My squad waits patiently outside the club doors, ready to breach and take down the targets. We get the signal and it’s time to go. I kick the door in and charge, nailing the first guy I see with buckshot straight to the face. Cherub then raises his shield and goes in next, ready to absorb some damage and protect the team, before Torque vomits a large glob of acid across the room, hitting the brute waiting behind cover and Blueblood enters and takes out another perp hiding behind the bar with his trusty handcannon.
I never knew how much I wanted to command a half-alien SWAT team till I played XCOM: Chimera Squad.
Set after the events of XCOM 2’s War of the Chosen expansion, humans and the aliens have settled into an uneasy peace, coming to an agreement to try and live side by side. City 31 is test case for this, throwing the various factions into the melting pot, and founding a cross species special forces squad to try and keep the peace. Police action shouldn’t really fit the XCOM theme, and yet with some changes to the gameplay formula, it works quite well.
Most of what you know about XCOM and its excellent turn-based strategy remains the same, making it easy to get to grips with if you’ve played previous entries, but there are a few key differences. No longer are you trying to prevent the world collapse with a bunch of blank slate soldiers that you imprint with personality. Instead, you are actually controlling the titular Chimera Squad, a special crime fighting task force of fully fledged characters with their own backstories and narratives.
Each character has set starting skills and can learn new abilities as they level up through combat experience. Blueblood, for instance, starts with the Deadeye, an ability that fires a shot with reduced accuracy in favour of dealing more damage, but can unlock Phase Lance later on, a mighty shot that hits everything in a line of sight. Zephyr happens to be my current favourite, mainly because she is a fist fighter and feels the most distinct from the rest of the cast. She can run up to bad guys, punch them and then run away, with later upgrades letting her hit multiple targets and parry attacks.
Between certain missions, you get the opportunity to add new characters to the roster, but must choose from a line up of three. The more you unlock, the more you’re able to do in the hub area. This is where you can view the city map and its nine districts, each with a rising anarchy rating. Once one district hits the peak, the overall city anarchy rises, and once this is capped, it’s game over.
Three factions serve as the focal point of the story – The Progeny, Gray Phoenix and the Sacred Coil, all intent on making City 31 their personal playground. You take on one at a time and complete various skirmishes in order to progress the investigation, slowly unveiling the ring leader and taking them down. You generally get the choice of two to three missions per day and completing one advances the day. This means you’ll need to use your judgement as to what reward you want from each mission, because the others will become unavailable once you continue.
Some missions will earn you credits, which are used to purchase items from the armoury, while others will net you Elerium for research, or Intel, which is mainly used to purchase Field Teams. Field Teams are assigned to a district and grant you bonus at the end of each week and each time you complete a mission in that district. New weapons, armour and utilities are unlocked through game progression and also through research, similar to previous XCOMs.
You can speed research up by assigning idle agents to it, which is a nice way of making sure you’re getting the best out of people that are not on missions. Idle agents can also be assigned to training or special ops while not on missions. Special ops are another soft way of gaining some bonus resources from agents not in the field. It’s one thing that always struck me about previous XCOMs, and with this new system, you can get utility out of everyone which is pretty cool.
Of course, the majority of the game is spent in combat, but these are a lot quicker than in regular XCOM games. Missions can be cleared fairly quickly with most lasting around fifteen minutes and with a much more aggressive feel. It helps that you start each battle by breaching into the area, letting you set up your squad and execute an opening gambit that can sometimes take out four of the enemy before the first round.
There’s also a big change in how turns happen, with characters going in initiative order instead of whole teams g oing together. Because you’re able to see the turn order for yourself and enemies, it’s a lot easier to focus down whichever enemy is next in the queue. I often found myself surgically working my way through the enemies in such a way that the enemy team only got one turn before the battle was over, and even that was only because I could miss a shot. Placement, strategy and choosing the right skill is an art form, here.
Because each team member is so unique, it’s important to make sure you have what you need before fighting. Early game, I leaned heavily on Terminal, as she was the only true healer I had. You can equip medkits, but they are nowhere near as good as Terminal’s ability to send out her Gremlin drone to heal party members. Thankfully, later game, stat increases and the upgraded Nanomedkit meant it wasn’t so much of an issue leaving Terminal behind and experimenting with new line ups.
Unlike previous XCOM games, death of a character means the end of a mission and starting over. The roguelike nature of the previous games meant if a soldier died then you moved on and recruited more, but that wouldn’t fly with Chimera Squad’s unique characters. Downed squad members can be stabilised, so it’s not all doom and gloom, but then you won’t be able to use them for the rest of the encounter. If you have them on hand, Androids are used to replace those injured in battle which is fine, but it does mean the fights never really get harder as you always have a back up. This felt a little off to me, meaning there was never really any consequences to my actions. This was a major selling point of XCOM games to me, but it’s missing here.
Downed team members or anyone that suffered a lot of damage during a mission can end up with battle scars. These scars reduce core stats, but canthankfully can be removed by the training program in the hub area. Obviously, this is annoying as hell as it can take a couple of missions to heal up, but it’s necessary to get the best out of your guys.
As a long time XCOM fan, some of this felt like a strange departure from what I know. In all honesty, I enjoyed it and it’s good to see Firaxis experimenting. It might be quite stripped back, but for a budget standalone title, there’s a very long campaign here with the potential for multiple playthroughs for those looking for a challenge on higher difficulties.