XCOM: Chimera Squad Review: Alien Nation

XCOM: Chimera Squad Review: Alien Nation

Firaxis shakes up the XCOM formula in a surprising new addition to the venerable tactics series.

A funny thing happened to me in the course of playing XCOM: Chimera Squad: I lost. I don't mean that I lost a mission and had to restart; I mean that I accidentally let City 31 and its melting pot of humans and aliens descend fully into anarchy, forcing me to reload a much earlier save. I guess I just wasn't meant to be a cop.

My blasé attitude toward the state of City 31 stemmed mainly from my experience with XCOM 2, in which you are faced with the constantly ticking clock of the Avatar Project, but never quite seem in danger of having it strike zero. By contrast, City 31 seems to be on fire almost constantly. Word of advice: If you see an "emergency" mission on the big map, don't blow it off.

Accidental fail state aside, it's been nice to get back to the world XCOM. Hard as it is to believe, XCOM 2—the acclaimed sequel to Firaxis' series reboot—is four years old now. While it holds up just fine, I'm definitely ready for a proper sequel, even if XCOM: Chimera Squad isn't quite it. I'd describe it instead as a standalone side-story; one that makes use of XCOM 2's existing tech, but also plays with the format. If XCOM 2 is a core entry, then I guess XCOM: Chimera Squad is more of an OVA.

Picking up a few years after the events of XCOM 2, Chimera Squad imagines a world in which aliens and humans live side-by-side. Where snake-like Vipers and hulking Mutons once tormented you, now they wear street clothes and presumably read Reddit while they're supposed to be working.

The overall effect is less Alien and more Alien Nation, giving the setting the feeling of a cheesy '90s TV drama. That feeling is compounded by art that is, well, not great. It makes Chimera Squad look like the kind of free-to-play mobile game you might see advertised on a parent's Facebook account. The first time I saw it, I grabbed a screenshot and sent it to USgamer Review Editor Mike Williams with the comment, "Can't say I love this new art style." Suffice it to say, neither of us were impressed.

The new art speaks to Chimera Squad's overall premise, which casts you as a cop leading a special investigations unit within City 31. The creeping horror of the original game is gone, as is the sense of mystery found in the sequel. The aliens are fully out in the open, and the main antagonists are reminiscent of comic book supervillains. Mike compared the tone to Far Cry: Blood Dragon, and while Chimera Squad is overall far more grounded than Ubisoft's wacky parody of '80s action films, the absurdity of seeing a Viper wearing business casual certainly gives it a different vibe.

For all of Chimera Squad's weirdness though, it's still XCOM. It's still a turn-based tactics game in which your squad of well-equipped agents square off against alien horrors, and it still encompasses many of the strengths of the mainline games. That ensures that it has a relatively high floor—it's hard to mess up XCOM too badly—but also a lower ceiling.

Generally speaking, XCOM: Chimera Squad is far more focused than its predecessors. Gameplay is split between on-the-ground combat and a strategic map, the latter of which is divided into a series of neighborhoods comprising numerous hot spots. As the campaign progresses, tension builds within these neighborhoods, raising both the overall difficulty and the city's anarchy meter.

This mix of strategy and tactics is XCOM's bread and butter, and it's a strength that mostly remains intact in Chimera Squad. Often there are multiple missions to choose from, each with their own rewards. Deciding whether to pursue an epic shotgun at the expense of higher city tension can be every bit as engrossing as staring down a room full of Chryssalids.

XCOM: Chimera Squad's new art style tries for stylish but doesn't quite succeed. | Screenshot by Kat Bailey / 2K Games

On the other hand, Chimera Squad dispenses with any kind of base-building, and progression is fairly linear. Firaxis combats this sense of linearity with a host of options, including a mode that actually deletes your campaign save after failing, and three unique factions that can be tackled in any order. Still, the actual random elements are fairly limited, and as a result Chimera Squad lacks that keen sense of fighting a mysterious alien intelligence with an agenda of its own, making it somewhat less replayable.

