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The Characters of 'XCOM: Chimera Squad' Could Be the Future of the Series

XCOM doesn't often get lauded on stellar character work, but 'Chimera Squad' shows that Firaxis has the chops to do fun interpersonal narratives.
April 27, 2020, 12:49pm
Key art for XCOM: Chimera Squad, a Sectoid alien touches it's hand to it's temple, smiling, while behind a mix of humans and other aliens, all wearing XCOM tactical gear, stand and pose with their squadmates
Image courtesy of 2K Games

One thing that the XCOM franchise isn't normally known for is characters. Sure there's your various scientists, engineers, and support officers talking in your ear during missions, but aside from the odd cutscene, many of your units, the characters that are on screen the most, aren't characters until you imbue them with your own stories through customization. This can be a really fun way to include friends, family members, and various famous people into your game, to add some emotional weight to the moments when you eventually mis-click and send them to their doom.

XCOM: Chimera Squad differs in many ways to other XCOM games, but one of the more immediately obvious ways is it's tone and characters. The trailer for this game is night and day to the one for XCOM 2. Gone are the nameless soldiers, replaced with colorful characters with names and banter that implies a shared history. Rob, Austin, and Cado discuss (at length) these differences and what they could mean for the future of the franchise on this week's Waypoint Radio. You can read an excerpt and listen to the full episode below.

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Austin: This was one of those moments [that demonstrated] yes, you understand the fiction that you're playing in enough to get some good character moments. There's a moment when you realize you're going up against a former Advent leader, or not leader, but a hot shot in the in Advent, someone who was high up, and who had been used as the basis for other hybrid clones. Basically, if you played XCOM 2 the Skirmishers. If you watch us play XCOM 2, Mort is a hybrid. Someone who is part, I don't know what they're a hybridization of, what is the other species in the XCOM hybrid?

Rob: Yeah, I don't know. They're half human half something else.

Austin: Classic. They were cloned based one a sort of template clone, a template person, and you realize you're going up against the one who Cherub was based on, and there's just a good quick interaction between Cherub and another member in the squad, where Cherub is like "I just need you to know I'm good, right? Like, I just need to let you know I'm gonna be okay." And [they respond] "Yeah, dude I know. I know that you're going to be [okay,] we trust you. We know that you're not going to succumb to weird clone psychic power or whatever, you're our boy."

And [it feels like] "yeah that's right Cherub you are our boy. Little boy, you're our little boy who holds a big shield and you do your best to protect your friends," and that is not what I've come to XCOM for. When I've come to XCOM before I've had to provide the Cherubs, I've had to provide the character moments, but I like doing it.

Rob: Cherub is very Mort like but–

Austin: He is very Mort-like. He's like if Mort had a little brother.

Rob: Yeah, totally. Also in his bio it's like "everyone noticed that squads with Cherub in them performed unexpectedly well, despite Cherub not being remarkable." So basically he's like a Mascot. Everyone's like, "Ayyy it's Cherub! Look at that little guy!"

Austin: Yeah, totally! Listen, people like Cherub! That stuff works so well for me.

Rob: Also cool thing is, so in that fucking shit show of an extraction mission I had: one of the things they do in this game is when enemies throw grenades they're are on a timer, your grenades are instantaneous. And so you have a "clear the fuck out" window that you can you can move on. I had to leave my technician uh, what's her name?

Austin: Terminal?

Rob: Terminal, totally. I had to have her run up and shoot down a guy who was going to have a flank shot on the VIP and that was going to be curtains for him right? It was one of those things where if that thing crits he's probably done. But that meant she was standing on top of a grenade basically next to a car that hadn't exploded. So that damage was gonna be bad for her. Terminal was like exposed there but Torque went next. And so what Torque was able to do was use the tongue pull to snap Terminal out of it.

Austin: Ohh awesome.

Rob: And there was a really good exchange where Terminal's like "look let's not make this a whole thing."

[laughter]

Rob: And Torque's like "Got it," shoots the tongue, and then as Terminal's whipped through the air you hear a "Weeeeeee!" It was kind of a cute interaction!

Austin: [laughing] That's very good!

Rob: It was some good mid-mission shit!

Austin: Yes, that stuff is pretty good. That stuff is pretty good! I think they've earned making this a game about like hero characters instead of your home-based ones. And I don't want this to be, I mean, when we think of what the future of that franchise is, when we think about what XCOM 3 is, I want to be able to make my own characters in XCOM 3, right? I want to be able to have that, maybe I'd be happy with a blend, maybe they've proven that.

Rob: But counterpart, this feels like a meta-game that is reacting to me, you know what I mean? The strategic layer no longer feels XCOM 2. I've always felt like "Look, you've just gotta hit the story beats you have to stay on the power curve." Yeah it's "open ended" but not really, it's not open ended at all. You have to go through the game in this order and get this stuff done in this [specific] way. Here, it's a smaller strategic sandbox in some ways, but it does feel like "oh, I do have choices here."

Austin: You're right.

Rob: I can pour resources into spreading out those field teams, or I can just try to build up these field teams for higher level benefits and try to lock lock down this one sector, so at least this one place isn't constantly building unrest and I can focus my efforts elsewhere. That sort of trade off is something XCOM has historically been kind of bad at, right? The strategic layer has been where the series kind of falls down. [In _Chimera Squad,_] maybe it's not amazing, but it at least feels like I have meaningful choices to make here, and they're kind of fun choices to make.

It's not just "go fly to some blank spot on the map and suck up all the Elerium" you know? That's not what I'm doing. Here it's every turn, here's how I'm deploying my resources, here's who I'm benching for this week, to either get a scar off them or here's who I'm building up a new ability for. That's cool, that works really well. So when I do think about XCOM 3, I also think [that] this is probably, in terms of that tactical and strategic cocktail, much closer to the XCOM I really really want than anything they've made to date.


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This article originally appeared on VICE US.