Feature Article

Why XCOM: Chimera Squad Makes Big Changes To The Series Formula

Lead designer Mark Nauta talks about why Firaxis made some dramatic changes to the XCOM formula fans have known for years.

XCOM: Chimera Squad is nearly here, just weeks after it was revealed. This experimental, budget-priced XCOM game makes some big changes to the series' standard formula, including a preset team and straying from the usual permadeath element. It's clear that Firaxis wants to expand the definition of an XCOM game, so GameSpot picked the brain of lead designer Mark Nauta on how it all came together.

What was the genesis for the idea of Chimera Squad? How long has it been in development?

As game developers, we're always interested in ways that we can change or iterate on the way a game is structured and plays. After we released XCOM 2 and the War of the Chosen expansion, we felt there were still opportunities that had yet to be explored in the XCOM system. XCOM: Chimera Squad gives us a chance to revisit some core ideas of XCOM without having to rebalance all of XCOM 2 and War of the Chosen. This means we can try out ideas like Interleaved Turns and Breach mode, and use agents as characters instead of traditional XCOM soldiers and their classes. I started design work on Chimera Squad after War of the Chosen.

Why was this made a budget-priced release? Did that stem from wanting to go a more experimental route?

The price reflects two things--as a standalone title, we're neither a sequel nor an expansion. For our fans, the price point and short time to release mean that veteran XCOM fans get a game in their hands sooner and new fans to the series have something they're going to want to check out; perhaps then discovering the joys of XCOM as a series.

This is a very different kind of XCOM game; are you trying to expand the idea of what XCOM means or draw in new fans?

Yes! We think that XCOM can lend itself to a variety of game styles. As I said before, as developers we always want to try something new and see what our players think of it. The changes for Chimera Squad should appeal to veteran XCOM fans because it shakes up the tactical formula you've come to rely on since XCOM 2. If you're new to the XCOM universe, here's a chance to see a small slice of that--not the whole-world stakes of XCOM: Enemy Unknown or XCOM 2, but a story set within that larger universe. If that appeals to you, wouldn't you want to go back and see how we got to City 31?

Where did the idea of breaching come from? Is it related to the encounters here being more contained?

It's an evolution of the Ambush mechanics from previous games, but it's a huge part of the Encounter system in Chimera Squad. Breach Mode is where you first set your tactics for that Encounter - unit order, ability choice and entry point are all things to consider and executing a successful Breach can really set Chimera Squad up for success. We found that breaking up Missions into smaller encounters--separated by a Breach--offered an interesting change of pace.

What influenced some of the bigger changes to the usual XCOM formula--particularly the change to permadeath and turn order?

In previous XCOM games, Permadeath made both narrative and gameplay sense as you were engaged in a war of attrition--soldiers are recruited from many different nations and losses were to be expected. It was also a major part of the consequences of that game, in that losing a veteran soldier could leave you without skills and abilities you had come to rely on for successful missions.

In XCOM: Chimera Squad, you're now working with a specific set of characters in agents and we felt permadeath ran counter to the experience of playing with these characters. And, practically speaking, there were a lot of players who didn't want to lose their XCOM soldiers and would reload if missions went bad. So for the sake of Chimera Squad, we came up with a compromise--you lose a mission if one of your agents bleeds out on the battlefield. Any character can stabilize someone who's down, and there are consequences for having an agent get seriously wounded. But losing an agent means you have to restart the mission.

That said, there are still consequences for failure. It is possible to lose the game at the strategic level. We also understand that the permadeath presents a fun challenge that franchise veterans and fans have enjoyed and we've added a hardcore mode to retain that same tension.

For Interleaved Turns, it's something we've talked about on the team internally. Having interleaved turns changes both the types of decisions you must make and what kind of tactical options you have at the table. By switching to interleaved turns, players will make on-the-fly decisions based on who is coming up next in the timeline. Right now it feels like you're making more of a response to events as they unfold. You can have a plan for your four characters, but if an enemy action happens between characters two and three, you're suddenly thinking: "Well, shoot. I didn't expect that to happen. Do I need to change something up?" Suppose you've got a character like Blueblood moving in for a flanking shot, and an enemy throws a grenade at him. You look at the timeline and Blueblood won't be able to act again until after the grenade goes off. Do you have Torque on your squad? Can she tongue-pull him to safety? Do you still have your Team Up action left this mission? Or do you risk having Blueblood eat the grenade and use the rest of the squad to set Blueblood up for an optimal attack?

Was Chimera Squad always envisioned as a standalone game? Could we see DLC or expansions?

Yes, the specific vision we had for XCOM: Chimera Squad meant it made more sense as a standalone title as opposed to a direct sequel. We don't have any plans for DLC or to add expansions for XCOM: Chimera Squad.

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