Phoenix Point review – XCOM strategy reborn
The creator of the original XCOM offers a new take on the classic strategy series, but can it compete with one of the best games ever?
XCOM 2 is one of the best video games ever made, and one of the very few we’ve ever given a 10/10 score to. But because it’s a turn-based strategy game it’s largely ignored by mainstream gamers, even though the console versions play extremely well for a game that was originally designed only for the PC. The two modern games are reimaginings of much older titles from the mid-90s and while none of the original creators worked on the reboots, Phoenix Point is by original designer Julian Gollop. So you can imagine how much we were looking forward to this game.
Gollop, initially accompanied by his brother Nick, has been active in the video games industry since the early 80s, working on a series of classic turn-based strategies that includes Rebelstar Raiders, Chaos, Laser Squad, and XCOM. Julian Gollop also worked at Ubisoft for a time, where he directed Assassin’s Creed 3: Liberation and strategy game v. But he’s since established his own studio and worked on a remake of Chaos and now a new take on XCOM.
Although they were technically nothing to do with him, Phoenix Point both looks and plays in a very similar manner to the modern XCOM games. They do all have the same starting point, so that shouldn’t really be any surprise, but the obvious problem is that if XCOM 2 is near perfect then anything less than that is going to compare very unfavourably to Phoenix Point, no matter what else it gets right.
The backstory to Phoenix Point is at least a little different to XCOM, with a more ethereal, Lovecraftian menace threatening the world after a deadly virus is released from the permafrost. The virus mutates anything it touches, The Thing style, and after getting into the oceans, thanks to melting polar icecaps, it creates a mutagenic mist on land – whose encroachment is the ticking time bomb that drives the narrative.
The game begins with only a few pockets of civilisation left around the world and while linear storytelling has never been very important in XCOM it’s a little more prominent here, with some interesting twists depending on the decisions you make. Although at first it doesn’t seem as if any of this is going to make much difference, given the game is still split between high level strategic decisions on a world map and tactical combat on the ground. But because the human race is on the edge of extinction the remaining groups have all found very extreme ways of dealing with the crisis.
One faction is a group of high-tech survivalists dedicated to maintaining human genetic purity, one wants to try and co-exist with the aliens, and another worships a Lovecraftian god and has found a way to mutate people while still retaining their human mind. Each has different goals and agendas, that aren’t simply ‘save the world’, and that makes diplomacy far more important than it used to be, in terms of which missions you choose to take on and how backing one side affects your standing with the other two.
The problem with this though, is that the way the three factions are portrayed makes them all seem deeply unlikeable and as they all busy themselves with infighting you begin to wonder whether the aliens aren’t secretly the good guys. The sense of encroaching doom common to all XCOM games is still there, as you always feel like one bad decision away from complete failure, but having to deal with the petty stupidity of the factions in order to recruit new soldiers, and gain access to their specific technologies, leaves a sour taste in the mouth.
In most other respects, the strategy level global map does still work similarly to XCOM 2, although there’s no central base anymore but instead several that you can specialise as you wish – which is how things used to work back in the 90s.
The combat is very similar to XCOM, to the point where you could easily confuse the two games from just a moment’s glance. At a basic level you’re still just pointing and clicking where you want each of your soldiers to go but while Phoenix Point does use action points to limit how much you can do per turn it’s a much more analogue system than simply one move and one chance to fire. Instead, what you can do is determined by how encumbered you are by your choice of weapons – allowing you to move quickly and often if you’re only lightly armed.
There’s also a first person aiming system, although unexpectedly the recent Narcos: Rise Of The Cartels beat Gollop to the punch on that one. However, Phoenix Point’s system works more like V.A.T.S. from Fallout and allows you to target specific body parts or weapons. It also lets you fire entirely manually, allowing you to aim at where you think an enemy is (given the whole mist theme there’s a thick fog of war in place) or to catch as many as possible in a large explosion.
On top of that the maps are always impressively destructible, so you can do everything from targeting explosive objects to bringing down elevated structures filled with snipers, or simply blowing a hole through a wall to get the drop on an alien. There’s also something called will points which increase the more experience a soldier gains (all are subject to permadeath, just as you’d expect). These activate more specialist abilities but are decreased the more stress a soldier is under, from teammates dying to the horror of witnessing some new alien monstrosity.
All these innovations work very well, although the various explosive weapons are so powerful they can sometimes make a mockery of any sense of tactics. It’s implied that the explosives problem should be solved by the game itself, in that creatures are supposed to evolve and mutate depending on your actions. So if you do keep blowing them up with grenades they grow extra armour to compensate. This does sort of happen, but it seems to be tied more to reaching certain milestones in the campaign rather than any specific actions you perform.
A more serious issue is the randomly generated maps which, rather than creating an unending number of different locations, tends to just create a small number of increasingly familiar ones with minute differences. That’s almost always the case with procedurally generated content but together with the unimaginative mission objectives, which make little effort to expand beyond just ‘kill everything’, it robs the game of the replayability enjoyed by its would-be peer.
The tactical combat is still very enjoyable, but it lacks the chess-like precision of XCOM, with too many random elements and too much repetition. A lot of these problems, including some nasty bugs and frequent slowdown, are no doubt due to the game’s considerably smaller budget. Although the biggest technical problem is the artificial intelligence, which often makes illogical choices and never seems to have any tactical goal more complex than running straight at you or staying rooted to the spot sniping at you.
There are a lot of interesting new ideas in Phoenix Point but they all need further refinement, and as entertaining as the game is it’s nowhere near as good as its very obvious rival. Although that does seem somewhat unfair when the games industry happily supports dozens of online shooters that all look and play very similarly. It’s not that we were always wishing we were playing XCOM 2 instead, but we did often find ourselves hoping that XCOM 3 would take the same ideas and do them better.
Phoenix Point review summary
In Short: The creator of XCOM returns with some interesting new ideas, but without the budget or time to refine them Phoenix Point struggles to offer a viable alternative to its more established rival.
Pros: Excellent turn-based combat with the revamped action point and aiming system allowing for much more flexibility. Top level strategy elements are impressively open-ended and suitably tense.
Cons: Weak artificial intelligence limits the tactical variety. Procedurally-generated maps all feel very samey. Factions are very unsympathetic and the mutating enemies element seems underdeveloped.
Formats: PC (reviewed), Xbox One, and PlayStation 4
Publisher: Snapshot Games
Developer: Snapshot Games
Release Date: 3rd December 2019 (consoles 2020)
Age Rating: N/A
*Epic Games Store exclusive
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