Each bite-sized mission in XCOM: Chimera Squad, a budget spin-off to the superb strategy series, begins with a ‘breach’ phase.
You line up your squad across different entrances, choosing their place in the queue and setting up special abilities (they might be big and scary, startling enemies within, for example), then you kick the doors in and rush, getting a free shot or special ability before the more traditional turn-based combat kicks in.
It’s a development of XCOM 2’s ambush system and, largely, it works here. Chimera Squad does a few of these little tests in its 24-ish-hour campaign.
You play as the titular team, made up of eleven different special forces troops – human and alien – as they try to bring down a conspiracy in City 31.
This is done by training and upgrading, getting new gear, choosing from plentiful little missions, and trying to manage the fortunes of a city that seems to want to fall into chaos. You are always on the verge of failure, even if it’s harder to lose than it might seem.
In missions, you’re met with something that may jar with series veterans: turns are no longer one team at a time. Instead, they’re interleaved, with player and hostile units going one then the other. This means you’re able to plan more efficiently on the fly, reacting to enemies as and when they place themselves, and there’s a much wider focus on interfering with hostile units – stunning them, forcing them from cover, generally stopping them from having their turn.
It’s one of the biggest changes to Chimera Squad over the original XCOMs (and X-Coms), and… it’s really good. It really makes sense. I want it to stay.
There are downsides to this mildly experimental take on things. Failure doesn’t feel as present, robbing Chimera Squad of the tension of previous XCOM games. Rather than death meaning death, you just try again – I get it, it fits the theme of the game (also you can change that by enabling Ironman mode) – but it’s not a positive for me.
I want the loss of a soldier to be felt; I want to go out of my way to protect my overpowered sniper and scream bloody murder when they are murdered, bloodily. And while I see the appeal of a prefab bunch of humans and aliens for the squad – expediting the process as it does – I genuinely missed hardening up new recruits over many missions. There’s less attachment when you’ve had no hand in their development.
But for what it is and what it sets out to do, XCOM: Chimera Squad is really very good. It’s a mildly experimental release bringing together plenty of the classic series elements and blending in creative new aspects for a similar-but-distinctive take on the formula.
It’s quite obviously a test bed for new ideas, and honestly, if that interleaved turns mechanic makes it to the next proper game, Chimera Squad will have been an experiment 100% worth it.
I may find some of them incredibly annoying – sassy aliens just strike me as weird in a franchise where the non-humans have been nothing other than malevolent – but your squad, and the unique powers each member has, distils the team-building fun of XCOM into an easily digestible form, and it’s all the better for it.
A bite-sized nugget of XCOM joy, though too limited to be a true great.
Genre: Turn-based strategy
Format: PC (tested)
Developer: Firaxis Games
Publisher: 2K Games
Release:__ Out now