Monday, 1 March 2021

XCOM: Chimera Squad

Let's have a look at XCOM: Chimera Squad, a tactical wargame that was released in April 2020 for the PC, and only the PC. It's a budget-priced remix of the XCOM series, specifically XCOM 2.

Is it any good? Let's find out.

Zelda: Breath of the Wild is generally regarded as one of the best games of all time, but can you order Zelda to transform into a giant snake and squeeze baddies to death? No, you cannot.

But let's talk about XCOM first. Here in jolly old Blighty in the 1980s brothers Nick and Julian Gollop developed a string of tactical wargames. There were two strands; the Rebelstar sci-fi games and Chaos, which had wizards. They stood out from other wargames because they took place on a squad-level scale; the player controlled individual soldiers rather than large army formations. The games became progressively more polished as the decade went on, culminating in Laser Squad (1988), which was one of the best games of the 8-bit era.

At their core they all shared a basic set of gameplay elements. They were turn-based, with each side moving all of their units before the other side could have a go; the player controlled a squad of individual soldiers on a compact map; the soldiers could more or shoot or throw a grenade, depending on how many action points they had left; accurate shots required more action points; if a soldier had enough points left over at the end of a mission he or she could take pot-shots at enemy soldiers when they took their turn.

Rebelstar Raiders, Rebelstar, and Rebelstar 2

Laser Squad. I used to love blowing up the TV screens. I still do, but I used to as well.

The games were mostly released on budget labels and they didn't sell many copies, but they attracted good reviews, so the Gollops were given a slightly larger budget for the 16-bit UFO: Enemy Unknown (1993).

The result was a masterpiece that combined the excitement of Laser Squad with a complex strategic element whereby the player had to research alien technologies while keeping XCOM's defence bases stocked with fresh troops and presumably sandwiches and drinks etc.

Sadly the series fell apart at that point. The publishers released a quick sequel called Terror From the Deep, which I ignored at the time because it was essentially Enemy Unknown with different graphics, made by a different development team using the same underlying game code. I finally got around to playing it last year, and it wasn't worth the wait.

The official sequel was XCOM: Apocalypse, an overcomplicated mess that combined the tactical wargaming aspect with bits of Sim City and a factional warfare system. Apocalypse was followed by a couple of sequels that added space combat and third-person shooting, in that order, but no-one likes to talk about them nowadays. I haven't played them.

The PlayStation 3 version of XCOM: Enemy Unknown

The series fell dormant in the early 2000s, but it was too cool to die. It sprang to life again twice over, in 2012 and 2013. The 2012 game, XCOM: Enemy Unknown (above), was a triumph that updated the series successfully for the modern age. It simplified the tactical gameplay in generally sensible ways and removed the most frustrating aspects of the original games, while adding a more extensive backstory and a degree of characterisation to what had been an impersonal experience. The cutscenes involving brash Central Officer Bradford and his small team of scientists and engineers were simplistic but engaging, with decent writing and voice acting; they were cartoonish but the characters had charisma.

On top of that it had a terrific, suspenseful soundtrack:

Enemy Unknown was followed a year later by XCOM: The Bureau, a third-person game set in the pre-Beatles 1960s that was supposed to be the real new XCOM game but had become caught in development hell until it ended up coming out after the actual game that actually ended up being the real new XCOM game which was Enemy Unknown. No-one likes to talk about The Bureau either. What's it like? I have no idea.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown was accompanied by a bunch of downloadable extras, including Enemy Within, which reworked the game's plot and added a bunch of new missions; nowadays the EU/EW bundle is available on budget, and it's still good fun. The cartoony graphics have aged well.


The proper sequel, XCOM 2: No Subtitle Whatsoever, was released in 2016, again to strong reviews. Gameplay-wise it was more of the same - a good decision given the series' tendency to go off in unsatisfying directions and fizzle out - but polished to a metallic sheen. Reviewers were put off by the steep difficulty and unusually high system requirements but it sold well and continued to ensure that XCOM had a future.

A year later it was expanded with War of the Chosen, an unusually extensive mission pack that almost completely transformed the game; despite being released at full price War of the Chosen was generally regarded as worth the money. It deftly expanded the original game's story with about one-third of a new game's content, and even had extensive voice acting, coincidentally by most of the cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation. It has recently been re-released on budget, but if you want to try out the series I suggest you start with Enemy Unknown / Within and see if you like it or not, because if you don't you probably won't like XCOM 2.

