Phoenix Point: ‘Turn-based Tactical Fan Service’ – risen from the ashes of the 90’s.. somewhat like a Phoenix. Ish.
Genre: Tactical, Turn-Based Strategy,
Grand Strategy, Aliens
Developer: Snapshot Games
Publisher: Snapshot Games
Release date: 4 December, 2020
While I think it is unlikely that anyone will have found this article without having at least some passing familiarity with either the XCOM series or turn-based tactical games in general, I will attempt to offer a brief introduction to the genre in this section. Feel free to skip to the ‘At a glance’ section however if you know full well what kind of game Phoenix Point is and want to skip to the ‘nitty-gritty’.
Phoenix Point is a game that was recently released on Steam and GOG after its one year exclusivity deal with Epic expired. It is a turn-based tactical game crafted at the hands of legendary game designer and programmer Julian Gollop – the father of the original XCOM series of games (1994 – 1997) as well as its precursor Laser Squad (1988).
The gist of the average turn-based tactical game is as follows:
Players manage a campaign of undisputed supremacy by building one or more bases of operation from which they attempt to defeat anyone silly enough to oppose them.
While some games limit battles to the scope of ‘merely’ moving units around on the campaign map, others like Phoenix Point and XCOM put players in the additional role of field commander – whose task it is to direct every step of the battle, turn by turn.
Players are offered an obfuscated overview of the map from which they can start to seek out and neutralise enemy units using their own (often customised) soldiers and vehicles. Each unit possesses a fixed amount of time units or action points per turn with which to move, seek cover or engage an enemy. When all units have done what they can within their allotted time, control is handed over to the opposition who will then try to tip the balance in their favour before ending their turn and handing control back to the player. The outcome of these battles determines overall progress on the campaign map.
There is of course more to it than that – with many games also featuring a multitude of rivalling factions, forcing players to use diplomacy as an integral part of their tactical arsenal.
If all of this is really new to you – then I wouldn’t recommend Phoenix Point as your foray into the genre. It would probably be better to play XCOM: Enemy Unknown first if you want a comfortable yet satisfying start – or XCOM: UFO Defense if you consider yourself a hardcore purist that is a glutton for punishment.
At a Glance
Phoenix Point is very much the spiritual successor to the original (1994 – 1997) XCOM series that Julian Gollop set out to make. While it takes a few cues from the Firaxis/2K reboot in its tactical / mission mode, its overview or ‘geoscape’ mode and accompanying strategic elements have at first glance been plucked right out of the 1994 original.
In many ways the game seems to walk the fine line of avoiding to infringe upon the IP trademarks and copyrights that are now held by the current owner of Mr Gollop’s brainchild. That which 2K/Firaxis incorporated into the reboot was left mostly untouched, while that which was left behind was picked up and brought back to life in Phoenix Point. It’s an impressive feat: design a new game that doesn’t infringe on the creator’s lost IP by creating a new setting, backstory, and tactical setup that still leaves plenty of room to give fans what they would expect from a spiritual successor to the 1994 classic – and to do so both believably and entertainingly.
A few things that were reintroduced and enhanced in Phoenix Point;
(that were sorely missed in the XCOM reboot):
- free aiming (1): shoot at anything at any time to create a path
- free aiming (2): aim for specific body parts to maximise damage and avoid armour.
- multiple bases: with vessels, operatives and facilities, not just aircraft hangars.
- multiple field teams
- ranged stun weapons
Apart from that, the game features additional tactical layers (and accompanying difficulties / points of frustration) – such as destructible weapons and ‘active’ factions.
Destructible weapons are both delightful and highly frustrating… Players can target specific enemy body parts in the hopes of incapacitating them, effectively leaving an enemy defenceless. The same also holds true in reverse – get shot or touched by an enemy (or sometimes it seems even looked at the wrong way) and find your weapon destroyed.
While the War of the Chosen DLC in 2016’s XCOM 2 features a number of factions, they are anything but active and seem to purely exist passively at the behest of the player. In Phoenix Point however factions are akin to 1997’s XCOM Apocalypse. They will either assist or actively seek conflict with the player as well as other factions – depending on both the players actions as well as the procedural elements in the game.
The game also claims to have evolution of enemy units based on the players style of combat – but it seemed to me that it really comes down to giving the aliens better weapons and more shielding at every step forward.
Graphically I would put the game between Xenonauts and the 2012 reboot of XCOM. It is certainly a lot more polished than Xenonauts (including the upcoming Xenonauts 2 sequel) – but lacks the XCOM reboots deluxe camera effects, zoom levels, special effects and cutscenes – despite having superior textures and artwork. 2016’s XCOM 2 however graphically trumps Phoenix Point in every possible way despite being 3 years older. The difference in development budget can clearly be seen on this front.
