Platforms: PC (Reviewed)

When Firaxis Games followed up its 2012 XCOM series reboot XCOM: Enemy Unknown with 2016’s XCOM 2, the decision to make the scale bigger and the odds more dire only felt natural. The XCOM series has been, after all, mainly about hostile alien forces invading Earth and the brave XCOM soldiers who do their best to repel them despite being technologically outgunned.

The ending to XCOM 2’s standalone 2018 expansion, War of the Chosen, left Firaxis in a bit of a tough spot though. War of the Chosen ends with a tenuous peace accord being struck between humans and aliens, so how could a post-XCOM 2 game hope to ratchet up the stakes yet again? Rather than trying to somehow go even bigger, Firaxis instead pulled a clever 180 by shifting the focus away from large-scale war and more towards small-scale urban engagements.

The resulting game is XCOM: Chimera Squad, a new standalone XCOM entry which pivots the series’ iconic turn-based strategy gameplay into a cityscape setting where the only thing holding a fragile peace together is the player’s eye for tactical breach-and-clear stratagem.

Keep Your Friends Close….

XCOM: Chimera Squad is set five years after the events of War of the Chosen, with the peace accord between humans and aliens still holding, albeit barely. As part of the accord, a model city called City 31 has been established, with humans and aliens living and working among each other. To help keep the peace in City 31, an elite squad of XCOM soldiers made up of both human and alien agents was also founded, the titular Chimera Squad.

Unlike the soldier classes in previous XCOM games, each of Chimera Squad’s 11 playable agents has their own unique appearance, voice, personality, and suite of combat abilities. Players begin the game with only four of these agents unlocked, with the remaining seven joining the roster at certain intervals throughout the story. Every time a new agent unlock point is reached, the player can actually pick from three randomly chosen agents, allowing them to organically grow their squad as they see fit.

There’s plenty of overlap and synergy between the different agents and their combat styles, which means players are free to experiment and figure out which team synergies work best for them when assembling their four-person breach squads. A player could, for example, outfit their four agents with auto-loading weapons and ceasefire grenades (the latter of which disable enemy firearms when thrown), blitzing down the opposition before they can even react. Or maybe they’d prefer utilizing smoke grenades and tactical positioning to flank enemy forces and ensure minimal damage is taken in return.

Personally, I enjoyed rolling in with a balanced squad made up of support agents and damage-dealers. Some of my go-to agents included Cherub, an alien sentinel armed with an energy shield and pistol who could attack or defend as needed, Terminal, Chimera Squad’s resident medic who can also manipulate unit turn order during encounters, and my personal favorite Zephyr, a powerfully built female alien who eschews firearms in favor of debilitating martial arts attacks.

City Unrest

City 31 has functioned as an imperfect yet serviceable utopia during the five years since its inception, but a major event triggered during Chimera Squad’s opening prologue threatens to drag the city’s populace down into full-on anarchy. To ensure that doesn’t happen, the player must guide Chimera Squad in its efforts to root out and take down three different criminal organizations: Gray Phoenix, Sacred Coil, and The Progeny.

Each of the three criminal organizations has its own unique enemy units and preferred tactics, and players can tackle them in whatever order they want. To combat each faction, players refer to their tactical city map and complete a series of missions (active combat encounters involving squad breaches) and situations (side encounters which don’t require direct involvement but still resolve a day’s worth of in-game story advancement).

In-between missions, players can also upgrade their Chimera Squad agents by developing new technologies in the Assembly, purchasing equipment such as weapon mods and unique breach items from Supply, and attaching Field Squads to specific city districts which allow for passive resource gains over time. Any agents who aren’t part of the main breach squad can also be assigned to secondary pursuits such as helping with Assembly projects, unlocking passive bonuses through Training, or gaining additional resources from Spec Ops missions.

All of the above may sound like a lot to take in on paper, and to some degree it can be, especially if you’re an XCOM newbie or it’s been a hot minute since you last played an XCOM game. However, Chimera Squad smartly takes a more gradual approach to layering on new gameplay components so that players never feel too overwhelmed. Plus, there’s a comprehensive in-game handbook players can refer to at any time from the pause menu if they’re ever unsure about a specific feature or mechanic.