The historical XCOM games didn't have much of a story. There were hints of a shared universe but no real characterisation. XCOM 2 on the other hand is much more fleshed-out. The game takes place in a world where XCOM was defeated in Enemy Unknown - that game's happy ending was a mind-controlled hallucination on the part of the player character. The alien rule of ADVENT seems benign on the surface, but as the game progresses it becomes apparent that the aliens are far more interested in Earth's resources than its inhabitants, so the remnants of XCOM launch a desperate guerrilla campaign to cast off the yoke of extra-terrestrial tyranny.

XCOM 2's story is pulpy stuff, but exciting, and the voice acting and digital acting help enormously to sell the drama. It has a noticeably darker and slightly more mature tone than the earlier games, which is a good thing given that some of the game's Holocaust-inspired imagery is near-the-knuckle. In the wrong hands it could have been tasteless.

Aliens probably think that we look strange when we smile.

As a game however XCOM 2 was somewhat controversial for its difficulty level. I enjoyed it, but I've played a lot of tactical wargames, so I know the basics of flanking and encouraging the enemy to advance into a trap and using flashbang grenades to negate psionic powers and also prevent the Codex from splitting etc.

Yet there was a nagging doubt in the back of my mind. EU/EW was occasionally tricky, but after going back to it recently I steamrollered through the campaign with barely any casualties. XCOM 2 on the other hand is downright sadistic; in particular the decision to give some missions very short time limits is a major bone of contention about XCOM fans.

My worry is that if XCOM 3 is more of the same but even harder it's only going to appeal to a handful of long-term fans. If it's easier, it'll be XCOM 2 with different graphics, which will be unsatisfying. How will the series progress?

Chimera Squad reuses a lot of models from XCOM 2, but adds some new ones, including this chap.

One answer is Chimera Squad, which combines the core XCOM gameplay with a much bigger focus on story. It's a budget-priced spin-off that appears to have been put together by a small internal team working more-or-less independently. It has rough edges and a few bugs, but there are a number of smart ideas, and overall it's an interesting glimpse at how the series might go.

I'll explain the setup. The chief baddies in the XCOM games have always been the spooky Ethereals, who are ancient creatures with psychic powers. They're physically weak and limited in number, so they enslave other races and turn them into unwilling pawns. XCOM 2 ended with their defeat, which raised the problem of what to do with their former soldiers. The surviving Sectoids, Mutons, genetically-modified ADVENT infantry etc are stuck on Earth with no way of getting home. Gassing them all would be wrong because humanity doesn't do that kind of thing. Besides which it might not work. Snakes are immune to poison. So why not co-opt them and give them jobs?

Chimera Squad tells the tale of a special police unit made of a mixture of human beings and refugees from ADVENT domination. Unlike the earlier games - where your soldiers had names, but no backstory, and were generally doomed to die horrible deaths to a FUCKING THIN MAN HOW THE FUCK IT'S AN EARLY-GAME UNIT THE THIN MAN IS AN EARLY-GAME UNIT AND YET HE CAN KILL YOU WITH ONE SHOT THE FUCKING

I'm sorry. If you play EU on the harder difficulty levels the Thin Men are surprisingly deadly. They're early-game baddies armed with a light carbine and poison spit, but they have excellent aim and the carbine is strong enough to kill your soldiers. And because they're weak the game throws lots of them at you, so any missions involving Thin Men are aggravating.

The graphics look oddly flat. I'm not sure if my settings were wrong, or if the developers didn't have time to finess the lightmaps.

Chimera Squad tells the tale etc. Unlike the earlier games the player gets to staff the organisation with a bunch of predefined units who have names and personalities and backstories. Axiom, for example, is a Muton former infantry soldier who is good at smashing things; Verge is a Sectoid intelligence officer with psychic powers; Torque is a giant lady snake who can disable enemy units by squeezing them with her coils. For all the game's nods to diversity the characters are still crude stereotypes (Torque in particular would be an excellent subject if you were writing an essay about negative depictions of femininity in the media) but they're likeable enough.

One oddity is the voice acting. Voice recording? The game has a lighter tone than XCOM 2 and the heroes communicate mostly with wisecracks and banter. However the voice acting is recorded dry, with a little bit of reverb but otherwise no processing or effects. Not even a radio effect. It sounds strange during the game, as if your units were standing in a recording studio rather than the midst of battle. Perhaps it was a cost-saving measure. Even odder, the enemy voices are recorded dry as well, even when the character models are aliens wearing respirators. The voice actors were apparently not told in advance that they would be voicing mutants and giant snakes, which raises the question of whether the decision to give the player alien units was made late in the day.

