XCOM: Chimera Squad Adds Personality To The Series, But Feels Less Personal

Illustration for article titled iXCOM: Chimera Squad /iAdds Personality To The Series, But Feels Less Personal
Image: 2K Games

Chimera Squad is a fitting subtitle for the new XCOM game, because it’s a chimera of a game. Sure, it’s got XCOM’s turn-based tactical head on its shoulders, but it’s being ferried about on Overwatch’s body by Divinity: Original Sin 2's legs. 12 hours in, I’m still having trouble deciding if this monster of a mashup is a smart leap forward for the series or an evolutionary dead end.

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If you haven’t heard about Chimera Squad and didn’t know it was coming out today, I can’t blame you. Publisher 2K and developer Firaxis announced it out of the vaguely ‘80s-tinged pink, purple, and blue last week. Despite that, it’s a fully-fledged XCOM game, albeit one sculpted very much from XCOM 2's basic gameplay mold. In it, you take control of the titular Chimera Squad, a special forces unit made up of humans, aliens, and hybrids, all of whom are trying to keep the peace in the powder keg that is City 31.

In previous XCOM games you played as a scrappy resistance, battling back against the innumerable forces of shadowy alien overlords. Now that said overlords are gone and humans and aliens are doing their darnedest to coexist, you’re The Man. Chimera Squad stresses that your characters aren’t cops, but also, they’re totally cops—special militarized cops who step in when regular cops can’t take the heat.

The game, however, still unfolds in a fashion that’ll be familiar to players of XCOM 2. From a central base, you send your squad out on missions of your choosing to prevent enemy factions from filling what is functionally a glorified “game over” meter. Last time it was the aliens’ diabolical “Avatar” project, spread out across a global map. This time it’s a citywide “anarchy” meter, which begins to fill if you let various city districts get too unruly.

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The series’ tried and true foundation of turn-based alien (and human and robot and snake monster) out-braining remains present and accounted for, but this time, all of your squad members have distinct personalities and ability sets. Also, some of them are snake monsters. Oh, and there are only 11 in total that you can recruit. This design decision sends ripples throughout the rest of the game. While it might sound like heresy, there’s no permadeath; if a squad member bites the big one, you fail your whole mission (fortunately, you have multiple turns to stabilize downed characters into an unconscious state before you fail outright).

It also means that characters aren’t interchangeable. In other XCOM games, you begin with stock soldiers you can evolve in any number of different directions. This means that you could, say, swap one healing and defense-focused support character for another if that all-important pillar of your squad gets knocked out by injury, death, or Shakespearean tragedy (but with space lasers). In Chimera Squad, however, I’ve been dreading the day when my support character, Terminal, accrues enough wounds that I have to sideline her for a mission or two. The survivability she lends my squad has become crucial to how I play the game. At the same time, though, I’m looking forward to figuring out new strategies in her absence.

This is where the influence of Overwatch (or League of Legends or other hero-based games) shines through, as Chimera Squad emphasizes squad composition. Characters’ kits snap together like puzzle pieces, with abilities that complement each other and make various playstyles viable. While I’ve yet to encounter any character combination that just totally falls to pieces at the starting line, I’ve found the classic video game triangle of tank-support-DPS to be particularly useful. But these are XCOM-flavored spins on those archetypes, which makes them unique. As characters rank up, their kits unfurl like poisonous flowers, revealing devilish new ways to strategically strangle foes.

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Illustration for article titled iXCOM: Chimera Squad /iAdds Personality To The Series, But Feels Less Personal

I’ve taken particular pleasure in unlocking the psionic potential of my alien soldier, Verge. At the outset he could only use his mind powers to stun distant enemies and make them briefly turn on each other. These abilities, I soon discovered, are tied in to his “neural network,” which links together foes whose brains he’s scooped out and repurposed like so many pumpkin innards. When he ranked up, I chose a passive ability that boosted his stats through the roof for every new enemy he added to his network. Then I unlocked the cheerily named “Mind Flay,” which lets Verge violently tug on his psionic marionette strings, dealing damage (and probably fairly serious migraines) to his entire network of unwitting mind-mates.

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Verge is not, in actuality, overpowered, but his ability set makes me feel all-powerful. Same goes for multiple other members of my squad, like nigh-impregnable hybrid tank Cherub, who can shield one character of my choosing from all damage once per turn, and Torque, a snake woman who can grab enemies from halfway across a level with her Fruit by the Foot snake tongue and coil around them until they’re windless bags of broken bones. And all the while, they can’t move or attack.

