Playing any XCOM game is a march of despair. Things can go bad quickly in XCOM, but even getting there is a death march. These are the types of games where you'll miss a shot, have a soldier panic, and then see their corpse on the ground all within a few turns. Even outside of combat, there's always that knowledge in the back of your head that things are getting worse. I can count on one hand the times that I actually played XCOM 2 to completion, despite absolutely loving it.
Phoenix Point is the second title from Snapshot Games, the studio founded by Julian Gollop, designer of X-COM: UFO Defense way back in 1994. Gollop has revisited this concept of turn-based strategy a few times, with three X-COM games, Laser Squad Nemesis, Rebelstar: Tactical Command, and Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars. Gollop has reproduced and reiterated on the same formula multiple times over his career. In Phoenix Point, he sticks to what he knows, and in it, humanity is still fighting the good fight against a large alien force that's slowly encroaching on our territory. The only difference here is the true threat is something called the Pandoravirus, a mutating infection that was found by scientists within Earth's permafrost. It came from the ocean!
Phoenix Point owes much of its core to 1997's X-COM: Apocalypse. The Pandoravirus is represented as a mist that slowly engulfs the world as you play; every move, every raid, every research target costs you valuable time and continues the red mist's expansion. Your mutant enemy grows in strength as mist, mutating in response to your actions or lack thereof.
Like Apocalypse, you're also juggling the wants and needs of various human factions. Here the soldiers of the Phoenix Project are pulled between three major groups. New Jericho prizes human purity above all else, believing that superior force is needed to save the world. The Disciples of Anu is a cult that thinks that the mutations of the virus are the next step, working on creating stable human/mutant hybrids. Finally, the Synedrion are technology-heavy, living in hi-tech sealed collectives without any real leadership. I honestly disliked every faction: New Jericho is led by a purity-focused former billionaire, the Synedrion are hopelessly naive, and Anu is a creepy Cthulhu cult. I guess they're better than the virus?
These factions can't co-exist, as they have diametrically opposed ideas about how to survive. As you play, they'll not only ask you which side you stand on, but will also send you on missions that tend to hurt the other factions. Most of this politicking and skullduggery takes place on the Geoscape, an evolving version of the globe. The board game-style play largely works—you're limited in resources, so you're always trading with various faction havens or completing missions to get yourself the equipment and personnel needed to survive. They'll fight one another without your input, and you can ultimately decide where to intercede.
On the other hand, navigating the factions is what most of the mid-game is comprised of, and it's tedious right up until they realize the world is under an alien threat and stop fighting. The faction choice is largely about what sort of gear you want. The Anu have lighter gear with a focus on speed and perception, the Synedrion have high-tech energy weapons, and so on. You can only gain new soldiers through recruitment at faction havens, and they come with their faction's best gear. And since manufacturing new gear is prohibitive due to scarce resources, it behooves you to choose wisely.
Combat is where Phoenix Point is at its best, and it shows that Gollop hasn't entirely been reusing the same format. Your squad now relies on Action Points and Will Points to make decisions on the battlefield. Action Points go toward movement and standard attacks, while Will go toward class-specific special abilities. Bigger weapons take more action points, and you can even see the difference in your movement options by swapping weapons on the fly. The overall flexibility offers some tactical choices: if you're using a pistol or melee weapon, you could move, shoot, and then move again, while your heavy gunner has to choose between shooting and moving each turn. I enjoy this much more compared to XCOM 2's binary action system.
Another drastic change is the inclusion of a first-person aiming system. You can just point at your target and have the CPU take a shot, but it benefits you to aim yourself in Phoenix Point. At a base level, it offers a system similar to Fallout's VATS, where you can target specific body parts on your enemies to disable them. If you shoot a grunt's launcher arm, that take explosives off the table for that enemy. Pretty simple.
Free aim has additional benefits though. For one, you can blind fire. Phoenix Point has the fog of war for enemies, where enemy position is clouded unless you have eyes on them. You'll have a rough idea of where they are, even if you don't know the exact spot they occupy on the map. With free aim, you can actually just shoot into the fog of war and hope for the best; I've killed countless enemies within the fog, not even realizing they're dead until I come up on their position.
You can also aim at structures and cover, which are destructible. This means if you know an enemy is around the corner, you can just blow a hole in the wall with a heavy gunner, and then have your assault team take care of the rest. Free aim is simply a fantastic system, one I'd prefer the other strategy games steal wholesale. Julian Gollop is the granddaddy of XCOM, but I'm glad to see he's still got some ideas in the tank.
The drawback of the free aim system and destructible cover is that explosives are wildly overpowered. Grenades, Grenade Launchers, and Missile Launchers are amazingly strong, decently accurate, and even if you miss the splash damage will either kill enemies or leave them without cover. I honestly just let my heavy—who I named after USgamer's own Editor-in-Chief Kat Bailey—lob grenades where I think enemies will be and that generally does the trick. Explosives need a few more limitations in regards to overall balance.
Phoenix Point also has a variety problem. The game relies on a lot of procedural generation to populate maps and new havens. A few hours in, you'll have the general lay of the maps: one city type for each faction, and the alien nests. Missions are largely the same: kill everything, grab resources, or don't die while something tries to kill you. Over the course of the game, you'll run into the same tilesets and objectives many, many times. With the limited resources, similar missions, and occasional difficulty spike, it can feel like you're just grinding at times. I think ultimately that procedural-generation was a good idea, but Snapshot needed to add a few more hand-crafted maps to break things up.
Speaking of variety, the enemies are supposed to mutate over the course of play, depending on which factions they overcome and which tactics work against your squad. Theoretically, this means that enemies get more armor in response to my explosive might, or mutate to toward longer-ranged weaponry. And while I definitely noticed that enemies were changing, it should be far more dramatic. Many of the upgrades feel like they're based more on your position in the campaign, rather than anything that specifically happened during your game. I was fighting crab guys, and now I'm fighting crab guys with more armor; there's little indication of that being a meaningful consequence of my actions.
Phoenix Point comes from a smaller developer, rather than the deeper resources Firaxis has to draw upon for XCOM, meaning the technical execution isn't 100%. I wish there has far, far more soldier customization, as part of the fun of these games is sending your friends, family, and coworkers into combat. The armor customization itself is fine, but it would be better with something like more facial options. The hair options simply look terrible, like plastic laid on top of the characters' heads. Voice acting is likewise rough. And Phoenix Point has a general number of bugs: enemy turns that hang, the occasional mystifying tactical choice by the AI, and certain effects like fire not landing where it should.
None of this is a deal-breaker, and it's stuff that Snapshot Games can hopefully clean up for future patches. And it'll have plenty of time to too: in its crowdfunding drive, it's promised five DLC releases in total.
Phoenix Point carries the general DNA of X-COM: Apocalypse forward. It's got some great ideas, but it's a little messy. A little more polish, and some more variety, and I think Phoenix Point can stand at the top of the strategy heap. You can see the seeds of something greater, it's just not there yet.
Phoenix Point fits firmly on the foundation of modern XCOM, but rethinks combat with an action point system and the ability to free aim. While the latter seems like a gimmick, it's actually a wonderful tactical option that pushes the strategy forward. It's a shame then that a reliance on procedural generation leads to a lack of variety, weapon balance isn't great, and the technical execution is rough. Phoenix Point is a great starting point for something amazing, but it's not quite there yet.