On the ground, Chimera Squad is a chess match played with assault rifles, plasma grenades, and mind-control powers. XCOM is known for having some of the best tactical gameplay around, and Firaxis' thoughtful approach to gameplay design is once again on full display in Chimera Squad. Success demands clever use of each agent's unique skillset, as well as the wherewithal to manipulate the turn order so that your agents are consistently coming out ahead against the aliens—the latter a key tweak to the flow of XCOM's gameplay.

Every mission begins with what is referred to as the "Breaching Phase"—probably my favorite addition to Chimera Squad. It involves choosing from multiple entry points into a building, with some entrances requiring explosive charges or special key cards. After bursting in, you have the opportunity to do as much damage as possible before diving into cover, though enemy units can sometimes return fire. Sometimes there will be more than one breach sequence, which serves to divide maps into a series of discrete encounters.

The drawback is that this approach can make maps feel more artificial and constrained, removing the stealth component that was so important to XCOM 2. A significant portion of the missions take place in compact indoor spaces, and the maps are no longer one continuously flowing whole. It makes Chimera Squad feel small.

Still, while I miss some of these elements, their absence is outweighed by all of the interesting new decisions that the breaching mechanic creates, from choosing the entry point, to picking the order in which agents enter the room. It makes the missions feel tighter and more exciting in general, and it fits the overall theme of being a cop in an alien city.

Swinging into a building never gets old. | Screenshot by Kat Bailey / 2K Games

As long as we're on the subject of aliens, another cool thing about Chimera War is that XCOM's former villains can now be teammates. The group's resident Sectoid, Verge, can use his psionic abilities to get enemies to turn on their cohorts, while Axiom, a bruising Muton, combines melee abilities with a powerful shotgun. There are 11 of these agents total, all with unique strengths and weaknesses, most with abilities that are very powerful.

Playing with pre-established agents instead of customizable characters is an acquired taste to be sure, not the least because Chimera Squad does away with XCOM's signature permadeath mechanic. That's fine, but Chimera Squad doesn't quite do enough to maximize the possibilities offered by its unique cast.

Providing each agent with a unique story arc is probably beyond the scope of a relatively small project like Chimera Squad, so most of their personality comes out in background chatter between missions. Story beats, like a character having a personal connection to a villain, will pop up occasionally, but they feel like the exception rather than the rule.

I think that cuts to the heart of one of one of my bigger problems with XCOM: Chimera Squad: If Firaxis wants to make a smaller-scale, more focused game with pre-established characters, then it should put way more emphasis on story. Too much of Chimera Squad's narrative is hidden away in character bios, or narrated through very brief cutscenes. My gut tells me that this is a problem of trying to split the difference between trying something new, and not wanting to alienate existing XCOM fans. It dispenses with many of the series conventions—customizable characters chief among them—but it also wants to retain the familiar template laid down by its predecessors. This seeming desire for compromise is what keeps Chimera Squad from reaching its full potential.

I'll say this for Chimera Squad: It's fun to see Firaxis play around with the XCOM formula, even if it isn't necessarily the direction I want the series to go in the future. It puts forward some interesting new concepts—such as the new breaching phase—and continues the overall evolution of the setting. It makes me hopeful that a true sequel isn't far away.

In the meantime, I wouldn't be opposed to a sequel that fleshes Chimera Squad's ideas more fully, ideally expanding its scope and building a much more compelling cast. The XCOM universe is interesting enough that it's worth exploring in more depth; and if Firaxis decides to ditch that new art style in the process, then so much the better.

XCOM: Chimera Squad retains much of what makes XCOM such a special tactics series, in the process adding in some genuine improvements to its already excellent formula. But these improvements are undermined by some strange art choices, as well as a general reluctance to maximize some of its bolder changes. All in all, an interesting experiment, but one that still has a ways to go before reaching its full potential.

3.5/5

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Kat Bailey

Editor in Chief

Kat Bailey is a former freelance writer and contributor to publications including 1UP, IGN, GameSpot, GamesRadar, and EGM. Her fondest memories as a journalist are at GamePro, where she hosted RolePlayer's Realm and had legal access to the term "Protip." She is USgamer's resident mecha enthusiast, Pokemon Master, and Minnesota Vikings nut (skol).

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