Abilities like Torque’s and Verge’s are especially crucial because they let you exert brief control over combat’s turn order. While previous XCOM games alternated turns on a full-squad basis, units in Chimera Squad take turns individually. So maybe one of your characters will go, then an enemy, then another one of your characters. Or, if you’re outnumbered—which you typically are—it might be you, enemy, enemy, enemy, you. As a result, a single disrupted turn can turn the tide of a mission that’s begun heading south. In that sense Chimera Squad reminds me a lot of Divinity: Original Sin 2, which made me feel like a cackling, reality-bending demigod once I wrenched away control of its turn order with stuns and out-of-battle shenanigans.

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Speaking of Divinity-style out-of-battle shenanigans, Chimera Squad chops up missions into discrete sections that begin with you getting the jump on enemies. These “breach” moments task you with placing your units at various entrance points that confer either stat bonuses or positional advantages (and playing field-leveling stat disadvantages) once you swing, vent crawl, or explode into action. Then, once you’ve made your grand entrance, time slows to a crawl, and each of your units gets to take a free shot or use an ability, after which time resumes and a small handful of “aggressive” enemies take shots of their own—well, assuming you didn’t take them out before they got the chance.

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I’m split on breaches and the knock-on effects they have on level design. On one hand, they’re very cinematic, and they add new strategic layers both in terms of which entrances you pick and which enemies you decide to target once you’re in. Maybe you focus fire on a mech you just know will wreak area-of-effect-based havoc on your clumped-together squad once regular turn order begins. Maybe you have each member of your squad take aim at various weaker enemies to thin the herd. Or maybe you dip into your well of breach-specific special abilities, having Cherub soak up damage from aggressive enemies while Verge psychically levitates a hapless foe out of cover and Torque rains on another’s parade with her poison saliva.

But breaches limit your options pretty significantly in other ways. XCOM 2 missions often began with your squad sneaking into enemy territory, with large portions of the map obscured. Ideally, you’d position your characters brilliantly and have everybody open fire at once, essentially constructing your own breach moment, but with full control over movement, positioning, and timing. These segments thrived on uncertainty; maybe you’d pull off that movie-perfect opening, but maybe you’d stumble into a terrifying new enemy type and nearly lose one of your favorite soldiers. The possibility of such catastrophic failure made success all the sweeter. Chimera Squad’s breaches, by contrast, sometimes feel too prefabricated. They’re not yours. They’re just a thing you have to do before getting back into the thick of the action.

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Illustration for article titled iXCOM: Chimera Squad /iAdds Personality To The Series, But Feels Less Personal

Breaches also feed into a very different level design sensibility. Where XCOM 2's levels were vast and, true to XCOM form, rooted in slow, dread-inducing discovery of otherworldly enemies, Chimera Squad’s level sections are tightly confined, often spanning no more than a handful of rooms. Yes, rooms: Chimera Squad focuses more on interiors than XCOM 2, though it still contains its fair share of exteriors, as well. Regardless, skirmishes take place in smaller spaces that are fully revealed from the get go, forcing you straight into the thick of combat whether you like it or not, but also removing the feeling of steady yet terrifying momentum inherent to XCOM 2's best levels. An upside of this is that some levels are quick and punchy, playable in a matter of minutes. But others are multi-part behemoths that overstay their welcomes. Sometimes I can just hunker down and turtle up instead of regularly re-positioning, which makes missions feel less kinetic and exciting than in XCOM 2. Chimera Squad tries to break this up by having enemies hurl grenades and call in floods of reinforcements if you wait around too long, but so far, it’s felt artificial and constraining—like a step back from XCOM 2's approach to level design, rather than a step forward.

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Difficulty, at least on normal mode, doesn’t do this structure many favors. In my 12 hours with the game, most missions have been cakewalks, the polar opposite of XCOM and XCOM 2's perhaps ever so slightly too-difficult (but thematically appropriate) early portions. I’ve only felt challenged by a few missions centered around the game’s three major enemy factions, and one of those in particular felt like it went too far in the other direction, with enemies outnumbering my squad three to one. Instead of getting to devise interesting tactics, I had to repeatedly reload the mission’s last section to optimize my breach, taking out what felt like the correct, developer-chosen enemies so that I didn’t lose half my squad within the first few turns. Ultimately, it wasn’t that hard, but it also wasn’t particularly fun. More importantly, my eventual victory, hard-fought though it was, didn’t feel like it was mine. I’d done the right steps, but I’d moved to somebody else’s beat.

