It’s a good time to be a fan of turn-based tactics games. Several challengers are stepping up to take on XCOM — from Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden, to Phantom Doctrine — and now the original creator of X-COM: UFO Defense is making Phoenix Point, a PC/Mac/Linux exclusive with some few very cool new features.
This is one that was always going to be a crowdfunding success. It has all the right elements. A big name with pedigree, the nostalgia factor, and a mixture of beloved gameplay types. Now that the crowdfunding stage is over, it’s reportedly making $100k per month on preorders.
That’ll certainly help with the growing team in Bulgaria, which started with eight and has ballooned to around 30 and counting. At the recent Game Developers’ Conference in San Francisco, we got a chance to play a level.
So what’s this one doing differently? What’s the point of Phoenix Point?
Phoenix Point Aims for Simulation
This was an oppressively hard demo. According to the developer on-hand, only a few people beat it throughout the week. It’s very early days for the game, but the developers might also just be okay with the game being really hard.
The whole scenario involved walking into a complex populated occupied by mutated soldiers, still able to fire rifles with their meaty man-pincers. It plays a lot like XCOM at its basic level. After taking out a few enemies and getting acquainted with the controls, we were ambushed by several grunts in the front, and a nasty alien Queen in the back.
These soldiers were mostly your garden variety grunt in an XCOM-like. They’d move, they’d shoot, they’d take cover. They’d put themselves into Overwatch mode, firing at you if you entered their range. But some had forward-facing shields that allowed us to witness some of the nuance in gunplay.
Rather than just going into a “shielded” state, the direction here matters. We could pump bullets into the shield ineffectively, or use our move to run around and flank the shield for a sure shot. That, of course, usually moves you forward into the risky zone of potentially discovering more enemies.
We noticed that some of the shields had holes in them, and wondered if it might be possible to aim through them somehow. Studio founder David Kaye was around, and although the poor man was visibly exhausted after a week of the Game Developer’s Conference, he mustered the energy to answer our questions.
“We were experimenting with a first-person sort of free aiming system, with some of the guns,” he told us. “All that stuff is an interesting area to explore, we think.”
The Sum of Their Parts
Depending on what weapon you have, Phoenix Point lets you target specific parts of an enemy, a la Fallout, disabling them for the rest of the fight. Our sniper could target individual parts from head to stinger, whereas a normal rifle could just point at an enemy target.
But while the sniper rifle is more exact, it’s not necessary to take out specific parts. The trajectory of each bullet is actually calculated in Phoenix Point, so if you think you’re going to hit the ideal limb anyway, you’re free to roll the dice.
If you like turn-based tactics, it’s hard to imagine a better time to be playing games. XCOM sure maybe, Hearthstone of course, but now Into the Breach, Slay the Spire… good games breed better games and as gamers we all win
— Jake Solomon (@SolomonJake) March 4, 2018
“Just by eyeballing it, you can kind of guess which body parts you’re going to disable based on where you are, where they are, and if that big arm is facing you,” according to Kaye.
This can result in some interesting situations. Seeing the Queen’s ability to one-hit our soldiers with her pincers, we managed to shoot both of them off, leaving her with no attacks and only able to trample things with her movement.
Mind you, that’s still quite a threat. Any building unlucky enough to get in her way was instantly demolished, and any unit in said building would suddenly be having a bad day.
Other people at the booth tried shooting her legs — unable to move, her melee-only attacks were far less threatening. At great cost to our soldiers, we experimented with blowing up the giant egg-sac-thingy behind her, which didn’t cause the instant death we were hoping for. Perhaps it’s just more of a big, easy target.
This system can also be used against you. We frustratingly had a soldier get shot in his right hand. The otherwise healthy unit couldn’t fire his weapon, and was useless for the rest of the round (except perhaps as a decoy).
According to Kaye, Phoenix Point is aiming for there to be no “right” answer here. The goal is to create possibilities, and let interesting strategies emerge.
“We model each bullet. So when we show you the chance to hit, it’s telling you each bullet’s chance. And then it’s giving you a kind of estimate of how much damage you would do,” he told us.
“So the whole idea is for those systems to interact with each other, and for you to just get quite an organic feel. I think one of the things that can sometimes be a challenge in XCOM is that classic situation when you miss the 99% dice roll shots. And then everything goes horribly wrong. Whereas here, you can have a broader range of outcomes on an individual action. You might do SOME damage because half the bullets hit, versus just an all-or-nothing.”
There’s the option to use explosives as well — which is always a good option, destroying both cover and enemy armour — but these are a finite resource. One particular heavy soldier had a one-two combo of rocket launcher that would shred armour, and minigun that would spray bullets into a vulnerable enemy.
This particular mission was fighting against one of the game’s factions, New Jericho. But from the sound of it, Phoenix Point will allow players to decide which factions they’ll be friendly or hostile towards. These will have their own ideologies and technologies, and their own feelings about how to deal with the alien threat.
“We’re huge fans of the Firaxis XCOM but I think one of the things that got lost in the streamlining was that sort of Civ-like feel, more of that 4X feel that the original had,” says Kaye.
“And the goal here is there are multiple factions that you can have different kinds of relationships with, and the world is really running a simulation. You’re going to interact with that simulation and have an important impact on it, but it’s not quite as linear a feel as the XCOM reboot had, I’d say.”
While the release is expected towards the end of the year, Phoenix Point is offering early access to the game after April 30th on its store.