Breach and Clear

Every active mission in Chimera Squad begins with what is hands down one of the game’s coolest new features: Breach Mode phase. Combat encounters are initiated by positioning your squad’s four agents at various breach points and then having them storm in to surprise the opposition. During this “surprise round,” agents can open fire on nearby enemies, take up advantageous overwatch positions, and even use certain breach-specific abilities.

Some enemies can also react and fire back during the breach phase, and that risk is factored in alongside other potential bonuses and hazards when picking a breach point. One breach point, for example, might give all assigned agents a damage bonus but then root the last agent through the door in place for a round. Some breach points also only support a certain number of agents and/or are only available if an agent on your squad has a requisite item like a breaching charge or an auto key card.

Once the breach phase is over and combat has started in full, Chimera Squad feels more like a traditional XCOM game, albeit on a smaller scale. All combat encounters are set in confined urban spaces such as office building interiors, outdoor backlots, or cramped storefronts. There’s no fog of war to worry about and every enemy in an encounter is visible right from the start (though that also means they can see all of your agents as well).

Chimera Squad’s new ‘interleaved turns’ feature means that the turn order for agents and enemies is determined by an under-the-hood initiative roll not unlike what’s found in tabletop games like Dungeons & Dragons. The player’s agents tend to have the advantage on going first since they are the ones breaching in, but paying attention to turn order is still vital if you want to obtain victory and, more importantly, do so while keeping your agents out of harm’s way.

Along with eliminating enemies, most missions also have secondary objectives such as securing containers, capturing high-value targets, or rescuing hostages. Over time, the tactics used by each enemy faction also evolve not only through the introduction of new unit types but also through ‘Dark Events’ which force players to choose between two negative combat modifiers. As an example, the first Dark Event I encountered while battling the Gray Phoenix made me choose between enemies who routinely take hostages or powerful Praetorian shock troopers.

The evolving nature of enemy factions’ combat tactics and special units ensures that you won’t be able to just breeze through the campaign even on the game’s easiest ‘Story’ difficulty. Players who want to really challenge themselves also have an additional three difficulty levels to choose from (Normal, Expert, and Impossible) along with familiar modifiers like Ironman and Heal-Between-Encounters which are available from the start.

Bad Blood

It’s good that Chimera Squad’s difficulty level and agent roster are so highly customizable because challenging yourself on higher difficulties is really the only long-term replay value the game offers, at least for now. Unlike XCOM: Enemy Unknown and XCOM 2, Chimera Squad has no multiplayer features, though it does allow for the use of mods through the Steam Workshop, allowing players to create their own custom characters, enemies, missions, and more. Also, unlike previous XCOM games, Firaxis currently has no plans to release Chimera Squad for any platform other than PC.

In terms of performance, Chimera Squad held up rather well during my pre-release playthrough. I did encounter a few minor graphical glitches such as environmental clipping and instances of characters standing on invisible objects, but such occurrences did little to break my immersion.

During one mission, I encountered an odd issue where one of my agents was essentially “trapped” in a narrow passageway by unconscious enemies on either side of him (all agents can choose to “subdue” enemy units to capture them and gain intel bonuses). I’m not sure what exactly caused the issue, and the only reason I even bring it up is because it was during a mission where I had to actively evacuate my entire squad by moving them to a specific rally point.

After a few turns my agent was able to move again and I was finally able to finish the mission. To be safe, though, you might want to learn from my mistake and take note of where you choose to subdue enemy units. Also, I’m guessing Chimera Squad will have a day-one update of some sort which smoothes out at least some of the rough edges I ran into.

XCOM: Chimera Squad is set to launch for PC on Friday, April 24, and during its initial launch week its standard $20 price tag will actually be reduced by half to a very accessible $10. Firaxis has said this price point is intended to make Chimera Squad more appealing to new players, though it’s also likely because the game has noticeably less long-term value than previous XCOM games.

Still, despite its lack of multiplayer, Chimera Squad is just the sort of fast-paced tactical comfort food that strategy-minded gamers need right now. The game’s lengthy story campaign is guaranteed to offer at least 15-20 hours’ worth of content from even a single playthrough, which is certainly not a bad deal considering how little monetary investment Firaxis is asking potential players to make.       

This review was written using a pre-release version of the game provided by Firaxis.