Phoenix Point Review03 Dec 2019 0
Phoenix Point Review
Released 03 Dec 2019
Every person is the hero of their own tales. Whether it’s Starship Troopers’ bugs or XCOM’s aliens, being the Earth’s saviour has always held an imperative allure. X-COM’s creator is fully aware of that, and Julian Gollop’s latest title exchanges the vastness of space for the depths of the ocean, pitting humanity against mutated seafood borne out of a virus unleashed by the melting of the polar caps. It's a bit contrived, as a plot, and it utilises the creatures’ virus and habitat to endanger the Earth, adding a timer until its irreparable demise.
You are the ‘leader’ of Phoenix Point, HQ of the Phoenix Project (In Phoenix, Arizona?-ED). I say this hesitantly, because the game does not bestow you a rank, title, name, or position, and generally makes zero effort to give the organisation any character whatsoever. You are unceremoniously thrown into the command chair by a video message from the previous Phoenix Project leader, with no knowledge as to why or how you were chosen, or even where you were when the message reached you. Your character and Phoenix Point itself are a blank slate. Halo Reach’s Noble Six has more character than you do.
After a brief tutorial where you guide two (eventually three) soldiers towards Phoenix Point and clear its flight deck, the game opens up into the base management and geoscape strategic layers, allowing you to scan the world for points of interest and send out dropships to investigate them. This is how you contact with any of the three NPC factions that are trying to survive the Pandoran Pandemic in their own way. The way you interact with them and their havens -- be it protecting, stealing from, sabotaging, or raiding -- will determine which quests and services you get from these groups.
Unlike Firaxis’ XCOM, Phoenix Point is much more proactive. Aside from defending bases and human havens within your area of operations, you can do a lot of active searching for missions as well. Each aircraft has an operational range it can continuously fly around until it runs out of fuel and needs to resupply at a base or friendly settlement. It only needs to go back to a Phoenix Project base when soldiers or vehicles take damage or need a new loadout. Interestingly, you can field several aircrafts in different AOs around the world, allowing you to hit multiple regions at the same time and launch missions in quick succession while the dropships are still in transit.
The tactical missions themselves are vastly different from what we’re used to seeing in this space. PP doubles XCOM’s action points to 4, allowing you to move or shoot up to four times, depending on the AP cost of each action. Special classes abilities, like the Heavy’s Jetpack or the Assault’s Dash, require Will Points which are gained or lost when performing or suffering good/bad actions. This works well enough to create an interesting balance between spamming abilities and making sure your soldiers don’t panic due to low Will. The AP system works well with most classes aside from the Grenadier and the Sniper, who are currently under-powered thanks to poor balancing between mobility, accuracy and shot costs.
Phoenix Point also swears off the classic, visible percentage shot in favour of a more opaque health colour system. When aiming at an enemy, you get a series of white chevrons on their red health bar indicating how much damage each shot will make -- the whiter the chevron, the higher the chances of hitting. However, bullets are also fully simulated objects, meaning they can hit cover and be completely blunted by the surface in front of the enemy.
These mechanics are perfectly sound on paper, but the way they intersect is frustrating. Your soldiers display all the tactical awareness of a floppy jellyfish, being unable to tilt their weapons around a light post or aim for the enemy’s exposed parts when taking a shot. They are even unable to crouch when in the line of fire of another soldier, resulting in highly vexing instances of toally avoidable friendly fire. This dogged refusal to behave like humans instead of little computer men has shattered my immersion on more than one occasion. In XCOM, even though bullets are not ‘real’ projectiles, soldiers will still crouch when you aim in their direction and flinch when a weapon is fired at close range. Phoenix Point’s lack of detail in this area is disappointing, and it makes you risk shots that would definitely down an enemy but may also end up hitting your own people.
Phoenix Point tries to compensate for this by allowing you to manually aim shots. The health bar/colour system still applies, meaning even perfectly aim shots may still miss, but it gives you a bit more control over where in the enemy’s body your troops are targeting. The interesting aspect here is the ability to target different limbs to generate different results, similar to Fallout’s VATS. Shoot an arm out and the enforcers drop their shields, shoot a leg out and they start bleeding to death and can’t move far, etc... Unfortunately, given the game’s accuracy system, even aiming around a friend can still end up with you unloading half a magazine into the back of their head.
