This week on Zero Punctuation, Yahtzee reviews XCOM: Chimera Squad.
Uh-oh, I'm getting that uneasy tingling in my kneecaps; either a big storm is about to hit town, or XCOM is trying to do something new again! We've been through this, XCOM; you're a perfectly nice turn-based isometric shooter with a sensible haircut, but you're going to ruin that haircut if you keep trying on different hats! Remember The Bureau? Remember X-COM: Enforcer? Nobody else does! "Don't worry, Yahtzee; our new game, Chimera Squad, has all the turn-based isometric action crossed with base management that you love." Well, like a blind dog on a crowded escalator, I'm sensing an upcoming "but". "But, it's XCOM if it were a Saturday morning cartoon." I'm going to follow you down this rabbit hole, XCOM, but at the first sign of cave-in, I'm heading back and telling everyone you wanked yourself to death.
So after all that unpleasantness in XCOM 2, Earth has been liberated, but there are still a bunch of aliens who missed the last bus home to Planet Fuckface, and so everyone shrugged and decided to try giving this "living together in harmony" thing a crack. In the integrated utopia of City 31 - named, I assume, by someone who didn't intend to get attached to it - a number of insurgent groups start brewing unrest, and it's up to a diverse breakfast club of alien, human, and hybrid soldiers to keep the peace, largely by kicking down doors and shooting everything with a face.
So despite being an all-new take on the formula that adds to continuity, we're not so much in bold new frontier territory of "sequel" as we are the slightly tacky seaside resort town of "spinoff", as everything feels kind of scaled-down, which is inevitable now we're not defending the whole Earth; just one unimaginatively-named city on it. Since we're essentially a SWAT team consisting of discarded Mass Effect party members, the turn-based combat missions all start with a breaching sequence, where we stack up our four current lads, lad-ettes, and lad-neutrals on the entrances and choose in what precise manner we want to burst in, and in what order we want to freely shoot whatever livestreaming Call of Duty players overlooked the wrong viewer's donation message today, before everyone cuddles up to the nearest chest-high wall and the usual XCOM folderol ensues.
So the combat missions are all short and snacky and set in single rooms, and there's absolutely no stealth, obviously, since none of the encounters take place in a hospital for the deaf. There's also no permadeath; any party member who gets knocked out comes away with naught but a mild boo-boo that can be entirely removed by letting them sit out a mission while the school nurse kisses it better. The phrase "Baby's First XCOM" might leap to mind at this point, and that's fairly apt; combat is certainly a fuckload easier when my team essentially gets to have a free go before the round even starts, possibly after having run crying to mum and dad, even more so when you enter the traditional latter stage of the XCOM playthrough when you've unlocked the really OP skills and "once per mission" isn't that big a handicap when half the missions are ten-minute runs through enemy-occupied drive-thru Burger Kings.
My go-to strategy eventually became "get the big Muton dude who looks like The Shape of Water got a protein powder sponsorship and let him run around behind enemy lines double-fisting everyone". The enemy would keep targeting only him, and he'd keep getting bonus attacks from the berserk rage response; then I'd just get my hacker lady to heal him up with her zero-cooldown infinite-range healing drone every round. It was like taking my pet land shark for a walk.
But "easier" isn't necessarily "lesser"; the missions certainly flow a lot better when you don't have to spend half your time creeping through all the hidden crevices of the map wiping up the last couple of hidden dingleberries. And there's still the management stuff between missions, although that's been a bit simplified, as well; reducing threats in a region now boils down to pressing the "make everyone shake hands and promise to stop being naughty" button, which does have a pretty long cooldown, but it's no 20-day satellite manufacturing process. The management phase plays even more like a board game than usual, one of those really complicated ones with event cards and time tracks that your board game-liking friend keeps trying to get you 'round their place to try out, and then they get huffy 'cos you drank all the red wine before they finished populating the encounter deck, but you fucking promised we would just be playing Scrabble this week, Doreen!
So the reason why there's no permadeath is that your squad members aren't random, but fixed characters with unique personalities and skills; it reminds me of Agents of Mayhem, as does the art style. Rather hauntingly, at times; makes me wonder if the two games had designers in common, or caught something off the same toilet seat. There's a diverse pack of human characters, and then one token representative from all the main alien races, and long-time XCOM players might find this a bit of a lurch, considering all the time prior games spent hammering home that the aliens are a right nasty bunch and you should lock them in a small room with your resident mad scientist and a "My First Autopsy" kit and laugh at their abject staring terror.
To suddenly want to bang tambourines in the name of cultures living in harmony seems a bit insincere; but then again, all the aliens have normal human voices, personalities, and American accents, and wear normal human jumpers - the point, I assume, being that aliens have been invading Earth for long enough to go native - but for a game ostensibly about the benefits of diversity, there's no culture clash here. Everyone's just a human with a weird face. Nobody's got a beef with each other, and some of your dudes were true-believing enemy combatants during the occupation; probably went to at least one human baby fondue party, and all that means now is that they're a bit of a grumpy dick. And the enemy isn't much for presence, character-wise. Oh, we certainly get told about the enemy faction leaders and the various puppy dogs they've brutalized, but it might've been nice to cut away to them smoking doobies with Skeletor now and again to establish that; the first we actually interact with them is as they look up in surprise when their back door deadbolt whizzes past their head.
So the story aspect feels insipid; it reminds me of how they used to make toothless Saturday morning cartoons out of R-rated films like RoboCop or Aliens, where the sidekick is a friendly alien who wears a propeller beanie and keeps getting their head stuck in things. On top of that, there's a generally unpolished feel; a flickering graphic here, some poorly-formatted text there. Maybe Firaxis had their B-team working on this, or they took the Red Bull machine out of the lobby and everyone lost morale.
But in summary, if anything's going to sell you on XCOM: Chimera Squad, it's the gameplay; as I say, it's like XCOM, but different and not necessarily worse. So I guess there was a positive message about diversity in here all along: whether you're unique or randomly generated, all of us can unite over the fact that missing a 97% chance to hit is total fucking bullshit.
- The boots on the ground: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- You'd think Saturday morning cartoons would do pretty well these days now that our entire lives are one big Saturday morning
- I like playing Scrabble okay