Phoenix Point Backer Build 4

Phoenix Point is the upcoming turn-based tactical strategy game from Snapshot Games, led by Julian Gollop, the designer of the orignal classic XCOM UFO Defense. As an early backer of this game, I’ve been playing the 4th Backer Build.

The core of the game – turn-based tactical combat

Phoenix Point is completely unashamed of it’s roots. The lead designer is the designer of the original XCOM games and the influence of the modern XCOM offerings is impossible to ignore. But don’t get me wrong, this is not some cheap imitation, this is the real deal.

I really liked XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Actually, I loved it. In my opinion it was nothing short of a masterpiece. I think that was unfortunate for XCOM 2, because XCOM was an incredibly hard act to follow. XCOM 2 really isn’t a bad game, but I think it failed to add anything really new to the XCOM formula while at the same time presenting a weaker plot, and introducing timers into just about every mission. The occasional time limit is good, but having them so pervasive as in XCOM 2 just feels hugely restrictive in what should be a tactical combat game.

My initial impression of Phoenix Point is, simply put, that it is everything XCOM 2 should have been. Of course, this is very much an early access game at the moment but, if they follow through, I think that Snapshot Games may well produce my favourite PC game of 2019. The combat feels very much like an XCOM game but, it’s the little things that all add up to make it feel like so much more than either XCOM or XCOM 2.

One thing I like is the level of variety in the game. There are so many different weapons, and I love that you can pick up new ones and use them as you go. Also if you run out of ammo, you can (with some luck) find some more in a handy box. While this doesn’t sound like a huge deal, it is one of many nice touches that gives a much greater feeling of player agency and for a tactical game, the feeling that you are implementing your own strategy is the most important part of the experience.

One place where Phoenix Point really trumps the recent XCOM offerings is in its ballistics simulation. Instead of using a simple random number generator to decide if you hit or not, each shot fired in Phoenix Point follows a real path. And those circles you see when you’re aiming? Your bullet is going that way. What does this mean in practice? It means that there’s no more missing enemies that are standing right in front of you, giving you a playing experience that feels fair and causes much less frustration.

The geoscape

What is there to say about the geoscape? It exists, and it looks fantastic! This global view is clean, simple and has just the right level of gritty darkness to fit in with the apocalypse-caused-by-alien-virus theme. It also pauses automatically after you have done something which is a fantastic touch that I never even knew I needed. Gone are the days of desperately trying to find where I left the pause button while my fingers are paralysed with fear.

This is definitely a solid hub (on an unrelated note, I recently saw this video about hub-worlds in video games and it is awesome) for the game and makes what promises to be an excellent central menu when its finished. However, as it stands it is pretty far from being finished, with most of the menus disabled.

At the moment the pacing of this strategic overview section of the game is all wrong. I was left waiting several weeks of game time for something to happen and when it did happen I still didn’t have enough resources to do anything, so I was unable to move the narrative along myself and had nothing to do but watch the clock again. This really is fine though. This is a product still in development, and this sort of balancing won’t be finalised for many months yet. I think that so much of the game feels so finished already makes this more frustrating than it should be if I’m being fair to the game. The strategic overview/geoscape is shaping up to be at least as good as those of XCOM, XCOM 2, and Xenonauts.

Bases and Whatnot

The bases screen looks pretty simple at the moment, but what we can see is that the base system is taking on a 2D top-down approach. There doesn’t seem to be any way of building rooms in the current Backer Build but I think all of the empty spaces are a good indication that this is on it’s way and will feature in the final game. I think this is a good sign because while the ant-farm of the XCOM games is a nice idea, I love how the base you build up in Xenonauts directly maps to a battlefield when your base gets attacked. There’s not much going on here at the moment but I have high hopes for the base building aspect of future builds.

Fully Destructible terrain and really nice-looking fire… mmm toasty.

It seems that pretty much everything in Phoenix Point is designed with a degree of thoughtfulness that is a feat in of itself. Almost everything is destructible in the game. I think the only thing I wasn’t able to blow up was the cavern walls in the alien nest and the ground itself. This extreme level of smash-ability isn’t limited to terrain, however, your weapons and those of the aliens are also unusually delicate. This attention to detail is not only impressive but also serves to add a whole new layer of complexity, encouraging the player to think outside of the box and develop new strategies, which, let’s face it, is what this sort of game is all about.

On a related note, Phoenix Point is also a beautiful game, whether or not the terrain is exploding all around you. The effects and animations are pretty excellent, meaning that even at an early stage, the game feels incredibly polished. What really took me aback was when a small wormy thing exploded in a ball of flames. Now don’t get me wrong, I knew it would do something nasty, that’s not what was surprising. What surprised me was how mesmerising the resulting fire was. I think I must have just sat there watching it for 5 minutes before realising that I was supposed to be playing a game.

Deployable turrets and other exciting techno-gizmos

Stuff. We all love stuff. And so do your soldiers in Phoenix Point! Each soldier has their own inventory as in similar games. But what I love is how much different stuff there is! Even before you’ve gone on a single mission, the gear that the characters in Phoenix Point take into battle has real personality – none of this everyone just gets a rifle stuff. Because of this every character feels important from the moment the show up looking for work.

This is made even better when you realise that when on a mission you can find even more stuff in boxes spread across the battlefield. That each of member of your team has a small number of inventory slots also means that this is another point in the game where it feels like you are making important decisions that could affect not only this mission, but your future performance. Also, each of the three factions in Phoenix Point also have their own unique technologies to help you out or to withhold from you, adding an interesting diplomacy dynamic to the game as well.

My absolute favourite has to be the technician class with their weird backpack with electro tentacle zapper things and deployable turrets! I love deployable turrets and have done ever since the laptop gun in Perfect Dark on the N64. Having access to this sort of equipment so early on makes me think/hope that the best is still to come and I can’t wait to see what Snapshot games pull out of their gear-filled late-game sack at release.

The Mutating Enemy Threat

This is the feature that sealed the deal for me when I was initially thinking about getting behind this game. The narrative premise of the game is that an alien virus has taken hold over the world and this causes people, and presumably other animals, to mutate. This idea is then transformed into a key mechanic of the game. The enemies you face are essentially modular constructions, so as you progress through the game, the enemies you face will mutate into increasingly deadly forms. This is an amazing idea; not only does this introduce a huge variety of enemy combatants into the game, but it also provides a convincing and non-convoluted narrative hook for upping the difficulty as you go.

Right now the enemies are primarily made up of ‘crab men’, which, you guessed it, look a bit like crabs. However, even here you can play for hours without any exact repetition of the enemies you face from battle to battle, which is a huge step up compared to all other games I have played in this genre. I can’t wait to see what new enemies emerge in future builds.

To conclude, while Phoenix Point is still at a relatively early stage, I think its safe to say at this point that this is already a fun game with bags of potential. At this point, assuming no further delays in production, I think that this could easily be the game to buy of 2019.

Phoenix point is set to be released in September 2019 and is available to pre-order from the Phoenix Point website for $40 or from the Epic Games Store for EUR39.99 where it will be exclusively available for the first year after release. After that first year, Snapshot games plans to release Phoenix Point on both Steam and GOG.

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