Phoenix Point — X-COM creator’s latest game struggles for balance

"Tiny! TINY! Stop dicking around and get down here!"
In Phoenix Point a strange virus has emerged and transformed the seas into mist. Out of that mist emerge strange, mutated creatures that devastate the human race. You take control of one cell of the Phoenix Project, a worldwide force dedicated to fighting global catastrophe. When your cell is activated though, you find yourself alone, cut off from the rest of the Phoenix Project, and surrounded by enemies. You must forge alliances with the fractured remnants of the human race, battle the hostile Pandoran threat and solve the mystery of what happened to the rest of the Phoenix Project.

Coming out of an extremely successful crowdfunding campaign in 2017, Phoenix Point is the return to the gaming scene of Julian Gollop, creator of the original X-COM series. Some of my formative gaming experiences, as a teenager, were playing Terror from the Deep and X-Com Apocalypse. The latter, in particular, had an incredible amount of depth to it and so many well-executed layers of gameplay that it was with no small sense of expectation that I approached Phoenix Point.

The pedigree of its creator is stamped all over the game and it is initially reassuring to see that Gollop hasn’t strayed too far from the thinking of those early games. Phoenix Point operates on two main layers; a tactical layer where soldiers engage the Pandoran threat in isometric maps using an action point-based system and a strategic layer where information gathering on the world map, base planning and interactions with other factions of humanity take place.

The world map
“Oh brother, where Anu thou?” Puns are not Phoenix Point’s strong suit.

The tactical layer is fairly familiar; more of a twist on the standard than a reinvention. Your small squad of soldiers (or vehicles) has a number of action points that can be used to move about the map, fire weapons or activate special abilities. Phoenix Point shies away from the modern X-Com conceit of working in whole action point units. It is entirely possible to move a distance that will consume half an action point, spend several AP shooting and then spend the other half an action point moving again. This small change offers a world of tactical opportunities as it becomes possible to shoot and then duck out of line of sight of the enemy. These options are compounded by the fact that different weapons require different amounts of action points to fire. Where a sniper rifle will take most of a turn to fire, a soldier might be able to squeeze off two, three or even four shots with a pistol or a rapid-firing assault rifle.

Every soldier in Phoenix Point has a class (or more than one sometimes) that unlocks new abilities as the soldiers gain experience. This is more flexible than X-Com as that experience can be spent to upgrade stats like move distance or health too so there are choices to make at level up between fancy new abilities or improving the fundamentals. While this is a strong idea in theory, in practice there is a fairly clear delineation between essential abilities and obvious garbage traps. X-Com does an excellent job of balancing the abilities to make each choice feel meaningful and different builds viable. That is largely lacking in Phoenix Point at the moment. There are several obviously optimal builds and deviating from them would only really be done for the sake of variety.

The soldier levelling up screen
Good ol’ Bave C. Jack and his Blaxploitation ‘stache.

At this point it probably makes sense to address the X-Com in the room. Already I have made several direct comparisons between it and Phoenix Point. Even putting aside the Julian Gollop of it all, the particular sub-genre that Phoenix Point belongs to (see also my review of Narcos: Rise of the Cartels from 2019) is so tied into its own conventions that it is difficult to review a game like this without comparing it to the best example of its ilk around. Add to that the fact that, for me personally, X-Com 2 is one of my favourite games of all time and those comparisons become even more inevitable.

It is no surprise then that, when playing Phoenix Point, I kept thinking about X-Com 2. The tactical layer in that game (and its predecessor) is so intensely satisfying, strategic and rewarding that I couldn’t help but think back to it while I slogged through another rinse-and-repeat tactical mission on Phoenix Point. It’s not that the combat is bad, it just gets very repetitive. It feels sluggish and undynamic with very little variety. This is especially true of the enemies. The game claims to have an exciting system where enemies will mutate as you play through, reacting to your style. Shoot too many enemies in the head and they will start turning up with head armour. Hide in cover too much and they will start carrying explosives. This sounds great in theory, in practice it just means enemies showing up with increasingly ridiculous amounts of armour. Very little about the way they play actually changes. It doesn’t feel like you have to adapt your tactics except to shoot them in a different bit of their crabby bodies.

An attack on a Pandoran lair
Pandoran Lairs: Eggs and jellyfish for days.

This ability to target specific bits of the Pandorans to shoot off is a space that Gollop has innovated well. Accuracy in the game is not an effect of soldier stats but of the weapon they carry and the circumstances in which they shoot. It is represented by a circular targeting reticule when you aim that shows potential spread of your bullet(s). The smaller the circle, the higher the accuracy. This means that you can target specific bits of enemies. Centre that circle over the head and a bit of the torso and the bullet will hit the head or the torso. You can aim for a spindly limb sticking out from cover but if too much of your aiming circle contains thin air then there’s a decent chance you’ll hit thin air.

In addition to this, there is a great feeling of destructibility to the environments; bullets and attacks can and will penetrate through cover or even other enemies. With heavy weapons you can just manually aim at a wall, behind which the enemy lurks, and fire. Chances are your attack will blow through the wall and hit whatever’s behind it, doing damage and removing cover. It is equally plausible to line up a sniper or shotgun shot with multiple enemies in your aiming circle and have your attack pass through the first and hit the second as well.

