We loved both of the Firaxis XCOM games, and will gladly take another, but they certainly lacked a bit of the strategic depth that characterized the earlier X-Com games. Now series creator Julian Gollop, and his team at Snapshot, are attempting to marry the straightforward playability of XCOM: Enemy Unknown with the depth of X-Com: UFO Defense.
Can they succeed? Guess we’re going to have to play to find out… so we did just that.
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The level we played was set in Fort Freiheit, a human base overrun by alien crab people that we had to shoot in the face as fast as possible. There are multiple playable factions in the game, and for this demo we took control of a four-person squad from the highly militarist New Jericho faction. We got a Sniper, a Heavy Weapons expert, and a pair wielding Assault Rifles with different loadouts (one had a medkit, the other grenades).
Okay, immediately we have to say that our first reaction to seeing Phoenix Point in action was thinking it looks exactly like Firaxis’ XCOM. This is a good thing, since the recent XCOM games are popular for a reason – they’re incredibly playable. 3D isometric camera, simple point-and-click interface, and even the two rings of movement Firaxis introduced – move in the first Blue ring and you can still attack or do anything action, or go further into the Yellow movement area and give up your second action. Initially everything feels just like modern XCOM.
Simple and effective, but of course that simplicity is a bone of contention amongst fans who felt that Firaxis went a bit too far with the simplicity, and were hoping X-Com series creator Julian Gollop and Snapshot would re-address the balance. From what we’ve played, we can’t fully confirm that they have (it was only one combat level), but we’re certainly pleased by the additions Snapshot have made. Let’s go through them shall we?
Our personal favourite addition is that of movement. While generally it works like in XCOM: Enemy Unknown, as mentioned, there is one significant difference: as long as you stay within that movement boundary and don’t do an action, you can move as much as you want. We lost count how many times we accidentally clicked on the wrong place to move to in XCOM and wished we could undo it – in Phoenix Point there’s no undo, but you can simply keep on moving until you’re happy. Furthermore, swapping weapons doesn’t take up a turn. We love this.
While there are no Action Points to govern movement or basic attack, there are now Willpower Points which can be spent on certain actions – including using Medkits, and most importantly, Overwatch. Overwatch, if you remember, is an ability you can activate in XCOM to make a soldier take a shot at any enemy that moves into their field of vision. Players now can’t just end every turn with Overwatch now, as it costs Willpower which takes several turns to regenerate – although it is more useful in Phoenix Point as multiple shots can be exchanged. This was especially bad when we needed to use a Medkit on a soldier who was bleeding out and didn’t have enough Willpower to use it. They died.
We’re pretty sure it was just the demo we played, but Phoenix Point was hard. So hard in fact that Julian Gollop himself couldn’t do it (although he did get unlucky). The Crabs were well armed and had a shell arm that they could use to protect themselves, requiring soldiers to shoot around it. They didn’t have grenades, thankfully, but there were a lot of them in the base and it’d be a challenge to clear them out. And that’s before a gigantic spider queen showed up.
A lot of the systems in place in Phoenix Point we didn’t really get the full benefit of, although they were definitely there. Unlike in XCOM, bullets and other projectiles are now fully rendered in the world, which means that if you miss a target your bullets will keep on going, damaging teammates, enemies, or objects in their path. Connected to this, Cover is based on what it looks like rather than XCOM’s Full/Part/None cover system, and any cover could be destroyed.
Ah yes, full level destruction is one of the big features of Phoenix Point, and it’s amazing. Regular bullets can destroy flimsy cover, which is a game-changer already, and explosives can take out whole areas. Then there’s the aforementioned Spider Queen. Just when we thought we were starting to do well and were a little bit into the base, the game dropped a gigantic boss character at our starting point, so not far behind us. We took cover around or in whatever buildings and towers were available, pretty much leaving us fully exposed to all the Crabmen in the rest of the base.
We took out a few Crabs, with all bar one bled out soldier still standing, and was prepared for an epic battle… then the Queen attacked. It ran straight at my Heavy Gunner and just ploughed straight through the entire building he was taking cover behind. Then with one swipe he was well dead. While mentally shouting “NOOOOO” (we were in a crowded room after all) we targeting the Queen, and were introduced to the other innovation of Phoenix Point – body point targeting, like a more advanced version of the VATS system in Fallout. The Sniper can use Willpower to do this on regular enemies, but on the giant ones everyone gets it.
Not that it mattered. The Sniper got a solid shot on the Queen’s head, but we’d have to do about 20 more of those to kill it. We were told to use explosives, but unfortunately my Heavy Weapons gunner was gunned down by two Crabmen who had taken the time to move in while he was exposed. Finally the Queen went for my Sniper, took out a tower to do so, and made a gigantic stomp-swipe at him. He flew off into the gorge around the base, ending my first play of Phoenix Point in utter defeat, but also impressively showing off the game’s ragdoll system too. We loved how the Sniper’s body tumbled into the abyss.
At the moment Phoenix Point is down for late 2018, although it could certainly slip to 2019, “realities of game development” and all that. Check out the website for more information.
Have we mentioned how great everything looked? There’s still months of development time to go and just based on this level alone, Phoenix Point looks head and shoulders above XCOM 2. The level of detail in the base in incredible, and the way weird fleshy tendrils snake across the landscape like veins is chilling – and cool, at the same time. Smoke, destruction effects, creatures – we got the impression that none of it was final, and yet we were impressed nonetheless, making us wonder just how good the final version is going to look.
Put simply, Phoenix Point feels like XCOM: Enemy Unknown… but improved, in every way. All the little annoyances are gone, such as now being able to correct movement and changing weapons no longer costs a turn. The over-simplicity of XCOM has been toned down, so bullet trajectories now matter and Overwatch is more useful but can no longer be spammed thanks to the introduction of Willpower.
But, at the same time, Snapshot have wisely kept the straightforward, easy-to-use control system and gameplay that made XCOM so popular. Anyone can play Phoenix Point and have a good time, as there are no barriers for entry and you can cleanly see and control your entire squad without confusion. Yet there is depth and subtlety to Phoenix Point and its various systems, so we a feeling that it’ll be easy to pick up, but difficult to master – which only the best games are. Phoenix Point’s release date is still far off, but we can’t wait to see more of it.