Phoenix Point's success may not lie with its XCOM heritage, but in games like Fallout

By Alex Connolly 26 Nov 2018 0

A fresh serving of Julian Gollop's horror-tinged turn-based tactics game is here. As written moons ago, my fears about Gollop maybe hewing too close to his original X-COM creation were offset by a 2019 release date. Wiggle room, so to speak. Backer Build 3 doesn't do too much to ameliorate concerns, but some new elements are welcome wrinkles. As always, this is pre-release and subject to change, so let's get down to business.

The Geosphere is here, in limited form. Randomly dumped somewhere across a ravaged globe, the player starts with a home base and a dropship. Scattered about are nearby points of interest, most likely either bases belong to one of the three main factions, scavenge sites or alien hives. Dropship fuel must be managed by either returning to home base, building a fuel depot at a new and friendly locale, or calling Phoenix Point's roadside assist for an emergency fuel delivery. Range and fuel are easily parsed by a dynamically contracting circle anchored to the dropship. There's no friction beyond fuel at this point, but it's a system that works, and works well.

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Alongside the introduction of the Geosphere is a basic squad loadout screen. Here, you can paper-doll to your heart's content, and it's a good showcase of Snapshot Games' artistic chops. While still retaining the armoured bulk of contemporary XCOM, the soldiers of Phoenix Point have a slightly more conservative and tasteful look about them. Gollop's team at Snapshot did the impossible with their previous title Chaos Reborn, inflicting the right level of visual pizazz into tired old fantasy tropes, and the tradition continues here. The loadout screen offers just another example of the artistry on show, and extends throughout the already handsome game.

Mechanically, the loadout allows players not only to equip items from the base inventory, but to start revealing the manufacturing side of things. Granted, bases are nothing more than places to kit out squads and replenish ammunition, so the lack of research and diplomacy right now means there's little to do beyond loading out and up. Still, given how some some extended encounters can really put a drain on ammunition, being able to quickly manufacture magazines is welcomed.

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As mentioned, mission types have been expanded to include alien hive missions, conducted within areas of mutant control. Generally speaking, any points of interest contained within aggressor territory will be increasingly risky to explore, and generally lead to hive assaults. These are brutal encounters, and it pays to be comfortable with the tactical systems prior to punching in.

The base defense missions offer the most advanced connective tissue between tactical encounters and the Geosphere, in spite of diplomacy's absence. The factions do come under attack, and it's up to the Phoenix friends to lend a hand. Each base has a small clutch of statistics, including current garrison and adversarial strength. This shifts the longer you leave the besieged to fend off the attack, often resulting in the base falling if left alone. It paints a sense of urgency, and helps to bring life to a world that currently doesn't have much going on beyond the player.

New enemies have arrived with the third backer build, and they certainly shake things up in combat. Skittering Mindfraggers are a fast-moving thorn in one's side, closing gaps and firing their fingered membranes onto the faces of squad members. The host soldier then automatically attacks friendly troops. Players need to have teammates remove it, or shoot the parasite off in a pinch, which has its own obvious risks. Be warned of deployed turrets, as there is no finesse when they discern an enemy. There is no greater shame than having a facehugged technician taken out by his or her own automated machine gun in an effort to dislodge the beast.

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There are also tall, static mutants that spurt target-obfuscating fog, playing hell with any sort of long-range combat and demanding risky close-quarters work if they're left standing. They afford safe harbour for their chitinous brethren as well as cleaving through Phoenix soldier willpower if caught within the smog. Their weakness is in their height, and while best dispatched by explosives, these double-story puffballs can be chipped away at from a distance. Beware, as that sort of bullet sponge honeypot can take the focus away from more mobile and far more dangerous targets.

I feel this is the build where we're finally seeing the impressive combat targeting sing. In a world of XCOM dice-rolling, the fidelity of Phoenix Point's targeting is truly refreshing. It's more VATS that anything else, and the option to get manually surgical means pulling off shots that not even the target recommendation algorithm renders. In short, a soldier can tab through the available enemies in his firing vector, but you can still attempt to hit opponents that aren't significantly exposed by zooming into first-person and mousing around the landscape.

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The Mindfragger offers a perfect example of this, with its extremely low profile. Its size and speed allows it to scuttle beneath the target acquisition threshold, with an added challenge of keeping track of just where the damn things are. Being able to scan the environment for a flash of insectoid abdomen and get a shot off reaps rewards more than it doesn't. You're still dealing with the Probable/Likely hit duality, but in concert with proxy spotting by squadmates, the risk and reward feels very tactical.

Phoenix Point continues to be a very solid promise, but not a paradigm shift. Again, anything could happen between now and next year's summer release. However, it'd be a stretch to see Gollop reinventing the wheel within the roadmap’s timeline. The devil remains in the detail, and with Phoenix Point's excellent combat mechanics, that just might be enough to push the apple a little further from the tree.

Phoenix Point is due out Summer 2019.

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