The sudden and unexpected announcement of a new XCOM game provoked a wave of speculation. Fans of the series, which was rebooted to tremendous success by Firaxis in 2012, pored over the trailers. Chimera Squad was variously described as a sequel, a spinoff, a testbed of ideas for a forthcoming XCOM 3, and even as a "glorified DLC".
The wait to find out was not long, however, as the game was released just days later on April 24, 2020. Chimera Squad turned out to be a very interesting prospect indeed. Just as the heroes of this new entry in the series are a mix of human, alien and hybrid members - hence the title - the game itself is a strange mix of familiar and new elements. This remixed formula is mostly successful, and should appeal to a hybrid audience of XCOM veterans and newcomers to the series.
Both XCOM and XCOM 2 were set on a global scale, with elite human troops struggling to defend and then liberate Earth from an insidious alien invasion. Set five years after XCOM 2, Chimera Squad has a different, more modest premise. In the urban sprawl of City 31, humans and aliens attempt to live peacefully together. Instead of commanding a crack military force, players manage what is essentially a specialist police unit, neutralising threats to coexistence.
While this premise is a novel and appealing one, story is not a major focus of Chimera Squad. Cutscenes are few in number, there are barely any notable characters outside of the squad itself, and City 31 is never given a real sense of place. This can feel like a missed opportunity, given the inclusion of a fixed set of pre-built characters, perhaps the most notable new aspect of the game.
Fortunately, these characters are a minor triumph. There are eleven in total, of whom eight are used in any one campaign. These agents include humans, aliens, and hybrids of the two produced by the deposed ADVENT administration. Their abilities are personalities are impressively varied, and while not all are equally strong - the psi operative Shelter feels particularly undercooked - their synergies in combat are a thrill to discover.
The turn-based battles in the game's tactical layer hew quite closely to the model in XCOM 2. The key difference is that missions are split into a number of discrete "encounters", usually one or three. Each of these is much smaller and more likely to be indoors than the settings of previous games. Additionally, the new "breach" phase opens each encounter. Agents are assigned to specific entry points, which each have their own tactical implications. For example, making an entrance using an explosive charge will likely stun any enemies close by.
In Chimera Squad, Firaxis are also experimenting with what they have called "interleaved turns". This means that allies and enemies each have a position in a sequence of actions, called the timeline. Specific abilities can shift combatants up and down the timeline, which players can exploit to protect their agents or sometimes prevent dangerous enemies from taking any actions at all. The smaller environments and faster gameplay give Chimera Squad a feeling of a condensed XCOM, while the interleaved turns and often more powerful agent abilities make it seem more relaxed and approachable.
Players spend much less time in the strategic layer, which is significantly simpler than in XCOM 2. City 31 is represented by a holographic display, and each district has its own level of unrest. The level of anarchy in the city overall is the equivalent of the Avatar Project in XCOM 2, albeit far more forgiving. If the city falls into outright chaos, the campaign will be a failure; but it is difficult to imagine this happening given the tools at the player's disposal.
The options in the strategic layer are mostly limited to basic training for agents, researching and purchasing new equipment, and sending agents on "spec ops", each with their own rewards. These tasks often take only a few clicks before a new mission is ready - Chimera Squad is eager to push players towards combat as quickly as possible. It is worth waiting around, however, to hear the very charming background conversations between agents - which range from the surreal to the genuinely touching.
While it will still take around 20 hours to complete, Chimera Squad is certainly not a full-blown sequel to the magnificent XCOM 2. Its emphasis is much more on small-scale, tactical battles than the grander strategy of earlier games. With that said, those battles are consistently engaging especially because of the well-crafted characters and their varied skills. A more developed story would have been welcome, but Chimera Squad is an exciting strategy experience in its own right. In the context of the XCOM series, it may not be a wholly new tune, but it is a fresh remix players will want to return to more than once.
I write about classic science fiction and occasionally fantasy; I sometimes make maps for Doom II; and I'm a contributor to the videogames site Entertainium, where I regularly review new games.