X-COM: UFO Defense spawned many an imitator. Almost all of them invariably and quite horribly failed. Only the UFO series (named after the original title of the game, UFO: Enemy Unknown) did something that merited more than five minutes of attention. It wasn’t until Firaxis developed XCOM: Enemy Unknown that we get to experience the real joy of defending Earth again. So what can we expect from Phoenix Point, a game from the man who created XCOM in the first place?
First off, we’re not defending Earth from aliens. In Phoenix Point, humanity has already fallen and Pandorans — weird hybrids of human and aquatic DNA — are trying to take over the planet. Three factions struggle to survive, locked up in their havens scattered all over the world. It’s time for the Phoenix Project to rise again and save mankind from the madness and terror that’s creeping out of the sea. But will you manage to do it on time?
Terror from the Deep, but, like, good
On the surface, Phoenix Point can be described a lot like XCOM or the UFOs of yore. You have your Geoscape, the world map. You send your teams on missions, and you manage the base, perform research, and manufacture new gear. Later, you move on to the more powerful gear and even capture a few of the enemies alive. You’re there to save the world, first at microscale (from aggressive enemy attacks), and then at macro.
But Phoenix Point harkens more to UFO. For one, the organization itself has no character and you don’t interact with people. You don’t even exist as a character in the game. There are also multiple Phoenix Project bases that you have to find (and eventually defend). Over time, you grow to have multiple teams for missions. You track ammo and consumables. Finally, your characters can do a lot more than just two actions per turn.
The Geoscape is, however, a lot more involved in Phoenix Point. You don’t send intercepts, as Pandorans don’t fly, but you will be sending teams on planes frequently. The game starts with you at Phoenix Point, the main base of the “fallen” Phoenix Project. Around the geoscape exist nodes to travel to and explore.
A node can be used for an area scan — a continuously expanding bubble that reveals new nodes. They are important not only as locations of new missions, havens or even Phoenix bases, but as waypoints for your flyers. The Manticore (your transport craft) has a certain range it can reach and it resets on hitting the node, which prevents you from exploring the entire world at the get-go.
Your transport doesn’t have to remain at one spot for the area scan, but it has to be there for the exploration. If you’re lucky, it will be a one-question text adventure (usually awarding resources) or an undiscovered Phoenix base. It may be a haven for one of the three factions in Phoenix Point – -they might also offer a short text interaction or a mission. Finally, you may stumble upon a scavenging mission — or be ambushed. That’s when you go to tactical combat.
You and some army
Unlike many tactical games that are deathly afraid of giving the player more than four soldiers to control (looking at you, BattleTech), Phoenix Point starts you out with five. You start off with three Assaults, one Heavy, and a lone Sniper. But later you can grow your team to include up to eight (transport permitting). Each trooper gets eight Action Points per turn, allowing for movement and actions in any combination.
The big difference is that movement can partially deplete an Action Point while actions (using powers and fighting) only use whole points. You are a lot more maneuverable than you are in XCOM — most everyone can shoot and scoot. Thankfully, you don’t have to change stances, though I guess this is a game where you would really appreciate the ability to go prone in the open.
Each of your soldiers also has a pool of Willpower points. They both fuel powers and act as the soldier’s morale gauge. Curiously enough, this applies to aliens as well. The game even shows their Willpower expenditure the same as it does with your guys. Unlike Action Points, this is determined by your trooper’s statline. It’s also used to do some hilarious nonsense.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. One great weirdness that separates Phoenix Point from XCOM is the real simulated combat. Each shot/bullet is simulated and they hit the target if they don’t scatter too much or don’t hit any particularly disagreeable cover along the way. In fact, you can even fine aim yourself in the first person. This is extremely important when it comes to the fact that Phoenix Point is obsessed with location damage.
Carving up a meat popsicle
In XCOM, your soldier is a human-shaped slab of meat, uniform in consistency. It doesn’t matter where he gets hit — he doesn’t have any structural components that can be damaged. This is decisively not so in Phoenix Point. Limbs, fancy armor attachments (like auxiliary missile launchers) and even guns have their own HP pools that can be depleted. Sure, you don’t have to cripple all the limbs to kill someone — an overall health pool exists — but crippling (“disabling,” as the game calls it) limbs is of paramount importance.
No other game that features headshots places so little emphasis on their impact on your well being like Phoenix Point. This is probably because due to a weird quirk targeting and probabilities, but your troopers will get shot in the head quite often.
Luckily for you, headshots merely deplete your maximum willpower. For human soldiers, crippling a limb early in the match might call for savescumming. Moving slower due to a disabled leg is bad enough; not being able to use a shotgun due to hand injury is a possible death sentence for the mission. Health packs can heal you to full health, sure, but they won’t fix limbs.
Incidentally, limbs are fixed at the end of the mission — but HP isn’t. However, your operational tempo in Phoenix Point is curtailed not only by trooper health but also by stamina. Your troops lose a fixed amount of it per mission, which can lead to exhaustion and having less AP. In other words, rest your soldiers!
Phoenix Point on point
But once you’re fighting Pandorans — the human/whatever hybrids created by Pandoravirus (one word, at the game’s insistence) — you need to go for the limbs. Your most common enemy will be the humble arthron, the crab man. As the Phoenix Point continues, they will accrue more armor and deadlier abilities. But one thing will remain the same: their weapons connect to their bodies via arms that are not much more than a few fat strands of cartilage. Literally disarming arthrons is the number one most important task of any sniper. Watching an armless arthron dash to the edge of the map while slowly bleeding to death is a hoot.
And when it comes to tritons — sneaky dudes who rely on stealth and skills rather than armor — you may be tempted to shoot the weapons themselves. They’re using the same human stuff that you do, and sniper weapons are deadly.
