Year of the Phoenix: Phoenix Point's Backer Build hints at a glorious future for turn-based strategy16 Jul 2018 0
Hello, this is your guide to Phoenix Point’s second backer beta. Please keep all arms and legs inside the vehicle unless you're aiming your firearm at a chitinous horror. This journey will take us on a regularly updated road to release in 2019, so please fasten your seatbelts and brace for ramming.
Phoenix Point won't be out till 2019, but there are plenty of other excellent turn-based strategy games you can play in the meantime!
Julian Gollop, strategy game doyen of alien invasions, has returned in what he describes as the spiritual successor to X-Com: Enemy Unknown and X-Com: Apocalypse. At a casual glance, you'd be excused in thinking this was a Firaxis XCOM spin-off, and Gollop certainly admits that the modern incarnation of the venerable series has some influence as well. However, in place of the B-grade movie hijinks of the XCOM reboot, Phoenix Point is going for a much darker tone, and a more intricate meta-game.
Following the discovery of an alien virus in the thawing permafrost of the Arctic, a pandemic rolls across the world with devastating consequences. Though not yet to seen to the fullest extent in this pre-alpha build, there are chimeric DNA exchanges and -- as illustrated in something like Alex Garland's Annihilation -- it's a genetic free-for-all. Phoenix Point's current bestiary is all about spindly hybrid crustaceans, so pack that crab cracker. Snapshot have talked about a greater regional authenticity to its hybrid generator. Lion hybrids for battles fought on the African continent, for example.
But, we can only talk about the nitty-gritty of the current pre-alpha build today, which is a two-serve release of a campaign mission, and a weapons-free affair that just stacks your squad against procedurally-generated and placed enemies. The former element refers specifically to the enemy body and weapon composition, which should be a highlight going forward for the game and a driving force for theme.
Mechanically, Phoenix Point's current build is a very easy thing to parse, especially if you've been binging the recent Firaxis efforts in the intervening years. Grid-based, movement bifurcated between short-range with action points to space and an AP-sucking sprint that leaves a squaddie positioned but tactically short-of-breath.
Willpower is Phoenix Point's stamina. Sitting atop the armour and health of a trooper, willpower fuels special abilities in conjunction with action points. Setting a soldier to overwatch mode consumes the entire turn's AP stipend, plus some willpower. Class-specific abilities like firing extra shots or trading for a few extra action points all hinges on this pool.
There is a trade-off; willpower also stipulates the psychological state of the soldier in question. Gambling away a trooper's willpower means that any received attack might cause them to break and run, putting a real dent in the ability to synergize with the squad to put behemoths down fast. Troops also suffer a willpower depletion when a squadmate dies, in keeping with the concept. It's a tidy wrinkle, and mechanically feels right at home in the game's themes of horror.
Each squadmate can cycle between up to three weapons or utility tools, with room in a small inventory to carry additional gear found in-field. This also feeds into encumbrance, meaning greater expenditure on movement and ability to dump AP into other activities.
Both maps available in the current build are a nice mix of bunkers, hangars, towers and courtyards. This affords a really good sense of the combat interplay. Being able to interrupt an enemy from different locations can pay dividends when you start seeing the targeting system and effects work. Phoenix Point has a Fallout-like VATS system, selecting different sections of the body for targeting in something like Jagged Alliance, with the knock-on effects readily obvious. Disable a particular weapon arm, it can't be used or at least fired with any scintilla of effectiveness. There's also the chance to make parts bleed, which damages the sufferer each turn until medical attention or death. This is also true for your troops, so getting the bandages or medi-guns on a bleeding wound is paramount.
The campaign mission has troops rolling up on a base in the early game, requiring the squad to reach certain areas in the base to wrest it from hybrid control. These particular points are also the randomly generated mission, and each discrete area affords not just objectives, but willpower rejuvenation for the entire squad. Both the campaign mission and the random mission end with a gigantic behemoth crab queen making an appearance, destroying much of the level with its massive form as it thunders around in search of fresh meat. It soaks up a lot of ordnance, including repeat salvoes from the pilotable LAV's remote turret. Given its one-hit kills against troops, the crab queen can set in motion a chained willpower depletion, given the consequential loss of a soldier and in turn, all the firepower they could have brought against the giant.
The fundamental tactics of Phoenix Point are top-shelf. They work well, the scale is quite impressive, and the levels detailed and deliciously destructible. But it's also a game that shares about 99% of its mechanical DNA with the recent crop of XCOM games. The reason Phoenix Point is so easy to play is because you've played it before. More of such quality is welcome, but swatting ennui will come when we start to see the meta elements. The aesthetic can only carry the game for so long. There's talk of Phoenix Point's overarching strategic module taking many cues from grand strategy games, though I suspect it will be a while before this ambitious vision is knitted into the tactical level.
Even so, I already like it more than XCOM. I like the limber, grotesque physicality of these enemies and the ability to be surgical with the zoomed targeting. The atmosphere is unsettling and the sound design decidedly eerie. These are early days, and while the grand sinews of the intermission are currently missing in action, 2019 could very well be Phoenix Point's year.
Phoenix Point is due out early 2019, although you can start playing the alpha now if you pre-order.