Keeping to the theme, Phoenix Point has a lot of depth to logistics. You must manufacture every single armour, weapon, and item your organisation uses -- or take them from the field/allies -- creating a constant need to be aware of your stocks. While larger items like guns and vehicles can take many days to complete, supplies tend to be practically instantaneous. A good thing, since all ammo magazines and grenades used will need replacing.
To make full use of those items, the game features an inventory system for each character, composed of three slots for ready use, and several more in storage. You are free to stop and rummage through your inventory at any time, although moving items from the ready belt to the backpack costs an action point. When finding items in the wild and in loot crates, you can open the inventory and load your soldier up with objects mid-mission, but going over their encumbrance results in mobility penalties.
Speaking of soldiers, Phoenix Point’s treatment of “the squad” is equal parts detailed and shallow. The game lack’s XCOM 2’s breadth of customisation options (although is on-par with XCOM: Enemy Unknown), but each character unlocks a second class at Level 4 which allows for the mixing and matching of talents/perks from different trees. At the same time, the game only features three classes to start with; you can unlock a Psi Soldier later on, though that requires side-factions stuff. Weapons do not follow the classic upgrade-tier formula either: damage and range are based on which faction made it. It is an interesting system, but Gollops’s never been one for in-game help - you’ll end up doing a lot of experimenting.
As the creator of XCOM, comparisons between this, the original X-COM and Firaxis’ own XCOM take are inevitable. I feel it’s important at this point to talk about Phoenix Point’s lack of character. While the game does have a semblance of a story complete with side-factions and faction leaders, it lacks other nuances, like base personnel. This really makes you appreciate how important Central Officer Bradford was to Firaxis’ XCOM games. The presence of a couple of named characters representing dozens of individuals is an extremely effective narrative tool -- one that Phoenix Point ignores to its detriment.
The bases seem to be completely automated, both maintaining themselves and performing activities like research, food production and manufacturing without human oversight. No explanation is given as to where your first soldiers (and dropship pilot) come from, or who is operating the base and keeping it operational when these are on deployment. The base management -- just like the combat, the soldiers, the enemies, and everything else -- feel cold and distant; an engineer’s game, lacking the human passion and artistic flourishes that made the Firaxis’ version feel so human. In Phoenix Point, instead of the Commander of an international, vital organisation, you feel more like an RTS-god magically overseeing everything through the power of clicks and interfaces.
As important as I feel the above is, the biggest issue I had with the game is its inherent detachment. Phoenix Point commits one of the cardinal sins of game design: allowing bad things to happen that you have no control over. A lot of modern games give player’s choice and make the consequences known, or at least go some-way towards highlighting why the bad things happened. Phoenix Point feels very detached, and leaves some distance between player actions and the end result. Sure, sometimes you will lose soldiers to bad tactics or planning, other times it’s because your sharpshooter will fire three revolver shots into the box in front of them and the soldier standing on the other side, instead of leaning one inch to the right and avoiding both to hit the enemy. It is the kind of event that can’t be planned for, nor can it be avoided, and ends up punishing the player regardless of where the fault lies. That lack of accountability is, in a word, very frustrating (That’s two words-ED).
This is a very different strategy game to anything currently available. In a weird way, it’s an experience removed from time - a re-imagining of X-COM that draws a little bit from modern interpretations, but also sticks close to design goals and ideas twenty years out of date. Some issues I had with the original X-COM linger, and Gollop also doesn’t seem to have found that human touch that made Firaxis’ own take so appealing.
Phoenix Point works, and is overall pretty good - the strategic layer puts you in charge of multiple squads, vehicles and bases while at the same time conducting diplomacy, research and managing logistics. Truth be told, I almost wish that I could play Phoenix Point without the tactical battles, as at the moment the tactical layer feels sterile, and can be a bit obtuse. For all its highs, it also boasts some serious lows, and the end result is equal parts interesting and slightly off-putting.