So as you’re all already aware (having devoured my preview on the subject) I’ve been reviewing XCOM:Chimera Squad in the Reticule towers for the past week. I’ve finally come to a point where I think I can give an honest assessment of the game, so jump to the cut to see what I think.
I think it’s safe to say that i’m a bit of an XCOM veteran. I’m old enough to have played the original games (mostly Terror of the Deep) and have played each of the Firaxis reboots for a frankly worrying amount of time. I think it’s also safe to say that I have a bit of a horse in this race- I want this to be good as I’ve been desperate to get my hands on some more XCOM since finishing with War of the Chosen last year. This in part is also why I’ve taken my time on this review- I didn’t want my expectations to get in the way of me performing an objective assessment.
Right, now that’s out of the way, let’s get into the meat of the Muton….
Chimera Squad was announced with little fanfare barely a week from it’s release. To say this was a surprise would have been an understatement. The promotional blurb (that’s a technical term) focused heavily on the breach mechanics, the fact that there is now a turn order, that it’s a tighter more focused game and that you’re in charge of a specific set of recruits this time. This is a big deal, You see there is no endless supply of fully customisable/disposable grunts here. You have your group and you’re stuck with them.
These are just a few of the deliberate steps away from the traditional XCOM formula this game has made and they all have big ramifications on how you play. Most end up being a trade-off that while they mostly succeed, leave big gaps that are eventually pretty hard to ignore.
Let’s go into these mechanics a bit more, starting with ‘breach’.
I actually think It’s a really neat mechanic. Instead of being plonked into combat by dropship/mystery bus; you’re already at the location, but outside the combat area. You then get to choose how and where to enter from up to four breach points. The options are initially limited, but as you progress through the campaign your options expand to the point where you genuinely need to pause and think about what to do.
Shall we blow a hole in this wall and enter there, use the vent or go through the hack-able door. Or, shall we fall back on the good old fashioned front door approach? The options don’t stop there. When we breach, shall we heal our squad, go in guns blazing, stun them, or add a number of other options to weigh the encounter in our favor?
Once you’ve decided the whole scene plays out in a glorious slow motion- where each character takes their turn to decimate anyone close enough to each breach point to become a target. The tableau freezes (even in mid death animation) as it switches from character to character as you make your decisions and unleash the full force of your team. There are a number of post-breach specific skills too that can only be used at this point to add extra tactical depth. Do you want to spit and poison someone, blind anyone in a set radius or lift a prime target out of cover?
Once the breach is over and the bodies drop, the enemy often gets a chance to return fire- with varying results depending on the entrance you chose. The round then starts as per XCOM standard.
Which then brings us to the interleaving- or ‘turn order’ as I mentioned above. Instead of each side taking their turn, the actions are interleaved- meaning your squads turns along with the enemies, are interwoven. If you’ve played any DnD game, or something like DivSin2 then you’ll be familiar with the mechanic. The idea, as touted in the pre-release press info, was to add an additional layer of strategy to the rounds. You now have to take into account what enemy is acting next when you plan your moves, and in this respect it works. The order of action will take up a large portion of your focus and you’ll bend your strategy towards managing that, rather than the battle at large.
It succeeds in bringing the focus down, enabling you to make more informed decisions about what is about to happen when. The downside of this is that it also makes most of the encounters much easier while robbing you of any meaningful co-operative strategies with your squad. Firaxis get around the decreased difficulty by throwing frankly, ridiculous numbers of enemies at you, often with multiple waves of reinforcements.
A good example of the reduced tactical freedom would be skills that ‘destroy cover’ which was a prime tactic in the previous XCOM games. Here, unless you’re lucky enough to have the relevant characters close to each other in the same move order (or you’ve used the once-per-raid Team Up skill, to allow that) that kind of tactic is almost always rendered pointless by another enemies move. This has the unfortunate effect of removing any deep tactical decisions from your planning and reverting most battles down to; “ok, how do I kill this guy the quickest”. The often brilliant squad skills somewhat make up for this, along with a couple of skills that allow team members to skip the order in the queue, but again- I feel these are solving an issue that was created in the first place by the mechanics’ very introduction.
So then, what about the squad in Chimera Squad?
Well the game gets to shine a bit here. Some of the characters are glorious. Verge, Godmother and Torque (voice aside) are all brilliant. The little snippets of conversation they have mid (and sometimes IN) raid all help round them out as ‘people’ and I’ve become very attached to them. There’s a real personality to them that just gets under your skin and I can see others getting strong attachments to different Squad members depending on each player’s own personality types. Firaxis have succeeded in making characters so deep, rounded and likable that the thought of one of them dying would genuinely cause me upset. Lucky then that they can’t die. Or more accurately, if they DO die then you fail the mission and have to go again.
