TL;DR – it is a game that is something old (The XCOM Setting) and something new (living rather than waring), something borrowed (SWAT mechanics), and something blue (the face of any enemy who just discovered Torque)
Score – 4 out of 5 stars
If there is one studio that is the king of turn-based strategy games it would be Firaxis Studios. While they are probably better known for their fundamental Civilization franchise, they have also delved into the world of science fiction, alien invasions, and reloading that autosave because your fully upgraded soldier just missed the one guy standing right next to them and now they are bleeding out on the floor. I have enjoyed the XCOM series in the past, okay not that one alien that pretends it’s a civilian, but other than that, so I was interested when I heard we were getting a sort of sequel/spin-off thingy. Well, I became even more interested when I got my hand on it and I found out just how fun it was.
So to set the scene, It has been a couple of hears since the end of XCOM 2, and the world has sort of found a new equilibrium as humans, aliens, and hybrids live side by side. There is one place in the world that has been remarkably successful with this, the famous City 31. XCOM has moved from overthrowing an alien invasion to helping maintain order in a constantly fragmented world. Thus the Chimera Squad was created to help local police, but just as they arrive the mayor of City 31 Mayor Nightingale (Nika Futterman) is murdered in front of the squad and you have to work out who did it before the city tears itself apart.
It is in this setting that the game shines because it is both super specific in all the many Sci-Fi themes it is engaging in, but it also incredibly assessable to someone who has never played an XCOM game before. Indeed, they have the first mission set in a historical museum, to catch up on any new players to any main story beats that they need to know about which was a good touch. A lot of the worldbuilding in this game comes from a combination of mission reports but also through level design and decoration. This is a beautiful game in its level of detail, with missions taking place on overpasses, penthouses, warehouses, museums, and more. You get to feel the world you are livening in, the clash of cultures trying to work together and work through the perils of the past. There was this one ad on the side of the truck that had a centaur but with a sectoid body and it was both charming and off-putting and I love it. They also do a good job of changing things up, I think there was only one time when I went “oh we are in the same house” and while they have clearly reused assists from past XCOM games (and why wouldn’t you) it always felt like a fresh game visually rather than retracing old maps.
The next side of the worldbuilding comes from the cut scenes that give you the main story and audio logs thought out the game. The cut scenes are done in this hybrid photo/video form, in a similar style to Divinity Original Sin 2, though with a more science fiction vibe than fantasy. This works within the setting and stops it dragging along any more than it needs to. When it comes to the audio logs, I found myself reaching for that skip button at the start but then I found my crew, and from that point onwards things started to click on that side of things. I would wait for in-between missions to let the little dialogue banter between the characters play out because it was all charming, but then there was also a little sadness.
One of the themes XCOM: Chimera Squad dives headfirst into is post-conflict society construction. What do you do when you have people on the opposite sides of a war that how have to live with each other? While it is all framed through that sci-fi lens and dose tend to fall on the cheesy side of things, there are real conversations between people about war, grief, guilt, and trauma. The game is divided into three smaller campaigns as you investigate each of the groups that might have been behind the mayor’s murder. Here we get stories from across the city, like factions manipulating the media to help formant anguish during a pandemic, well that does not feel like fantasy anymore. For me, the most interesting of all the factions were the Gray Phoenix, who like their name implies don’t fit into a neat category of the antagonist.
When fighting your way through these campaigns, you see just how familiar and different the game is to XCOM’s of the past. There is that ‘stop everything from rioting on an overworld map’, having to choose which missions to take knowing that the ones you don’t take are going to increase damage elsewhere. This time around instead of a globe, you have a city, which makes it feel more real even though the stakes are much lower. Then you go on missions that have that same tactical feel of past games but with an important twist. Instead of being soldiers on the frontline, you are more like a SWAT team, repelling down the side of buildings and crashing through windows. What this does is speed up the flow of the game without losing that tactical focus. Each mission is made up of at least three encounters which are like you moving from room to room, clearing out the enemies. You start by breaching into the room and things move straight from there.
There is a lot you have to consider, who do I take on my team, what order do they go through the breach, which enemies do I have to take down first, for example, if I saw a guardian that had to go. This can be complicated by different breach points having different bonuses such as guaranteed critical shots, or flaws, like your team all being marked. You are constantly playing 3D chess with guns, but managing things so that you don’t get overwhelmed, which is very hard in the three encounter maps when you have to decide when is the right time to use that ability you can only use once. I found it a little frustrating at the start, not helped by some wonky interface design that takes a bit to get used to. However, after a couple of missions, it all falls into place and you get a real flow going as you know how your team’s abilities can interact with each other and what is and is not dangerous. Though I should say that there are moments where the difficulty curve can spike up quite high. I played the game on normal (I am not a masochist) and there were only two times that I had to do that cheaty keep loading an auto-save, however, the game did a good job of always making me feel like I was trying to play catch up with the enemies, well that was until soulfire came into play and I discovered that soulfire is a complete and utter pain in the … wait where was I …
What brought this all together for me, was the teams, because you are not playing generic soldier 1, or a class that all get the same bonuses, you are playing individual characters all with a unique set of skills. Which means that you have a lot of potentially interesting interactions, but also that if one of them dies outright the game ends. When you find a team that gels together it is a real joy, and for me that was Godmother (Mela Lee), Verge (Matt Yang King), Torque (Erica Lindbeck), and Patchwork (Jeannie Tirado). Which means this is the part of the review where I get to talk about how great Torque is pulling enemies out of cover, pulling back your allies in trouble, also crushing the life out of that annoying Sorcerer that has been messing your game up. She was part of my go-to team with Godmother as she could bring enemies back and trigger GM’s Close Combat Specialist ability. Also, she could be trained to give allies that she has Tounge Pulled an extra move, yes I used that a lot, and yes I loved every moment of it.
In the end, do we recommend XCOM: Chimera Squad? Absolutely. Once I got my head around the changes, I completely fell into this world. The story, the squad, the world was interesting to discover, indeed, I didn’t see all of the potential squad in the game, meaning there is replay value in trying new combinations. The new mission design made the game engaging from the start of the encounter to the end, though that final mission, I would like to have words with that final mission. Frankly, while I know this is a standalone game, I would love to see more, and that is always the best recommendation.
By Brian MacNamara: You can follow Brian on Twitter Here, when he’s not chatting about Movies and TV, he’ll be talking about International Relations, or the Solar System.
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Disclosure – I received a review copy from the Publisher
Credits – All images were created by the staff of XCOM: Chimera Squad
Lead Designer – Mark Nauta
Lead Engineer – Ryan McFall
Art Director – Hector Antunez
Narrative Director – Zach Bush
Produced by – Andrew Frederiksen & Sarah Lynn
Voice Cast – Chris Fries, Rama Vallury, Todd Williams, Dave Boat, Kamal Khan, Sarah Williams, Moe Irvin, Kate Higgins, Kat Cressida, Kiff VandenHeuvel, Mela Lee, Nika Futterman, Jeannie Tirado, Mark Mercado, Jenny Yokobori, Erica Lindbeck, Matt Yang King, Faye Mata, Chris Parson & Miranda O’Hare
Developer – Firaxis Games
Publisher – 2K Games