In other XCOM games your soldiers are an expendable asset, but if any member of Chimera Squad bites the dust you have to restart the mission. To make things easier soldiers can survive one fatal hit, after which they slowly bleed to death, giving you time to stabilise them and continue fighting. You then have the option of deploying a robot to take the place of fallen team-members.

In my experience when my squad starts to take casualties it's only a short time before everything falls apart. I've written about Lanchester's Laws before, but in a turn-based wargame there's a fine balance between numerical and qualitative advantage, and when the scales are tipped in one direction there comes a point when everything suddenly collapses.

Godmother is one of the best units. At the age of 43 she's the oldest and most experienced member of the team. The game implies that the death toll from ADVENT's occupation was so high that 43 is now considered old.

The gameplay loop is fundamentally new. In XCOM 2 your soldiers deployed on the battlefield, then navigated across the map to the mission objectives. In Chimera Squad each battle begins with the team breaching through an entry point into the battlefield, which tends to be a couple of rooms or a small chunk of highway.

During the breach phase you can choose which of the enemy to target during "turn zero", bearing in mind that the baddies marked in red will shoot you immediately at the start of the engagement, so you need to kill them first:

In this shot Torque is guaranteed to land a hit on the surprised Faceless - but in practice the Faceless isn't going to be a threat for a few turns. Would it be better to shoot at the aggressive enemy marked in red? Can the team kill that enemy during the breach phase, or not? If not, perhaps Torque could use her poison spit to degrade the unit's aim.

The breach phase is a neat idea that works well. It's completely new for the XCOM series and adds a tactical dimension to the deployment phase that doesn't overcomplicate things. It's analogous to the bits of UFO: Enemy Unknown where you deployed from the Skyranger, minus instant squad wipes from Cyberdiscs.

Patchwork here has it easy - none of the baddies are going to attack her immediately, so she might as well just target the weakest, easiest-to-hit enemy unit.

Despite the lighter tone Chimera Squad is still a tough action game. The player is encouraged to capture enemies in order to interrogate them for intel, but you can shoot, poison, incinerate, mindflay, blow up, melt with acid, kick the baddies to death and no-one minds. You can even stun them so that they're on their knees and then execute them in cold blood. The contrast between the team banter and their actions is slightly jarring. It doesn't detract from the gameplay, and at no point was I tempted to grab the game's box and smash it to bits, but the storyline would be more engaging if the tone was more consistent.

Another thing. In XCOM 2 you had the option of starting the game with a single premade soldier, a sword-wielding ranger called Jane Kelly:

She had a walk-on part in XCOM's war, although her role was expanded slightly in War of the Chosen. In Chimera Squad however she is a main character, the director of the squad, armed with a cup of coffee:

Rarely has a character gone from background extra to lead in such a short time. The odd thing is that she can die in XCOM 2 - she's just a regular soldier, no less vulnerable than anybody else - which raises the question of whether XCOM 2 was a dream within a dream.

Still. The cutscenes use a flip-book style that doesn't quite work. It almost works. Instead of animating faces the cutscenes simply flip from one image to another one - Jane Kelly goes from mildly concerned to annoyed a lot - but there are too few frames and the differences are too great, so it looks odd. It almost works. There's a little bit of CGI animation for the character models and a couple of very short CGI cutscenes but on the whole the storyline is told in flip-book form.

Did I mention that Chimera Squad's formal job is to recover abandoned ADVENT technology? In practice the squad ends up being used a SWAT team. As per the earlier games there's a strategic element. It plays out on the City 31 map:

You'd think after twenty years of alien occupation the people of Earth would want to give their cities names, not numbers, but perhaps in this universe Half-Life 2 doesn't exist. Did you know that there's a place called Mhoon Landing (sic)? It's in Mississippi, which is two-two-two. Mississippi. Two-two-two. That's unusual. Philippines is one-two and millennium and accommodate are both two-two, but Mississippi is two-two-two.

Mhoon landing is just a patch of grass at the bend of a river, but perhaps when the plague has abated I will visit it just to say I have landed on the mhoon.

The player has the option of embedding field teams that earn a bit of cash/intel/elerium, which is used to build equipment upgrades, and there are a mixture of missions and "situations", which are similar to the scan-for-a-bonus sites from XCOM 2. Each district of the city has a certain level of disorder - The Fringe, above, isn't doing great - and if too much of the city descends into chaos the overall anarchy meter fills up. I have to say that this was never an issue during my playthrough; as long as you pick missions in the worst-affected bits of the city the anarchy meter fills up very slowly.