This is probably the biggest misstep in the game for me. XCOM players get incredibly attached to their squads, and having them die in combat can be a HUGE event. There are of course options for those who don’t want to play this way, but for those that do- it’s an experience like nothing else and is one of the things that made XCOM one of my all-time favourite games. It’s completely missing here and it removes any impact or sense of importance from the combat. Die? Fail? No biggie just go again.
This misstep is carried on either further with the bleed out mechanic- where rather than dying a character bleeds out for a set number of turns (usually three). Where you have to get a character, or gremlin-drone, close to them to stabilise their condition before they die (and then fail the mission). But that’s it. At time of writing, there’s no way to bring them back to life (though I think that IS an option later on). So once stabilised they just lie there. Like a spud.
If you need to extract to finish the mission- you can leave them there and finish with zero penalty and they’ll be there waiting for you back in the garage, immediately available for the next round. There’s no ‘carrying your comrade’ out of a combat panic- desperately trying to make it to the extraction before the pursuing enemy catches up. They just get patched up and put in a taxi by the enemy. Or something. Maybe they’re in the same union.
Sure they can sometimes suffer debuffs that require training to remove, but they’re almost always inconsequential and only rarely turn up anyway. The lack of consequence is just perpetuated to the point where, as much as you like them, you don’t think twice about throwing your team into ridiculous situations as worst-case, You’ll just have to start again.
The re-focused (read; vastly truncated) mission structure removes a lot of the pain from even having to start a mission again. In XCOM-proper a mission could be in the order of 40-60 minutes work. Redoing one (if you were even able), was a serious investment. Here, even a three round breach can be completed in under ten minutes. My record for a 3-breach mission is three and a half minutes. Granted I had a few lucky shots, but still…..
The new mission structure itself sees you breach, immediately enter combat, and then move onto the next portion as soon as the last body drops. So, in a two breach encounter you clear the room and the jump straight to the next breach whether you’re ready or not. There’s no pause, no chance to heal, collect loot or mission items; if you don’t grab something during the combat it’s missed. It also has the effect of making the entire in-mission game non-stop combat. Breaching aside, there’s no clever positioning here, no evasion, no mob-management. It’s just ‘here’s your room’. Clear them all. Do the next. Rinse-repeat until complete.
Granted there are different mission types- protect, arrest, steal and extract etc- but even on levels with an additional objective, there are always reinforcement waves meaning you’ve never ‘out’ of combat even once you’ve cleared the room. At time of writing too, these waves often lead to CTD’s or game hangs, both major crippling bugs.
The upshot of this is that it actually becomes a little bit exhausting to play. Even Hollywood action films know there needs to be down-periods to balance out all the action. In Chimera Squad you don’t get this and I think the game suffers as a result. Granted, you have the in-base portions where you research, manage the crisis levels, train, adjust load-outs (using the new god-awful drop-down menu system) and do other in-between shenanigans, but it’s just not the same. I had to stop playing the other day because it was all becoming a bit much. And this is from someone who enjoys hard-core survival and military games. It was not something I’d expected from an XCOM game.
Then there’s the bugs and handful of broken mechanics (such as the ineffectual stun system). I’ve covered these in more depth in my preview, but suffice to say that at times the game appears to have been very hastily thrown together with very little play-testing or quality screening. I’ve had more game-crashes and ‘hangs’ playing this than any game I can remember. And don’t even get me started on the voices for the non-squad characters. Whoever decided all enemies should have a mid-west american voice should be shot. But of course (thankfully) they wouldn’t die, they’d just restart the mission…..
There IS though a lot in this game to like and I have for the most part been having fun playing it. There have been some clever additions and I am delighted by how much I love some of the new characters and their brilliant skills. It’s just that every innovation and change, no matter how good, ends up feeling like it’s been added to compensate for something they cut out of the game. I think it’s a measure of the game that I’m struggling to think of anything, besides some of the characters, and maybe an occasional mission with a breach, that you’d willingly remove from Chimera Squad and add to any of the other XCOM games. It’s odd.
And I think that’s where I’ve ended up.
XCOM:Chimera Squad, is an ‘OK’ game. It may attract a few new players to the XCOM fold and will pose as an interesting diversion for XCOM Veterans, for a brief time at least. In the end though I don’t think there’s enough substance here to to keep new players going after their first campaign, and for Veterans like myself; all it’s done is make me want to play XCOM 2 again……
…..though, maybe with Verge and Torque available for my squad.
Verdict: On Target (but only just).
Platforms Available and Reviewed – PC
Please see this post for more on our scoring policy. Game purchased through Steam.