change is the structure of the combat missions. All missions consist of a series of encounters with ‘breaches’ in between them. This does make the combat quicker and more punchy, but removes a lot of the tactical decisions, like trying to get your squad into good high-ground positions, as well as any tension, stealth or exploration that you might have undertaken previously. The squad takes cover automatically too, it would be nice if you got to specify where each unit went after the breach has happened.

I do see the appeal. Being able to take out high priority targets and catching your enemies unawares, getting a chance to take them out before they get into cover etc. is kinda cool. However, you already had this with ambushes in the previous game.

Also, because every mission plays out the same way, it doesn’t matter how random and varied the environments are, the gameplay starts to feel very samey very quickly. Not helped by the fact that there seem, particularly in the early game, to always be the same selection of enemies in every encounter, depending on which investigations you choose to undertake (i.e. those f***ing Guardians with their f***ing shields!).

In its favour, you can learn how to make good use of the system. You quickly learn to take out aggressive enemies first, because they will injure your soldiers, and to take out enemies near your entry point so your people can get into cover safely and minimise the risk of being flanked. There is some skill to it, it just takes a bit of getting used to.

If these breaches only occurred on one in five missions, and/or if you could tell on the world map that a mission was going to include breaches in advance, then that would add some variety, but it soon wears out its welcome when it is the only option.

There’s not a lot of point in managing ammo or completing objectives, as your agents reload and most objectives complete automatically once you clear the room. I’ve rarely needed to ‘collect the evidence’ or whatever before the turn counter counts down.

Turn List

Additionally, all of the units take turns, rather than each team taking it in terms, making it more like initiative rolls in D&D. This, again, removes a lot of the tactical decisions, as you can’t switch between units to take advantage of positioning or combos.

Capture or Kill

You always have the option to subdue a character, rather than killing them, which grants additional intel, one of the in-game currencies. This is one of the few areas where they’ve added strategic depth, rather than subtracting it. Again, however, there are logical issues; if you knock someone out and then evacuate while enemy reinforcements are still arriving, how do you recover the unconscious bodies?

Final Thoughts

The new XCOM games were already simplified versions of the tactical gameplay of their predecessors. Some people didn’t like it (as evidenced by the numbers of fans of the Long War mod, which I found tedious), but I thought they struck a perfect balance between complexity and depth. With Chimera Squad, it feels like they’ve oversimplified things and created a watered-down and less engaging version of the XCOM experience. It doesn’t really feel like the same game, though as it’s a spinoff, I suppose there’s no reason why it should have to. If you’re willing to learn how the new stuff works and adapt to it, there is some fun to be had.

I would definitely be interested in seeing some of the experimental features added to future XCOM games, but only if they are added alongside the more traditional gameplay features (and executed in a way that actually makes logical sense in the context of the story!).

I’m not sure if I’d recommend this game to fans of the series, or anyone else for that matter, but it has been interesting to take part in Firaxis’ little experiment.