Phoenix Point: The first-person aiming mode
If I was to adjust this shot down I would guarantee a hit but be more likely to get the torso than the head. Choices, choices.

All of this stuff is tremendous in early missions. These kinds of exciting options make even your first two-dozen missions feel alive with potential and different approaches. It is very satisfying to deploy the new possibilities of Phoenix Point’s tactical system and this is why it is particularly disappointing when boredom starts to creep in. The fact that very little happens to actually change the way any of this works is a big hurdle to overcome in what is, unapologetically, a long game.

Apart from the lack of variety in enemies (I think, mutations aside, there are no more than seven or eight different enemy types) the lack of change in your own troops compounds the problem. Deep into the game you can still employ the same tactics you did in your second mission. New guns and new abilities too rarely open up new possibilities. It does happen, and you will find new approaches and new tactics that become viable, but it is not often enough to remain exciting. Perhaps this is more of an issue with the pacing of the game, the amount of fighting you have to do, than the “levelling up”. I found myself skipping any fight I could later in the game out of weariness at the prospect of going into battle one more time. Perhaps that’s the point and the joke’s on me. War is hell, dude.

A clip from a story cut-scene
How weird, my grandfather does that ALL THE TIME!

Now, if I’m being totally and completely honest here, some of these same complaints could have been levelled at Terror from the Deep or X-Com: Apocalypse. Sure enough, I remember well enough spending hours trudging through nearly empty buildings on the latter looking for one last hyperworm that was hiding somewhere. Those games absolutely came to life in the strategic layer though and I’m happy to report that Phoenix Point has got one of the deepest strategic layers of any game of this time. Look, X-Com 2, if you’re getting the benefit of the positive comparison then you’re feeling the sting of the negative one too. Phoenix Point outstrips its flashier, sexier cousin here by days, offering a wonderful breadth of options. The kind of depth of choice that would have X-Com 2 screaming “Neeeeeeeeeeerd!” and giving Phoenix Point a wedgie.

Fundamental to this is the Phoenix Project’s interaction with other human factions. There are three in the base game, one more in the just released, free Leviathan update and a fifth in the paid Blood and Titanium DLC. Each has its own narrative plot as well as its own personality and you’re going to need to make friends with as many of them as possible in the game. This is because the factions are your main source of new technologies and your only source of new recruits. Whilst the Phoenix Project has scientists who do research, the rewards are usually in the form of resources and, by far, the best way to get advanced technology is to get the factions to the point where they will share research, recruit their soldiers and reverse engineer their tech or steal it.

Phoenix Point: A sniper firing on overwatch
I mean, if that doesn’t cause an enemy to become alerted then I don’t know what will.

Yes, steal it. Whilst you can make nice with the factions and complete missions or help them out for reputation rewards, you can also take what you want by force. Need a new plane to carry your troops around, just go to a haven and steal one. Like the look of a fancy shotgun the New Jericho soldiers have, kill ‘em and take a few of them in loot. Need some resources, break in and raid them. Chances are that doing all of that will even make you more popular with other factions as, in a twist surprising no-one, it turns out that all the different types of humans hate each other.

Beyond the factions, there is (literally) a whole world out there to explore. Scanning on the world map will reveal points of interest you can send your team to investigate. Occasionally these will be a scavenging mission or ambush resulting in a fight but more often they will be a human haven, a narrative event where you will have to make choices or even a new Phoenix Point base for you to use to expand your operations.

An event from the game
Where is the “Hell, no, time to get outta here!” option?

The last thing you’ll find on the strategic map is the ever-creeping Pandoran mist. As time progresses it will expand to cover more and more of the Earth with human havens and even Phoenix Project bases that get swallowed up by it coming under attack. The insidious threat of the Pandorans is revealed through story missions, many of which are amongst the best missions in the game, and it is very satisfying getting through the story and finding out exactly what is going on with the threat from the sea.

Really, the key problem with Phoenix Point at this stage is balance. There have been numerous tweaks and hotfixes since it released to adjust the tactical combat, nerfing some player strategies and boosting Pandoran strengths and AI. Some of this appears to have been done a little too quickly with the result feeling like the game was just not playtested enough before full release. Getting this stuff right on a game as deep and far-reaching as Phoenix Point must be hard though and it’s good that the developers are trying to address problems and get the feel and balance of the game right. To understand the scale of the job too, know that I played over thirty hours on the game for this review and feel like, in many ways, I’ve barely scratched the surface of the possibilities.

Phoenix Point: The base layout screen
The base screen is unapolagetically ugly.

Making a recommendation for Phoenix Point is pretty tough. I respect the hell out of what Gollop and everyone at Snapshot Games is trying to do here, the ambition on display cannot be faulted. Ultimately the gameplay experience falls short of how rich and rewarding a game like this should be, however, it feels to me like the book is not yet written on Phoenix Point. The developers continue to work on the game with another big patch being released just before this review was written (disclaimer: I have not played the Leviathan patch) and one day they are going to get the balance just right. When they do, if they can avoid tinkering with it and breaking it again, what we will be left with is a monumental, deep and intricate feat of game design that will offer something to really set it apart from everything else on the market, including X-Com 2. I just hope it hasn’t put off too much of its target audience by then.

Phoenix Point is available now on the Epic Games Store and is part of the Xbox GamePass PC Beta and is coming to Steam in late 2020 or early 2021.

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