Strategy fans will likely be well aware of Phoenix Point, a new tactics game by Snapshot Games that shares a lot in common with both the original XCOM and the Firaxis-made reboot. In fact, if you were to take a quick scan of the screenshots herein you'd be forgiven for thinking that we were writing about Xcom 3, given how many similarities there are between the series. We're starting to see increasing numbers of Xcom-inspired tactics games, however, none of them come quite so well-credentialled as Phoenix Point, and having spent time with the game during its development, it's now time to consider the final product and decide whether it's got the chops to compete with its direct rival, the excellent Xcom 2.
Phoenix Point, while flawed in some respects, has a lot going for it. For starters, there's a rich and interesting Lovecraft-inspired story that separates it from its peers. Gone are alien invaders from outer space and in their place is a virus that emerges when the ice sheets melt - pesky global warming strikes again! This so-called Pandoravirus mutates people, turning them into hideous beasts with crab-like shells and other macabre powers, and we pick up the action some years later with the world on its knees and humanity in retreat.
The melting ice has also irrevocably changed the landscape, with large tracts of land swallowed whole by the expanding oceans, and your sense of place is disrupted further by the fact that humanity is no longer arranged into nation-states. Instead, you're dealing with a trio of factions, one that likes its humans pure, another than embraces technology, and a third that's more comfortable with the encroaching mutant threat. You interact with them in your capacity as the head of the Phoenix Project, a shadowy organisation that you're tasked with rebuilding in the face of the mutant threat.
The game is split into two halves. You divide your time between tactical battles with the soldiers that you've enlisted, trained, and equipped, and then tinkering with your plans on a more strategical level. The tactical side of things is where you'll spend the majority of your time due to the pace of the combat, however, we thought that the strategy layer was the more engaging of the two, and it was there that our interest would pique most often.
You start things off with a base and an aircraft and then fly to marked locations on the world map - or 'geoscape' - exploring as you go and talking with the locals as and when you meet them. Once you've explored a region, taken part in a couple of battles (which we'll come back to in a minute), and resolved a couple of minor story beats, you must then scan around the extremity of the area and reveal new objectives that you can search later. This is how you move around the world, enlist new soldiers from the communities you meet, and fight anyone or anything that stands in your way.
The three faction system is certainly interesting, although we didn't want to make enemies of our fellow man and generally avoiding confrontation with all of them felt like the wrong way to play. We did enjoy meeting new characters during our exploration of the world, and the introduction of new elements is handled well, with a gradual onboarding of the game's core mechanics. That said, things aren't always explained brilliantly and there's an awful lot of lore to sift through in the in-game wiki if you want to make sense of everything.
Your progress is measured not only by major missions but also by the state of your operation, with base improvements and research at the top of the agenda. You can even build out your tactical options and create new weapons/equipment by reverse engineering what you need. Each of your soldiers advances up a limited class-based skill tree, although the ability to learn a second class once they've levelled up a little means that you'll have a versatile fighting force before too long.
Then it's a case of taking your troops into battles that take place on grid-based maps full of cover to hide behind and buildings to explore. The maps have procedural elements and while that means more variety, they do sometimes lack that hand-crafted feeling. Most missions are fairly straightforward and end as soon as the objective has been satisfied, however, some questionable AI decisions can undermine the authenticity of combat. We've seen our enemies do some dodgy things, running headfirst into trouble and leaving themselves wide open for a quick and easy counter. These moments aren't so frequent that they're unforgivable, however, these illogical actions can undermine the unfolding meta-narrative.
Phoenix Point might be about shooting crab-faced mutants in the head (via a VATS-like targeting system that we really liked) but this last week or so has also been a bit of a bug hunt. One psychic creature from the Pandoran mists managed to put a mission in an endless loop of enemy turns and thus forced a restart, while another kink in the strategy layer meant that we couldn't deploy our forces anywhere and had to go back to an early save point, wiping hours of progress in the process. We encountered a number of other minor, non-game-breaking bugs, many of them during combat, and these little quirks very gently pulled at the sense of immersion that the rest of the game was trying ever so hard to hold steady.
The simplistic AI means that enemy forces have a directness that ensures battles are usually resolved pretty quickly, especially if you make good use of the added flexibility on offer. In other games of this sort, you tend to get two action phases per character - here it's much more nuanced. Players can move their units around the board using action points with much greater flexibility and everything is clearly communicated, and there's a willpower system running alongside this that lets you perform additional actions and abilities.
Your soldiers also take damage in specific areas, so if you take a bullet in the arm, you might not be able to pull the trigger with that hand in the next round. This makes inventory management really important, but this is another area where the developer has done a good job, and you can grab items from crates or even fallen friends and foes. In fact, the environment is pleasingly interactive and while that sometimes means a niggling bug or two, the destructible cover and associated tactical variety that it brings was a trade-off worth making.
There's also pleasing variety in terms of the enemy types that you'll encounter. The three factions are complemented by a variety of mutated enemies, each with abilities that cause a tactical rethink upon first discovery. There are a fair few bullet-sponge enemies that require concerted attacks, but we thought the general mix of units was decent and helped keep the combat feeling fresh, which was a great help as a couple of the missions were a bit on the dull side. It all looks pretty good too, even if the audio side of the production isn't quite to the same standard, with a fairly predictable soundtrack assisted by some perfunctory voice-over.
We have been eagerly awaiting something with the potential to dethrone Xcom 2, and Snapshot's attempt certainly comes close thanks to a strong theme and an engrossing strategy layer, however, there are a couple of things that hold it back, most notably the number of niggling bugs that are still present. We can forgive a few cut corners and some scaled back elements (see the point above about voice-over) given budgetary constraints, but it's clear that the game needs a bit more spit and polish if it's going to really sparkle. The bull-headed AI doesn't help things either, relegating some potentially interesting scenarios to battles of attrition, however, there's still enough intrigue and nuance here to make Phoenix Point worth a look if you're a tactics fiend looking for your next fix.
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