After releasing the robust War of the Chosen expansion two years ago, game developer Firaxis was expected to go quiet until their next main installment in the XCOM franchise. No one foresaw the studio’s announcement of a new standalone game, set to release by the end of April 2020. Surprise gave way to suspicion as details around the campaign emerged. From the character roster to base building, XCOM: Chimera Squad was comparably scaled-down from its predecessor in nearly every way. What remains is a bold experiment with the flagship tactics series that explores the consequences of its own history.
XCOM thrives on consequences. After all, this is a series that has an ‘Ironman’ difficulty setting for those not satisfied with the stress of resource management during an extraterrestrial invasion. The hard-won victory at the end of the main XCOM series sends the alien leaders packing, their occupying forces left behind to the mercy of Earth. 5 years after the war, a metropolis where humans, aliens, and hybrids of both species have united: City 31. Humanity’s enemies have become our neighbors.
Building an inclusive future on the dying embers of hostility makes for a volatile foundation, so veterans from both sides of the war for Earth are assembled. As the special tactical unit Chimera Squad, players will roll out to neutralize high-powered threats to the peace of City 31. This will require the usual balancing of team members, time, and resources required to sustain a typical XCOM campaign. Additions like Breach Mode help shake up the core gameplay loop.
Through combinations of items and character abilities, Breach Mode lets players set the pace of the upcoming battle by deciding how the characters will enter the scene. Blow open a wall for a surprise or slip through a vent to flank the enemy. Scan the room for an aim bonus or toss a specialized grenade inside. Once strategies and entrances are decided, the team pours in and first actions are selected during bullet time. Should the gods of XCOM random number generation smile, it’s possible to clear a room on the initial breach. With the cinematic camera, it feels like a high-powered action scene.
Between tracking remnants of the war, the team spends their down time at the squad house. The standard options of training, weapons development and recuperation for squadmates are present, but not as robust as XCOM’s previous build-a-base mechanic. Another experimental adjustment comes in the squadmates themselves. The specialized members make up the entire team, rather than War of the Chosen’s handful of ‘hero’ units mixed in among the fully customizable units. For a series that has been content to let the audience do the heavy lifting between story beats, the simplifications of Chimera Squad lets them double down on these previously ignored beats through character and world descriptions.
As for the topic of the game’s technical performance, it has to be said that Chimera Squad is still in XCOM 2’s engine. Janky problems can rear their ugly heads at any time. Unexpected complications like these run the spectrum from frustrating to amusing. A personal favorite was when a squad member glitched out, T-Posing through a mission and firing his sidearm lodged in his chest like a Care Bear Stare. Players who soldier on will find it’s the intentional complications in how the narrative and gameplay progress that will hold their interest.
The New Abnormal
Foregrounding the construction of City 31 on the title screen is a mission statement to this end. As Chimera Squad whips between briefings and breachings, characters’ personalities play off each other. The result is reminiscent of Mass Effect’s squad or Ghost In The Shell’s Section 9. Worldbuilding is woven between these gaps via commercials, talk show sound-bytes, and even the rogue factions Chimera Squad takes down. Not everyone will be onboard for the grand experiment of this game, but the current price point makes taking a chance worth it. There’s enough interesting twists on Firaxis’ tactical formula to construct a fascinating glimpse of what may take shape for XCOM’s future.
8.5 out of 10 Alien Appendages