The earlier XCOM games involved a lot of research into alien technology, but Chimera Squad replaces that with a combination of agent training and special operations, which involve sending a surplus agent to raise funds / work on intel / get hold of some sandwiches and drinks etc. Compared to the spy missions of Enemy Within this element is perfunctory, in the sense that you don't have to play a mission to complete them, but there is a certain amount of thought involved in deciding whether to treat an agent's wounds or alternatively send them to the workshop to quietly build stuff while you train up someone else.

With every passing year I come to realise that Hazel O'Connor was a warning from the future.

The game divides into three separate mission strands that you can complete in any order. One bunch of baddies are fans of ADVENT and thus use lots of technology; another bunch specialists in psionics; the third group is mostly standard aliens. They're the easiest of the three to deal with. In the other XCOM games you could stall indefinitely until you launched the final mission, but in Chimera Squad you have essentially ten rounds before you're compelled to launch the final assault on that faction's headquarters. Some mission rewards advance the clock faster, but in my experience it's actually a better idea to do as many missions as possible, so that your agents have time to build up their skills.

Each faction has a final battle, which plays out slightly differently depending on the order you deal with that group. The idea is that they're all progressing their plans at the same time, so the last faction you deal with has a more complicated final battle. Again the idea of multiple enemy factions is a clever one that works well and could easily be expanded for XCOM 3.

It does however raise one of the game's problems. The three factions aren't created equal; the first time I played the game I dealt with the alien mutants first, then the ADVENT faction, then the psionics, and the game was entertaining albeit not very difficult. On the second playthrough I attacked the former ADVENT people first and ran against a brick wall in the final battle, because the difficulty level shoots up. For a game aimed at casual XCOM fans it has a tendency to box you in to almost unwinnable situations if you don't know what to expect.

For example one of your agents is particularly good against robots, and if you have her on your team the former ADVENT people are a pushover; conversely the poison-spitting snake lady is almost useless because robots aren't affected by poison. Your psionic soldiers aren't much use during the psionic missions because their main units are immune to mental effects. You don't have the option of dismissing your team wholesale - you gradually hire new units as the game goes on, ending up with eight from a pool of eleven - so if you don't know what's about to happen you might find yourself stuck.

Let's go back to the gameplay. Each mission begins with a breaching phase, but the actual battle plays out a lot like XCOM 2 albeit at a faster pace. The biggest innovation is the turn system. With one exception* the earlier XCOM games had a system whereby you moved all of your troops, then the enemy moved their troops, then back to you etc. Chimera Squad is still turn-based, but the turns are now interleaved so that your first unit has a go, then the enemy's first unit, then your second unit etc, as in the following screenshot:

Cast your eyes to the right. Bane #1 is having his turn; on the next turn I will get to move my robot (sadly one of my team has bought the farm), then Bane #2 has a go, although luckily for me he has been stunned, so the game will skip over him.

* The exception was XCOM: Apocalypse, which had the option of real-time combat. The other common wargaming system is "we-go", whereby both sides issue their orders in advance of a turn, at which point the battle plays out with both sides acting at the same time; the XCOM games haven't tried this yet.

After that Patchwork will get to weave her healing magic, then the enemy has two turns because I'm outnumbered - but as you can see the enemy unit after Patchwork has also been stunned, which buys me a bit of time. The interleaved system is both good and bad. On the positive side it adds a new tactical element. You now have to factor in not just the expected threat level of the enemy, but also its position on the timeline. Wiping out a high-threat enemy that's far down the timeline doesn't help you if the next baddy has the power to instantly kill one of your soldiers; you would be better off dealing with the immediate threat instead.

I'm in two minds about the interleaved turn system. On the one hand it works and it feels fast-paced, but on the other hand it sometimes feels unfair. Imagine you have just breached into a new room. Your first unit gets to move immediately, but your fourth unit can't move for six turns, during which time the enemy can fire at them three times while they essentially have to just suck it up.

In practice the AI has a habit of spreading its fire among your soldiers, but one unit in particular - Zephyr, who charges at the enemy with her fists flying - often ends up starting the match in an exposed position, which is unfortunate because the AI generally targets the player's most vulnerable unit, which tends to be her. More than once I had a soldier injured during the breach phase, then knocked out a couple of turns later before they had a chance to move or fight back.

