Team Renegade, led by the fearless Bobby Lashley, touch down on the planet’s surface on the hunt of a nasty alien menace. Spreading out and flanking the enemy, they hope to gain a tactical advantage, but this enemy would not be caught out so easily. All of a sudden the team are surrounded, shots whizzing past their ears as they crouch behind whatever cover they can find. Doc goes down. In a blind rage, their fearless leader Bobby breaks from cover and delivers a crack shot to the closest alien scumbag. He hits the monster’s weak point and it explodes, showering the nearby wall in muck. The tide of battle turns as the group fights back, sending the alien scum back into hiding.
It’s moments like these that always stand out in XCOM style turn-based tactical games. Your own team, designed, kitted and named, sent into the field with a very real chance of death. It’s what keeps you coming back, crafting your own narrative amongst the bigger picture as you fight.
Phoenix Point is brought to you by Julian Gollop, creator of the original X-COM series (back when it still had a hyphen). Even without knowing that fact, it’s easy to see where the roots of this game lie just by looking at it. As a result, everything from combat to resource management is tightly designed and well thought out.
In the near future of 2022, scientists discovered the Pandoravirus living in permafrost, but as the polar icecaps continued to melt, the virus rapidly began to spread. Cue the real fun and games. Low altitude ground was submerged by a mist transforming anything that came in contact into a mutated monstrosity reminiscent of Lovecraft’s indescribable (yet very often depicted) horrors. By the time the game starts in 2047, most of the world has been taken over by the naughty monsters and the accompanying mist. It’s down to you, the leader of the Phoenix Project to try and save humanity from destruction.
Phoenix Point takes place on two playing fields. Firstly, there’s the Geoscape from which you command your ship, the Manticore, heading to various locations within fuel range to try and uncover new locations. In doing so, the aim is to find resources, meet new factions and try to make new allies and research new tech to aid in the fight against the deadly virus.
There are three factions to break bread with – New Jericho, who want to see the world burn, the Disciples of Anu, who are loving the idea of becoming mutants, and the Synedrion, who I believe watch a bit too much Star Trek and fancy themselves as the next Borg. Oh, and they also dislike each other so good luck with that. It means pleasing them all will be night on impossible, because whenever you do favours for one, the others generally hate you for it. It’s a tricky balancing act.
Discovering their locations are handy though, because you do occasionally get to recruit new people to your squad which is always nice. If you’re feeling a little reckless, you can even raid their settlements for more resources but obviously, they will not be best pleased by this.
Certain locations let you explore the surface area, which leads to skirmishes where the perspective shifts and puts you in control of your squad of soldiers. Instead of XCOM’s system with distinct moves and actions, Phoenix Point gives you action points that can be spent however you wish. You can spend them all running from A, through B and on to C, but if you prefer to stay behind cover and spend them all on shooting, you can do that too. It makes for a more flexible feeling battle system.
There’s also the smart element of being able to manually control your shots. Moving the reticule over an aliens body parts will give you an abundance of information which will tell you whether or not it’s worth shooting. In one particular situation, I was able to shoot an alien in the kneecaps which in turn slowed its movement. Pretty cool.
Each squad member can be upgraded with a raft of class specific abilities and weapons, so you can properly fine tune them how you want. It’s all standard stuff for the genre, if a little on the light side, which you’ll either love or hate. Personally, I love having more depth and felt a little disappointed by the system. There’s a lack of real personalisation that means losing soldiers in the field doesn’t carry much weight. You want to be attached, to feel devastated when you lose someone, not just sigh and indifferently pick fresh meat for the grinder.
Heading into the late game, it’s a point where you should feel in control of what you’re trying to achieve, but here it actually feels a little hectic and unwieldy. There’s so much going on, especially in the Geoscape, that it can turn people off. Comparing it to XCOM again, and yes, things can get difficult, but XCOM never gets unmanageable. Phoenix Point can be a bit too overwhelming and the overall progression confusing.
It probably sounds like I’m being negative, but I’m not trying to be. Everything in Phoneix Point is fine, but that’s it. It’s just fine. Any game in this genre will always draw comparisons to XCOM, and while Phoenix Point is good, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d rather be playing XCOM instead. It’s like too much effort was put into creating fresh ideas, and yet it doesn’t manage to make itself feel truly different despite this. A lack of polish in some of the graphics and sound design just emphasise that feel.