Gollop helps revive the 90s XCOM with several new ideas that add a lot to the table.
Phoenix Point has been a long time coming. I first saw the game in February 2018 at the PC Gamer Weekender. Phoenix Point was developed by a relatively new unknown company, Snapshot Games, but headed up by the well-known Julian Gollop. While Gollop is fairly unknown outside certain circles he was one of the key developers of the 90s classic X-COM: UFO Defense, which over time (and without his direct involvement) evolved into XCOM: Enemy Unknown and XCOM 2, released in 2012 and 2016. The main criticism of the modern XCOM games is their ‘streamlining’ of the XCOM formula, making the game easier. Phoenix Point hopes to reverse much of this streamlining and carve its own path. But is it a hit or a miss?
Phoenix Point avoids the main pitfalls that it very easily could’ve fallen down. The easiest, perhaps, is it feeling like a 90s game, avoiding many of the conventions of the last two decades that would objectively make the game better. Thankfully the game avoids that, the game looks modern but retains the brutal difficulty and ‘un-streamlined’ approach many wanted. Unlike the modern XCOM games, ammo is an item you have to bring – it’s not infinite. Any enemy can easily kill you in a few hits, and allies and enemies can take damage to their limbs stopping them from wielding weapons, moving, etc. I lost a member of my team in the very first proper mission, and the method to get new ones is harder than in XCOM both new and old. By this token, the game certainly appeals to hardcore fans of the original XCOM, but in terms of fans of this type of game, it does add its own new ideas to make it distinct enough to warrant a playthrough.
Perhaps the most immediate thing that sets Phoenix Point apart from XCOM is the setting and the enemies you face. While XCOM is about an alien invasion with everything that usually comes with, Phoenix Point explores a far more interesting concept. A virus borne from mist which mutates humans, so rather than little grey alien men you fight mutated crab people and other monstrosities. They also evolve to defend against your tactics. This is perhaps the biggest narrative difference: the feeling created is one of mystery and unease, due to the slow, creeping soundtrack and ever-growing spread of the virus on the globe you see as you fight your way through missions.
There are other important gameplay additions, most importantly is diplomacy. There are three other factions occupying the globe in the world of Phoenix Point each with different views and weapons. You can help or hinder each faction as you see fit and can go as far as sabotaging a faction’s haven or stealing their aircraft and technology. This system also allows you to work with them for technology. For example, one faction mutates themselves to gain powers, so their weapons look vastly different from the advanced capitalist faction. There is also much conflict between the factions. You can play each faction as you please and this adds a great deal to the game. Factions have individual views on each other and you. The game casts you as an outside force, reviving a project to end the virus, so lets you deal with factions as you please.
Perhaps the largest downside, however, is the polish. The game looks good, but is hampered somewhat by occasionally odd-looking debris (although the design overall is fantastic) and glitches which have been reported online. It’s a shame given that the builds previous to release also had issues. The game also lacks little things that feel natural in a game like this. Your base is not 3D, rather a set of tiles with pictures. This is one change the modern XCOM adopted, and I wish Phoenix Point had too. So far, as well as this, the story is somewhat underdeveloped. While many after mission briefings are exceptionally well-voiced, I would have liked to see proper cutscenes. While it’s by no means a large gripe, small things like that often help sell the game’s story, although there is much lore in novels that were released in the buildup to the release of the game.
Overall Phoenix Point is a valuable addition to an increasingly common genre of XCOM-like turn-based strategy games, despite some personal nitpicks. While there are imitators of this formula, this is perhaps the purest version that exists, and it’s clear they cared about the project they were making.
Phoenix Point is available now on the Epic Store. Watch the launch trailer below: