Breaching a room is one of those weird things that games turn out to be brilliant at. It’s pure tactics – information with stimulating gaps in it. A bunch of bad guys are waiting behind closed doors. You know some things about them but you don’t know everything. How are you going to open the doors?
It’s a wonder, really, that it’s taken a classic tactics series like XCOM so long to try a bit of breaching. XCOM 2 encouraged you to think of ambushes, sure, but with XCOM: Chimera Squad, the latest instalment in the series and a standalone adventure with a somewhat focused scope, breaching finally has its moment.
And it’s glorious. Chimera’s missions play out room by room, essentially – or encounter by encounter really as most of the game’s spaces are multi-room environments – and with none of the prolonged knocking around looking for a fight that previous XCOM games used to feature. Each encounter starts with a breach. You choose your door, you choose who opens it and who goes in next, you plan, you fiddle around, you change your plan and switch everyone out again and have a comforting Pop-Tart – just me? – and then you commit.
Pure tactics, information with gaps in it: every door tells you how high the likelihood is that you’ll take damage. Every door generally offers its own twists too. Maybe your shots will stun if you use this door. Maybe they’ll crit. Maybe the first one through can’t miss. Maybe the last one through won’t be able to move afterwards. Maybe everyone gets free Overwatch. Generally you have a choice of doors and windows to spread your four-person team across, and you can buy items as the game progresses that allows access to new doors – security doors and vents, say. I love this breach moment – it’s new, but it already feels like pure XCOM. You’ve thought about the odds, the perks. You’ve lined up your guys. Pop-Tart. BREACH.
Once you’re through time gets wonderfully thick and soupy. It reminds me a little of the stand-offs in John Woo’s Stranglehold, may it rest in glorious peace. Everyone gets a chance to breach fire – which means you each get a free shot as you scramble through the doors. If you’re playing on easy where the dice are loaded in your favour, four people coming through a door can often clear out four baddies. But even if you’re not, once the breach fire period is over your team scramble to cover and then it’s classic XCOM. Turns, cover, dice rolls, disaster.
Except it’s not, because everywhere throughout Chimera Squad there are playful tweaks and rebalances. Firaxis always strike me as the molecular gastronomists of the strategy and tactics world, a wide, dappled genre that in itself is sort of the molecular gastronomy of video games. Anyway: Firaxis can’t stop fiddling with things. Instead of foams and crumbs and airs, though, these designers like to dig down into the basics of a game and ask fundamental questions. Chimera Squad asks: hey, how about breaching? And then it asks: how about smaller maps, which play out as stacked encounters, so there’s no fat, as it were, no connective tissue to worry about.
But it hasn’t stopped tweaking there. In classic XCOM you move your guys and then the aliens move their guys. Chimera Squad opts for interleaved moves. Wonderful word, interleaved. Precise and papercrafty – one for the specialists, the scholars, the obsessives. Interleaved moves means one of your guys makes a move, and maybe one of theirs goes next? It makes fights much more dynamic, and more personal. You have more power, but with XCOM that always means the power to screw up. Classic XCOM meant that a situation you hadn’t foreseen could pop up and be resolved – usually tragically – in the course of an alien turn with little for you to do but stand around and take it. Classic XCOM was somewhat concerned with the delicious pain of tactical paralysis.
By contrast, Chimera Squad means you can see a situation develop and then you have the chance to do something, because you might get a turn in between two alien turns. But with that power comes the fact that this is still XCOM: clear shots can miss, aliens can be extra sneaky, things can go wrong in enormously creative ways. Interleaved moves bring great invention and dynamism and even wit to the game. And of course, it’s all information with gaps in it: the turn ticker is clearly visible on one side of the screen, and there are unit powers that allow you to sacrifice a shot, say, for the chance to change the order of turns to your advantage, to shuffle one of your cards in before one of theirs and save the day. Or try to save it, anyway. But what will the response be?