It feels unfair, but on the other hand the traditional turn-based system is just as unfair, in different ways; delayed artillery attacks in particular never work because the squad can just move out of the way. XCOM is also infamous for turns in which your entire squad is crippled because one soldier was killed which caused a second soldier to panic who then ran in front of enemy overwatch and was killed thus causing a third soldier to panic and hunker down and then the enemy shot your fourth soldier etc.

Perhaps it would be best to say that Chimera Squad is no more unfair than the other XCOM games. Not fair, but no more unfair.

Shouldn't there be an animation of my soldiers leaping out of the APC?

With that out of the way, is the game any good? Yes, although I have reservations. It was made on a small budget with resources from XCOM 2, and there are lots of rough edges. The camera clips through things. Bodies clip through things. Squadmates who aren't present on a mission comment on the action in a way that feels like a mistake. The final battle is just one fight among many; it's not especially clever or difficult. The shading is oddly flat. There's an unintuitive system whereby agents can use grenades during the breach phase, but only if they're in certain positions in the line.

And there are some nitpicks. Why can't you deploy other agents to replace fallen comrades instead of robots? It makes sense that there are no snipers, but what happened to the swords? They would be incredibly useful. Your only melee units use their fists instead.

Some missions require that you evacuate the squad from a certain door while endless reinforcements flood into the room. Not a million miles from the gameplay in Shen's Last Gift, one of the downloadable mission packs for XCOM 2. The interleaved turn system makes it surprisingly awkward to get your soldiers to the exit intact, because the change in force ratios as your units evacuate mean that the last unit has to soak up several hits. And yet if that unit goes down you still win the match, which feels odd. Do the baddies stabilise them and then run off? Are the regular police waiting just outside the room to rush in and arrest everybody? Hmm?

Some maps are so cramped that it's extremely difficult to move beyond the starting location, at which point the round degenerates into a dull exchange of gunfire. Furthermore some of the maps have a habit of putting baddies right next to the squad, in a flanking position; beggars can't be choosers, but it feels as if the maps were designed for a smaller team and were not modified to account for the extra units. Incidentally the maps are preset, as with EU, rather than procedurally generated. Eventually you'll see all of them several times.

The music is generally good. The main theme is a sci-fi take on 1970s cop shows with hints of Miami Vice and a dash of Deus Ex: Human Revolution. However some of the battle music feels like an ersatz copy of XCOM 2, as if the composer wasn't comfortable with pounding action music. None of it is bad, but the previous two games set a very high bar.

The plot operates on the same level as an episode of Scooby-Doo, with boo-hiss villains and no moral ambiguity, albeit that in Scooby-Doo the ghosts always turned out to be a person wearing a mask whereas in the XCOM universe there are actual ghosts, albeit that they're psionically-resurrected zombies, and of course XCOM has giant snakes so why not a giant dog?

Scooby would be a melee character; Shaggy would have the power of mental vagueness, and wasn't it subversive that the mainstream, white-bread main characters - Fred and Daphne - were not only the least interesting characters in the show, but in-universe were also the least interesting characters, bearing in mind they were always overshadowed by I'll start again.

It's Dr Vahlen from Enemy Unknown. She would probably be upset at my wanton use of explosives.

...but as with the earlier games the characters have charisma, particularly the new-look Jane Kelly. Out of the cast of agents I liked the relentlessly optimistic Cherub, the quietly gleeful Patchwork, and the acerbic Zephyr, who has an awesome special ability that lets her attack multiple enemies at once, potentially rooting them on the spot and stunning them, albeit that as mentioned earlier it leaves her open to counter-attack. Her standard punch can be followed up by parry, a special ability that no-sells the next attack against her unless it's explosive or poisonous.

Zephyr does however highlight the problem that some characters are objectively harder to use effectively than others, and without individual character tutorials you have no way of knowing how to use them well until you've put them through the wringer a couple of times.

But still. Chimera Squad is an enjoyable take on XCOM that feels like a testbed for ideas that may or may not be used in XCOM 3. It was originally released at £15 or so, cut in half in sales, and it took me twenty-one hours to finish my first playthrough so I feel I got my money's worth. You can't deploy all of the characters first time, and the flow of play is slightly different depending on the order in which you attack each faction, so the game encourages you to play it a couple of times.

Sadly it doesn't have War of the Chosen's daily Challenge Mode, so once you finish with it you'll probably never play it again. Multiplayer? No. DLC? No. Its own cryptocurrency? No. Action figures? No. Fashion range? No.

Anagram of Acquired Hams? Yes.