But no matter how powerful a weapon is by itself, it’s the powers that lead to ridiculous abuse and nonsense in Phoenix Point. Here’s an example: a sniper rifle shot costs three points of your four AP. Quick Aim power (snipers get it at level 3 or so) shaves a point off the cost to fire and makes the shot more accurate for paltry two Willpower. So by expending four WP, your sniper can either completely disarm a single arthron or deprive two of their most dangerous weapons (the grenade launcher).
Class warfare ft. aliens
However, Phoenix Point also delves into multiclassing. Come level 4, you’ll be able to choose another class (of the ones you have access to) to branch into, immediately gaining all of their weapon proficiency and ability to buy their powers. I got my Sniper to go the Heavy route to get access to their jetpacks, realizing having the ability to immediately reach the highest point of the map would be a tantalizing gift for a marksman.
What I didn’t know was that, later on, Heavies get the ability to just magdump. That is, fire a gun until the magazine runs out at the enemy for three AP. Imagine a Sniper, wielding the most powerful single-shot weapon class in the game, being able to fire 10 times at any target in his sights. Imagine that same Sniper using that power to fire Synedrion’s 22-round magazine laser pistol, that has have the range of a sniper rifle.
However, many classes benefit the most from branching into Assault, as it has two killer abilities. The first one allows them (at level 2) to automatically fire back if their the enemy attacking them or their comrades is in range. Combos great with enemy melee troops engaging someone armed with a shotgun. Pretty sweet, huh? Well, how about Dash (level 3), the ability that allows you to move two AP-worth of range for four Willpower points? This is amazing for any class, and especially important for those who want to go close range…or escape.
The only limitation on Willpower is that it doesn’t regenerate. You need to spend a turn resting (recovers half of your WP stat in WP) or kill enemies. If you (or the enemy) go into negative WP, the soldier in question will panic, run away for a turn and then rest to recover their wits. And phi powers only care for your current AP level, so running hot and running out is potentially bad.
It’s a big apocalyptic world out there, Charlie Brown
But let’s take a hard turn here and talk about factions in Phoenix Point. The three human factions that still remain on Earth are New Jericho (fascist jarheads run by an egomaniac billionaire who likes to talk about will a lot), Synedrion (anarcho-communists that are inexplicably the iFuture science faction) and Disciples of Anu (a religious cult that views Pandorans as aggressive pinatas filled with tasty mutagen that will allow them to grow closer to their god). None of them like the other and each of them has its own technological bent.
Unlike in XCOM, you are not breathlessly researching things to maintain at least parity in the armament race. The stuff you can wrest from the factions and reverse engineer are, at first, sidegrades rather than upgrades. For example, the New Jericho assault rifle trades some range and rate-of-fire for higher damage per shot. Synedrion believes in range and deep magazines. Disciples believe that range is cowards and just dump everything into damage: their shotgun and pistol are ridiculous, and they’re the ones with a dedicated melee class.
You can gently side with the factions and advance in their factions quest chain alongside with advancing your plot quest. This may or may not be harder to do depending on how far your Phoenix Point headquarters spawned from plot-important Phoenix bases.
They also have their own science track, which invents new ways of dealing with increasing Pandoran armor and their larger creatures. New Jericho does it via armor-piercing rounds and fire weaponry, Synderion goes after stealth and poison, while Disciples get weird and invest into viral (saps will) and acid (eats armor before digging into flesh) attributes. You can steal the tech from them, acquire it in the field (by defending their havens and such) or just get allied, at which point you get it for free. They also have their own projects for combating the mist — and they might fight each other.
I would write more about the downsides, but…
Everything up there sounds cool, right? Yeah, it does, because Phoenix Point is cool. However, it is all very unpolished. It unfortunately lacks the immersion you get from XCOM and all the story into which you’re subjected. The UI is adequate in missions, but is not that great in Geoscape — and managing a few teams at the same time is a chore. You have the quality of life indignities, like forgetting to refill ammo between missions, hounding you.
Some subjects of research are just superfluous busy work. Do I really need to research each faction after meeting them, especially since it doesn’t give any effect aside from a video that should have played when I met them? Do I really need two separate technologies to be able to recruit from havens (you can’t get new troops otherwise) and to trade resources with them? And so on.
Oh, and there’s a boatload of balance issues that could and should be addressed in patches. Any enemy with an area of effect weapons is nearly a death sentence to your team. That’s why I talked about disarming anthrons — their machine guns might score headshots half a map away, but at least it’s not grenades raining down on you.
And while I appreciate the organic suggestion to scatter my troops a little, the way Chirons’ scaling is ridiculous. First, they shoot immobilizing goop, which is a nuisance, then they start firing salvos of exploding worms. It’s annoying, but they don’t activate on the turn they land, allowing you to shoot them dead. But then they launch acid artillery salvos, which can kill troopers in a single hit.
Meanwhile, you’re getting stuff that’s just inadequate. While I can understand Anu getting viral and acid weaponry that weakens the enemy for psi powers and melee attacks respectively, that doesn’t change the fact that the enemy is able to strike back before they take effect. The mutogs — Disciples’ vehicle-class units, basically giant mutant attack lizards — look cool, but are too fragile and deal not enough damage for something that takes three troop slots on a transport. Oh, and destroying Pandoran lairs and nests quickly becomes a chore – especially once you work out a system to do it.
So in the end, Phoenix Point is an engrossing project that has many a flaw and rough edge. You’d think, by the length of this article, that the game is bloody amazing. And in many ways, it is, in that it tries to be both the old X-COM game (rather than XCOM) while also being different and unique. However, it lacks polish in basically every area of the game. And when that’s done (patches do wonders), we can see if the gameplay can win over the lack of immersive story.