All in all – Phoenix Point is a great game and a worthy spiritual successor to the XCOM family of games. Potential players must realise though that Phoenix Point is not affiliated with the XCOM franchise in any way whatsoever. It is not a sequel, it shares none of the lore and backstory and thus should not be confused with XCOM in any way. It is a standalone game in the spirit of the original XCOM series as it was from 1994 to 1997 – made by its original creator in such a way as to provide a compelling experience without infringing on the intellectual property of the continued XCOM franchise as per its 2012 reboot.
I recommend getting the game and playing it – as I also recommend getting and playing 2012’s XCOM and 2016’s XCOM 2 as well. There is great fun to be had on both playing fields.
On a personal note however I will add that I am sorely disappointed in Mr. Gollop for having dropped Linux support – which was originally promised. This was later revised to ‘not at launch time’ due to the strain it put on Snapshot’s small development team – but would be revisited later.
Here we are a year later and no Linux support in sight. Now that Mr. Gollop’s company has been purchased by Embracer Group through it’s Saber Interactive division, it is unlikely to ever happen. Snapshot should have pushed harder for Linux support.
It was difficult for me to accept the choice of Unity and C# for Phoenix Point’s development, but I could look past it. I mourned the choice to have Phoenix Point be an Epic Game Store exclusive for a year – but I understood the financial aid it would bring to a small developer. But dropping Linux support altogether – that I find an unacceptable blemish on all of this. As a long term fan of Mr. Gollop’s work I still decided to purchase and play Phoenix Point – but not without some bitterness tainting my palate in what should otherwise be a thoroughly enjoyable dish.
Analysis / In-Depth Review
The technological development of humanity has come at a cost far greater than we ever could have imagined. Our development and industry changed the face of the earth – as we unwittingly opened the proverbial ‘Pandora’s Box’.
We worried about rising temperatures and sea levels as the polar and arctic ice was melting away – never realising what we were releasing onto the world, buried deep within the ice.
A virus like no other; insidious and pervasive – merging with everything in its path, depositing its hateful nature into whatever it can grasp – before releasing it into the wild.
Waiting, watching, learning. Adapting, honing and experimenting. It will not come all at once, it has patience. It wants to be thorough – humanity must end.
Creepy, organic – almost dirty and infectious if it wasn’t offset by clean industrial design. What remains of humanity is marred by self-righteous platitudes – the results ultimately no different from that which the enemy is trying to force upon us. As time moves on – it is becoming more difficult to say which is the more infectious, or insidious.
Mechanically the campaign / global elements of Phoenix Point function like a hybridisation of the original 1994 XCOM game and modern iterations of the Civilization franchise. Game-changing choices are put before the player in the form of questionnaires, while base management and map navigation are near-identical to the original XCOM.
In-mission mechanics draw heavily upon the XCOM franchise reboot – save the addition of melee combat for any and all characters (i.e. striking with the stock of a rifle) as well as the reinvigorated ‘free aiming system’ which allows players to shoot anything at any time. Aside from creating a path and tactically selecting which body part to focus on when shooting, it satisfyingly ‘proves’ to the player that there is no line of sight – thus no way to make the shot.
Combat depth has further been increased by the very real risk of shooting team mates by accident. Overwatch is now a specific conical field of vision as opposed to 360 degree ‘awareness’ – with anything and everything being shot in the view cone. Team mates are sure to be hit by stray bullets if they’re standing between a unit and an enemy in the view cone.
Lastly – ranged stun weapons are back – which is great.
Well put together – but lacklustre. The developer did what they could with the budget they had. Cutscenes are similar to those found in XCOM Chimera Squad, while gameplay looks polished – but somewhat shallow in its presentation (not its gameplay). Zoom levels are limited as are camera effects – but design and artwork are glorious.
Music is akin to both the original XCOM series as well as that of the reboot. Little hints and samples can be heard strewn about the soundtrack. Walking around a Synedrion compound, while hearing clear auditive reminders of the ‘Temple Ship’ level of XCOM 2012. That said – it’s still a good soundtrack musically.
Voice acting during cutscenes and the aforementioned ‘questionnaire’ moments is well done – as are the results of re-using those voice talents for a number of the soldiers for in-mission segments.
Other random voice segments of in-mission units are quite terrible. Repetitive, silly, amateurish.
Anything Intel Skylake with integrated graphics or above will do at lower resolutions, while an AMD Ryzen APU will play the game perfectly at 1080p with settings dialled up to ‘high’. Anything recent and discrete should do nicely at higher resolutions.
Bugs / Glitches
None in the Steam and GOG versions – not after a year of bug fixing.
Value for Money
Absolutely. Lots of replay value. Priced lower than a 3xA game – well worth the money.