How deep does the tinkering with the basics go? It’s wrong with Chimera Squad even to talk of your turns and alien turns. This latest game plays out after the events of XCOM 2, in a city where humanity and aliens are trying to get along together. How are things going? Well, in the opening cut-scene the mayor is blown up in a truck. So they’re not going very well. I think Firaxis is aiming for something a bit like The Third Man’s Berlin, parcelled up amongst uneasy “allies”. It’s a lovely setting for an XCOM game. Previously they’ve concerned themselves with invasions. This one’s more about insurrection – insurrection played out in three acts, and three factions’ investigations.
And all of this means that your squad is formed of human and alien team-members. The focus on Chimera Squad is much more personal than most XCOM games. Your team have cut-scenes and names and personalities and dialogue and banter and everything. It’s XCOM: the Saturday Morning Cartoon, even before you get to the stylised storytelling sequences that use lurid four-colour layouts and halftones that can’t help but remind me – oh glory! – of the beautifully ugly excesses of Codename STEAM.
Does it feel weird that you can’t name your own soldiers anymore? In truth, I didn’t miss it that much. After a few hours I’d forgotten that I ever used to go into battle with units named after my favourite takeaway restaurants. I started to feel close to my new guys, from the awkward muton who sometimes sounds like Jeff Bridges to the techy who always misses – for me at least – but has a drone that shocks anyone who gets too close, a kind of electrical wasp at the XCOM picnic. Keeping units alive for the whole game means that XCOM’s power snowball thing is in full effect: you can get to a point where everyone’s so riddled with interesting skills that you start to feel bad for the guys you’re up against. But I was still learning to get the best out of people by the end of the surprisingly involved campaign. One of my guys had psionic powers and could change places with any unit on the battlefield. This meant if a mission-critical baddy was making a break for the exit I could swap places and move them into the heart of my ranks. But it also meant I could zap high cost baddies over to exploding barrels and then touch them off. The fun never ends.
Ah the campaign. Given the low price for a standalone game I was expecting Chimera Squad to clock in at about three or four hours. In truth, it kept me busy for two days on my first playthrough. What’s happened, I think, is a narrowing of focus: shorter missions, smaller teams, a simpler strategy layer and throughline.
I think the new strategy layer is fantastic. I love settling in for a game of XCOM 2, knowing that I’ll be dozens of hours deep before I realise I made a crucial mistake at the two hour mark, but it can be quite an elbowy and confusing game, with layouts, maps, and perhaps not quite the clearest sense of all the things you should be focusing on, at least for your first chaotic attempt. Chimera Squad is much more straightforward. Base building’s out and the whole thing is set in a single city as you chase down a single mystery, one suspect faction at a time. Alongside missions that advance the story, you also have missions that earn you resources and also allow time to pass until the next story mission becomes available. While all this is going on you have to monitor the whole city, making sure tension never gets too high in each of the districts. Completing missions in a district will bring the tension down, but you can also buy agencies that sit in each district and have limited powers to calm things down in interesting ways, or at least freeze the escalation for a few turns. All of this is presented via a 3D map that is colour-coded so you can instantly see how things are going. If most districts are blue, then happy days, as Tuffers would say. I wouldn’t mind getting Tuffers in an XCOM team.) If they start to turn towards red you’re going to have to do something.
There is a term for this kind of thing – I want to call it the small blanket problem or something like that? Anyway, in classic XCOM style, you never have enough time and resources and people to maintain total calm in the city. You’re always making trade-offs. And when it comes to your people the trade-offs never stop. You need four team-members to go out on missions, but you also want to staff the streamlined lab that makes breakthroughs and allows for new gadgets. You want to send people away on Spec-Ops that earn you resources or may lower tension in the city. If people are wounded – or if you just want to improve their stats – you’ll want to send them for training. All of this means you’re juggling who you can actually take out shooting, trying to make sure everybody gets leveled up nicely and gets new abilities, while also ensuring that nobody’s battle damage results in untreated “scars” that affect their stats.
It’s a lot to think about – of course it is, it’s XCOM. But Chimera Squad is a lot more approachable than XCOM 2. It’s more direct, less expansive, sure, but also a little less muddlesome to stupid people like me. This isn’t XCOM 3, but it isn’t pretending to be. It’s something different – a characterful, sharp-edged, surprisingly rich side-quest. It will keep me busy for hours and hours, I think. That’s the thing about doors – I always want to know what’s on the other side.