That feeling extends to Chimera Squad’s characters, too. While I enjoy their kits and the sometimes-outlandish strategies they allow me to pull off, they’re somebody else’s envisioning of the ideal sci-fi super squad. You can customize their armor colors a bit, but they’ll always keep the same looks, voices, and backstories. No longer is XCOM purely a series of player-driven tales forged on the battlefield. That element’s still present, but the lack of permadeath drastically lowers the stakes. I keep hearkening back to my playthrough of XCOM 2's expansion, War of the Chosen. For all the heartbreak it caused me in the moment, the sudden, dramatic, and permanent death of one of my hyper-customized soldiers, Lightning, colored my entire experience of that game long after he was gone. His death—and his partner’s imagined grieving process, facilitated by XCOM 2's deep well of customization options—gave my playthrough an emotional core more powerful than just about any I’ve experienced in a single-player game. It was mine and mine alone, and that made it all the more significant.

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Illustration for article titled iXCOM: Chimera Squad /iAdds Personality To The Series, But Feels Less Personal

I’ve yet to feel any powerful emotions about Chimera Squad’s ragtag band. Initially I thought I was going to hate them. During early missions they were all snarky quips and no substance, as though their writers had graduated from the Joss Whedon school of character development but missed the part about creating actual, you know, characters. More playtime, however, reveals a tone that winds up somewhere between XCOM 2 and Brooklyn Nine-Nine. For example, earlier today while I was poring over menus back at base, Verge, who is an alien, asked Cherub, who is a hybrid, if he’d go to a restaurant with him to grab some greasy comfort food. “But that’ll kill you!” Cherub said in disbelief. Verge replied that he didn’t need to be the one doing the eating; with Cherub’s permission, he’d hijack his mind and experience the flavors without dying. It was a surprisingly wholesome interaction, and I’ve since encountered others along those lines, some of which reveal surprising details about how squad members harbor connections to the criminals they’re trying to take down.

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There’s definitely something to it. In XCOM 2's between-mission segments, only a few non-soldier characters got to speak, but what was there was generally well-written. Now everybody chimes in from time to time. XCOM has always been about imagined relationships between your characters, and in Chimera Squad, you don’t have to imagine them anymore. You can watch your characters bond in real time. But once again, I find myself conflicted, because the more these relationships exist outside of my head and on the screen, the less mine they are. On top of that, it’s taken 12 hours for me to get even brief glimpses at who these characters actually are. Most of them still don’t feel fleshed out, which makes me wonder if this approach is really a good fit for XCOM’s particular structure.

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Then there’s the whole cop power fantasy angle, which feels at odds with XCOM as a broader entity. XCOM 2 was about overcoming a totalitarian alien police state, and XCOM in general is at its most thrilling when making players face down hidden enemies they don’t fully understand. Chimera Squad very purposefully turns this dynamic on its head, letting you see all entities on the map from literally the first second they’re aware of your presence. I appreciate Firaxis’ willingness to experiment with the formula, but this makes for an odd fit. You’re the police, crashing into buildings and forcing everybody else to scramble and react. Sure, you’re ostensibly doing it in the name of unity between races, but you’re still killing and arresting everybody in sight while building up a citywide surveillance network that lets you lower district unrest with abilities like “quarantine” and “vigilance.” The communities you’re allegedly protecting are abstract entities on a map. The only characters you physically encounter are enemies. I’m hoping the game will ultimately subvert this, but I can’t tell where it’s headed just yet.

Illustration for article titled iXCOM: Chimera Squad /iAdds Personality To The Series, But Feels Less Personal
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I’ve also encountered some pretty serious technical issues. The game runs at a snail’s pace even on my powerful gaming PC, despite basically possessing the same graphical fidelity as XCOM 2, a game that came out in 2016. It’s also crashed on six separate occasions. Fortunately, auto-saves are generous, or else regular crashes would be a lot more infuriating.

All that said, even an XCOM that I’m not 100 percent clicking with is still better than many other games, and this is definitely still XCOM. I’ve once again fallen into that comfortable rhythm of “One more turn” followed by “Oh god, how is it already four hours later” followed by “...One more turn.” I’m still waiting for Chimera Squad to really wow me, but I’m not having a bad time waiting, by any means.

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Kotaku senior reporter. Beats: Twitch, streaming, PC gaming. Writing a book about streamers tentatively titled "STREAMERS" to be published by Atria/Simon & Schuster in the future.

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DISCUSSION

By far the thing I liked least about XCom (though definitely not the only one) was the big, sprawling levels with random monsters popping up. Who thinks exploration is fun in a turn based game with multiple characters? Ugh.

Anyway, as someone who likes tactics games but did not like the one XCom game I played, hearing that the levels are smaller and tighter makes me more interested in this one. So does hearing that the characters are more distinct and unique because I was also disappointed by how samey the characters in XCom felt.