Phoenix Point Preview — Peeling Back the Mist to Save the World

With the world devastated by the Pandora Virus, a deadly mutation released by the retreating permafrost, there’s little hope left for humanity. As a matter of fact, all that remains are small pockets of rival factions, militarists, cults, and an isolated cell of the Phoenix Project operating out of the titular location, Phoenix Point.

In the released version of the game, which is tenuously scheduled for late 2018, players will command the Phoenix Point cell of the Phoenix Project, heading up one small pocket of internationally organised resistance against the creeping mists: The infection of the Pandora Virus, with strange creatures which are created by it. However, the gameplay demo, which I recently played through, instead saw players taking charge of a group of four soldiers from the New Jericho faction. Each of this team are infected, and as such have been sent on a suicide mission to have them serve some purpose before succumbing to the virus.

The suicide mission initially seems somewhat simple, secure an old base which has become overrun with the strange creatures currently infesting the world.

Phoenix Point New Jericho
While the game will certainly look familiar to XCOM fans, there are plenty of features which set the two apart.

While an early build, with the best bit of a year left of development, the demo was an interesting vertical slice of the combat in the game. It was certainly enough to underline the larger differences in combat between the game and the series it will draw most comparisons to: X-COM/XCOM. Naturally, sharing a creator (in Julian Gollop) with the original X-COM titles is bound to ensure that there’s a lot of similarities. That said, it’s easiest to draw comparisons between the modern XCOM titles from Firaxis, not least due to the more modern visuals, and the shift in scale.

Where XCOM: Enemy Unknown felt as though it amped up the combat pace of the earlier titles, and XCOM 2 moved to push players from creeping forward in slow, defensible positions, Phoenix Point introduces more technical combat and health systems, as well as major changes to the way enemies work.

Phoenix Point MutationsEnemies, being controlled by a rapidly evolving virus, evolve throughout the campaign. Something not exactly showcased during the demo, but somewhat visible through the selection of enemies on show. Of the smaller enemies, some had grown large shell-like arms which worked as shields when deployed, others had guns and grenade launchers grafted onto their limbs, deadly if allowed high ground.

It’s not just high ground which needs to be considered either, direction and cover is — as would be expected — relevant, however each bullet is individually pathed, and so errant objects, or a shield slightly in the way of the target, can be enough to waste a shot on the enemy. Flanking and, should characters have the ability, deploying targeted shots not only feels great, but is also essential to swift victories.

With each shot in the rally fired calculated, and each body part having its own armour and health, a lucky few shots can cripple an enemy body-part. The same, however, can happen to you. In the final game there will be a class who can fix limbs, however the demo lacked this, and the enemies had a penchant for shattering the right-arms of my units. Ultimately I bested the gigantic Queen with a sniper I’d written off due to them only having the ability to use their pistol. A ridiculously narrow victory, not bad for a suicide mission.

Movement is also different than in Phoenix Point’s previously mentioned contemporaries. Weapons and loadouts denote how far somebody can travel before they shoot, and those movements can be done step by step. This means you can run your sniper forward into their exertion/dash area, but then switch to a pistol when you get line of sight on an enemy, then take a shot. Movement, and a few others things, can be boosted by using up the character’s willpower pool — something which is also drawn from when you put characters into overwatch. Personally, regarding the latter, this is the best solution I’ve heard of as to prevent players from crawling forward slowly, while also allowing them to knuckle-down and hold out between turns when massively overwhelmed.

It’s not just movement which weapons affect, others carry different abilities. For instance, two of the assault characters in the demo had return-fire abilities on their assault rifles. This ability meant that if an enemy within their line of sight opened fire, then they would automatically fire a short rally back at the target, often enough to critically wound, cut, or damage encroaching enemies.

Phoneix Point Aim BodypartsWith limb-based damage, and disabled limbs seriously hindering units, included in the game there’s naturally a major advantage to using grenades and explosives. Even clipping an enemy with the periphery of a blast could be enough to prevent them killing your unit on their next turn. Never is this more obvious than when facing down the Queen, a gigantic enemy which takes up around 16 conventional tiles (with humanoids 1 tile wide) and standing about three storeys tall. The Queen can simply walk through buildings, and so much as touching a character will normally result in instant death.

The best way to deal with the Queen, in which case, is to target limbs or heads with gunfire while using explosives to strip her armour back. Something absolutely viable if you’ve preserved your explosives, which most probably didn’t in the demo.

With one of my ‘already dead’ units trampled by the Queen, and two cornered and beaten to death by crab people, my sniper managed to pull off a lucky shot on the Queen’s head, narrowly finishing the encounter. Even though — at the time of playing — I didn’t understand the willpower system, nor have much of a grasp on the new movement mechanics, it was an enjoyable and tense experience. Fans of XCOM’s modern, and X-Com’s old, are sure to find a lot of joy in the new presents provided by Snapshot Games in Phoenix Point.

Phoenix Point is scheduled to launch later this year. You can stay up to date on the game’s development on the official website. While there I highly recommend that you spend some time on the World page, and give a few of the outstanding short stories there a thorough read. Alternately, you can find a developer playthrough of the preview build below.

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  1. William Bowers says

    This actually looks a little better than I was expecting. I’m still not 100% onboard with having a movement system so much like the later XCOMs have, but I see some very important refinements here in that type of system that just make more sense, in terms of realism and player usability – which I actually like a lot. I think this is, in some ways, shaping up to be a bit of a hybrid between old XCOM and new, returning some micro management control back to the player, but in a more user friendly way than old XCOM – which was rather unnecessarily clunky when it came to soldier inventory management. We also still get that soldier viewpoint cinematic type stuff from the newer XCOMs, but also a bit more refined. I like the targeting system, which reminds me a bit of the later Fallout installments. I hope the strategic layer of this game has plenty of well thought out depth to it, which from interviews in podcasts I’ve heard sounds like that will be the case. I also see a bit of the UFO: Aftermath series in some of the enemy designs, as well as even a bit in the whole backstory – which I also think is cool. I thought that series of games was rather neat, though they generally fell short of what I think they could have been.

    1. Dann Sullivan says

      Hopefully we’ll know a whole lot more about the overworld/geosphere stuff soon. The next backer update is said to deliver on it.

      I’ve played through the demo a handful of times now, and am starting to really enjoy the more traditional action points system (I have spent a LOT of time playing Fallout Tactics and Jagged Alliance). It did take some getting used to.

      The limb deformation and multiple-shots per attack, really changes up the pace of the combat and gives the volatility of classic XCOM but, as you said, with the visual shine of the modern XCOMs.

  2. William Bowers says

    I almost kind of wish there was less of that target damage info being displayed to the player, but in this game it actually makes a fair amount of sense – especially for the larger boss type enemies. On the other hand, for smaller enemies, that are relatively far away, it would be kind of nice not to know for sure how badly you’ve hit them – other than being informed you hit them. But I guess a system feedback mechanic like that is probably better suited to a more historically accurate oriented tactical battle game, and not a Science Fiction game.

    Oh well, I guess I’ll just have to design that other particular game myself. In the meantime, this game here is shaping up to be something pretty cool, that it looks like I will very much enjoy playing once it comes out. I love turn based style tactical games like this. We have been seeing a bit more of this type of game coming out these days, or at least in the works. I’m very excited for that.

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