Xcom as a franchise started all the way back in 1994, when some people reading this might not have even been born, and through regular instalments like Terrors of the Deep all the way up until the more recent (and hugely successful) Xcom: Enemy Unknown and Xcom 2, the franchise has remained on our radar for two decades. While he may not have had anything directly to do with the more recent entries in the series, the co-creator of the original, Julian Gollop, is now turning his hand to Phoenix Point, a game that may well be another to consider for fans of the series, both old and new.
We recently got to try the game out for ourselves in London, and we can see the Xcom influence almost immediately. The scenario we got to try out was solely combat focused, without any narrative involved, giving us four soldiers to control, all with different abilities. We were tasked with getting to the control tower on the map while the aliens there tried eating us for dinner.
To give a bit of background before we dive into the conflict, Phoenix Point is set on earth in 2047, where humanity has been crippled by an alien invasion five years prior, as well as a new virus, being forced to gather in clustered havens to survive. This is the point where you start the game - on the back foot after this devastating assault- and you control one cell of the giant organisation The Phoenix Project, tasked with gathering scientists and soldiers to help survive, but all is not as it seems within the organisation.
Much like you'd expect given the Xcom comparison, soldiers in Phoenix Point use action points to move around in a grid-based map, taking positions behind cover and in other strategic spots before the action points run out and the turn is over. Then it's the turn of the aliens, who similarly move and attack using their own action points, with the battle unfolding like a game of chess as you slowly advance and make sure you're covered while at the same time launching assaults on your extraterrestrial adversaries.
It wasn't long until we realised that distance was key, at least during our own playthrough. We got into melee range of an alien, for example, and got punted like a football, our soldier going from a sturdy trooper with full health to a ragdoll projectile in one alien kick. Your guns are there for a reason, and this isn't an action game that encourages you to get into close-quarters combat.
That's why the aiming system works incredibly well. By selecting a target, it's not as simple as pressing fire, as you can also choose precisely where you aim, depending on your weapon. Snipers can aim for the head by locking the crosshair onto the ol' alien cranium, for example, and this adds another layer of strategy that gives you more choice as to how you fight (kind of like the VATS mechanic in Fallout). If you're using something like a minigun, on the other hand, aiming isn't exactly your main priority.
As we got closer to the control tower, more aliens as-of-yet unseen on the map started coming out of the woodwork, which gave us an extra layer of challenge to deal with. As the aliens emerged, we were forced to adapt in order to survive, and so we took cover in buildings to ensure our safety... apart from that soldier who had previously been booted for a field goal.
This is where the special abilities came into play. Different soldiers have different abilities which you can activate, and the one that we found particularly useful was the jetpack, which allowed us to jump great distances, onto a rooftop to safety for example, giving us a bit of breather as the aliens kept encroaching. This is just one of many abilities, but it seemed to diversify our tactical options enough to give us hope of a varied experience when we get to try more of Phoenix Point.
The overall package, while being developed by the pioneer of the original Xcom games, feels similar to the Firaxis spin, from the smooth UI that's easy to navigate through to the easy and approachable tactical gameplay. The focus is on action-filled cutscenes mixed with board game-esque movement. It feels like a healthy mix between the philosophies of both the new and the old, then, all mixed together with Gollop's new story. It's a spiritual successor in plenty of senses.
"In a way Phoenix point sort of continues from some of my ideas in the original Xcom: Apocalypse, which had a world with multiple corporations and factions in it, that had a fairly dynamic world to it," Gollop told us. "So what I really wanted to do with Phoenix Point is create a very dynamic, living world in which all of the factions and haven leaders and characters and even the alien monsters are individuals and have their own motivations and abilities and so on, and they're all interacting in a very logical, systems-driven way."
"So I think players of games like Stellaris will find some things which are familiar, players of the original Xcom will find some things interesting. There is of course an influence from the Firaxis Xcom, particularly the way the tactical battle presentation works, how the interface gives you feedback and what's going on, the dynamic cameras, the real detailed 3D characters and graphics, extensive-leveled character customisation."
After a while spent fending off alien grubs, a colossal arachnoid queen showed up to cause us more trouble, and could in fact waltz through buildings like they were nothing, meaning that our previous tactic of cowering behind cover had to be quickly rethought. If there are more of these big monsters - akin to bosses - in the game, this should keep things challenging for tacticians, as we couldn't even take the queen out before she stampeded us into the Game Over screen.
Regardless of our sticky demise, we had a lot of fun toying with the various elements of Phoenix Point. The slick and easy UI meant we could easily work our way around the various buildings and cover available to us, but when the going got tough we were able to dodge trouble using our new abilities before using our wide arsenal of weapons to send aliens to their maker.
While we didn't get to see much of the narrative, Phoenix Point impressed us, especially when we consider it as a spiritual successor of sorts to the Xcom series of which we're so fond here at GR. While it's more like a Firaxis game on the surface, especially when it comes to the visuals, Gollop and his team at Snapshot is clearly trying to bring the strategy of the '90s games into the modern day with Phoenix Point, and they've done a great job from what we've seen.