Phoenix Point Could Be The Best Tactics Game of 2019

Phoenix Point might just give us the worthy successor to the 1994 XCOM we always wanted.

Phoenix Point
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Julian Gollop is back. The man who designed Laser Squad and its spiritual successor XCOM (or UFO in Europe), is taking another crack at making a tactics game with Phoenix Point. It is a return to form for the genre as it seems Gollop is going to add back a lot of the depth and complexity that has been missing in the recent wave of tactics games. While I liked the Firaxis XCOM quite a lot when it came out in 2012, it was not without its flaws. When Firaxis scrubbed off some of the clunkier and more esoteric aspects of the original game they also, unfortunately, managed to shave off a great deal of the depth in its gameplay. Mostly, it was the strategic aspect of the game that suffered.

In, 1994 you had to juggle multiple bases, staffs, research teams and hangars full of jet planes and strike teams. You needed to keep track of inventory for things like ammo, grenades and other equipment. There was a sense that things were more simulated than just a choice between mission A, B or C. It felt like you were playing against different systems interacting and a real adversary instead of just getting random missions. Looking back at the 2012 XCOM now, there simply were very few strategic choices to make between missions which made it a tad stiffer and more boring than its predecessors. Phoenix Point is, it would seem, aiming to remedy this by reinstating a slew of the old mechanics and adding some of its very own.

Phoenix Point

The recent test build let you play around with a limited version of the strategic map. You start in North America and have access to a base and a dropship that you can fly around. Though currently barebones, it is obvious that Phoenix Point will offer a great deal more detail and depth in how it handles the strategic layer of the game compared to what modern XCOM, or other tactics games, do. Around your ship, you have a yellow circle that tells you how far you can travel on your current fuel and destinations will have a dotted line around them if your fuel is not enough to take you there and back again. As you fly to different spots on the map events pop up, it can be finding other factions, scavenging for resources and of course encountering enemies. If a faction is friendly towards you, you can build a refueling station there to expand your reach, if not you can force them to give it to you instead. How important these things will be is hard to tell at this point since most of the economy, base building and diplomacy is yet to be implemented, but what is there seems like it could be very interesting indeed.

As you encounter enemies, you will be taken to one of a selection of random maps to do battle on and here the game will be instantly recognizable for a seasoned XCOM player. The UI is actually eerily similar to the 2012 remake, and that is a good thing. If there was one thing that Firaxis did a thousand percent right, it was to simplify and clean up the UI as it is one of the things that make 1994 XCOM almost unplayable in this day and age. Here it is just as clean but, again, with added details and complexity. You can now freely aim where your soldiers are aiming to target specific body parts or buildings. This is significant as it opens up for all sorts of tactical maneuvers that similar games often do not account for, things like shooting off limbs to limit an enemy’s advance or deny them use of specific weapons. The more freeform aiming also lets you target things through cover and specifically try to destroy cover, a thing I have sorely missed in the modern wave of tactical strategy games.

Phoenix Point

The premade team you deploy with is varied and interesting. There are, of course, some staples like the sniper and the heavy gunner. They work as expected: the sniper performs long range kills and the heavy gunner has machine guns and the ability to use a rocket attachment. There are, however, some new additions, like the medical unit that has two extra arms, Doctor Octopus-style, which can be used to either attack enemies or heal your soldier’s health and body parts. Because, yes, the aliens you face can inflict damage to your body parts as well.

If an arm is damaged, you cannot use two-handed guns anymore. If a leg is mauled to shreds by a crab monster, you can forget about moving very far on your next turn and so on. It’s nifty and leads to fighting being more visceral and tenser than just having your team members die or survive. Much like the game Battletech, there is a high probability you can come out of fights scarred and damaged instead of just dead, which I greatly prefer to games that depend upon you either doing things perfectly or not at all. Looking at you, XCOM 2, and your protracted death spirals. Again, hard to say how the actual balance will be with all systems at work but things look very promising.

Phoenix Point

Another thing you have access to in battle is an armored car which you can let one or more of your soldiers enter and take control of. At the moment, it is very overpowered compared to what you encounter, but ramming full speed into the aliens, through walls and all, never gets old. I am really hoping that the finished game will have several interesting vehicles to make use of besides this one and lets the enemies do the same. The best feature of the tactical battle is, however, that you have more than two ability points. You can now move, shoot, reload, heal and move again in one turn, granted you have enough action points to do so. The two-action system which many games make use of, while simple, slowly drove me insane in Firaxis’ XCOM. With the expanded abilities you simply have more tactical choices to make.

Storywise, there isn’t much to tell yet. Some sort of virus was released from the permafrost that turned out to not only be deadly but also mutate people and animals to grotesque monstrosities. The creatures that you are facing look nasty and mean and I can’t wait to find out more about them in the finished campaign. The developer, Snapshot Games, is also planning on incorporating the mutation aspect into the gameplay with enemies that will mutate and change depending on what tactics you use to kill them. The idea being, that enemies will mutate to gain different types of weapons and abilities in response to your playstyle. None of that is in the current build, however, but the enemies seem modular enough that I can see this happening. If it all pans out, it could be a fun way to keep things fresh throughout the campaign and hopefully, it’s not just pallet swapping some crab monsters because you like to use rocket launchers instead of machine guns.

Phoenix Point already plays really well and looks great, if a bit one-note – there are a lot of rust-colored ruins to fight your way through right now. With additional locations and if they can deliver on the features that are yet to be implemented, Phoenix Point is set to become something really special. In the end, like all strategy games, it comes down to how well the different systems jive with each other and if the AI can keep up enough to be interesting and pose a threat throughout the game. If you are a fan of XCOM or any tactical game for that matter, Phoenix Point is definitely something you should keep both eyes on.

Preview build supplied by developer