Why I love Phoenix Point – and why you should too!

OK – hear me out. I know that the general consensus is that Phoenix Point hasn’t lived up to the promise, or to the hype, but I disagree. This game, designed by legendary XCOM creator Julian Gollop, deserves a lot more love – and recognition that he has pulled-off a major feat.

Action from Phoenix Point - two soldiers on a scavenging mission

Phoenix Point in action

Having put over 100 hours into the game, not only do I really like it, but I think that it is one of the most intriguing games released for several years. In this post, I’m going to explain why.

I’ll start by saying that I have played every single XCOM game (even the frustrating The Bureau) since I first fell in love with XCOM: UFO Defense in 1994. Back then, I was running it on my Commodore Amiga 1500 and was fascinated by the depth of play, grittiness of story, and the evil ferocity of the aliens. It ushered in a new genre and spawned 12 other games, with the franchise hitting its peak in 2016 with the widely acclaimed XCOM 2 from Firaxis Games.

Like millions of other gamers, I have put hundreds of hours in XCOM 2. I was hungry for more and so was excited to learn that Gollop was working on a new game and was quick to back it on fig.co back in 2017 and waited in great anticipation.

As I played through the backer builds, I saw the game slowly coming together but found that the graphical polish and quality that we hoped for were not there. Some of the stunning original concept art demonstrating a slick, futuristic interface didn’t make it into the final production release.

I was initially underwhelmed on my first play, with many game-breaking bugs and glitches and a lack of polish. Still, I persevered and was rewarded by one of the most engaging, thoughtful games that I have played for a long time. This is particularly impressive considering that the game was built on a modest budget, a new team that Gollop assembled in Bulgaria – with just 55 people and no flashy Silicon Valley.

For all of its polish and fantastic storytelling, XCOM 2 doesn’t quite evoke the same emotional response that XCOM: UFO Defense did. Its slick, smooth engine delivers excellent entertainment and is the foundation for some engaging storytelling, but lacks the gritty realism that many turn-based players like. While Phoenix Point is missing some pizzazz, it makes up for this in its soul, and by creating a more in-depth, more involved experience than similar games.

I can see a skeptical look on your face, but let me explain why I think that Phoenix Point will eventually become a classic…

Things to love about Phoenix Point

This is not an XCOM vs. Phoenix Point argument; I think that comparing the two is unhelpful. XCOM2 is a beautifully polished product that delivers hundreds of hours of entertainment and is my favorite game of all time. Still, Phoenix Point has its own merits, and I have enjoyed both immensely, despite their differences:

1. Sophisticated Damage Engine & Targeting System

In Phoenix Point, each bullet follows its own trajectory leading to a much more realistic feel for most weapons. Still, Phoenix Point’s pièce de résistance is the granular damage system that allows you to target individual body parts with varying effects.

Sending an Arthron scurrying away in a panic after surgically removing its arms with a couple of carefully placed sniper shots, is a joy to behold.

While at first some enemies may seem overpowered, only by fully embracing this new damage system will you ultimately prevail? Fighting acid-bombing Chirons is initially terrifying until you realize how quickly you can debilitate them by destroying their abdomens.

Sirens’ ability to get three of your soldiers under mind control in just one turn seems initially ridiculous until you discover that a single Virophage sniper shot to their head is enough the deny them!

This takes some getting used to after XCOM’s relatively simple percentage chance which in XCOM 2 has been refined to the point of point-and-click; Phoenix Points approach leads to much more realistic firefights. In XCOM 2, I can be dominated by a mob that has only one health left because all of their abilities and capabilities remain until they die. In Phoenix Point, I can degrade my enemies’ ability to fight, opening up the potential for much more profound, engaging combat strategies and forcing a more careful choice of weapons. My Virophage weapons might dominate Pandorans but are obviously relatively useless against The Pure due to their bionic physiology and shields.

2. Julian Gollop is a pioneer

As the original creator of XCOM, I think that Gollop deserves to be taken seriously, and what he has been able to achieve with a sub $1m budget is genuinely remarkable. Anyone involved in technology will know that delivering a working product on time and on-budget is hard to do and that many software projects fail long before any functionality hits the shelves. Gollop has shown that it is possible to release a solid game with a multimillion dollar budget, and reminds us that there is a lot of talent in Central and Eastern Europe with the potential to create some great games.

In the same way that you might enjoy a song more when you know the backstory and the motivations of the artiste, I believe that Gollop set out to do something incredibly ambitious, and he pulled it off. He clearly wanted to create the same frantic, gritty, realistic, and highly-involved close combat battles that we all loved in the original XCOM. He’s surely done that in the way that Phoenix Point is considerably more challenging than comparable games.

Releasing a working game (admittedly a 7/10 in most reviews) with a new team and tight budget is incredibly challenging, and the fact that Snapshot Games has delivered a fully working product gives me confidence for the future – and should inspire other independent teams to do the same, which is great for all gamers.

3. The release velocity is strong

“Blood and Titanium” is the first DLC released for Phoenix Point, and together with major update “Leviathan” has massively enhanced the game by introducing two new factions, The Pure and The Forsaken. Weapons have been rebalanced; soldiers can now how cybernetic enhancements and many game-breaking bugs have been removed, making this feel like the game that Gollop wanted when Phoenix Point was initially released.

We’re promised three more releases in the coming months, and if they deliver as well as the first, then we’re in for a treat. The planned DLC releases are “Legacy of the Ancients” and “Festering Skies,” and I cannot wait to see them.

4. Multi-class Soldiers

At first, I didn’t like the character development system, because the random allocation of skills seemed well, random. Still, having stuck it out, I think that the flexibility that it provides is an excellent feature of the game. While my favorite soldier class is probably the Heavy/Sniper, an Infiltrator/Heavy is great for creeping right up to mobs before blowing them away with a heavy weapon. Snapshot should continue to build on this, and find ways to add additional flexibility.

5. It’s your game!

One of the most exciting aspects of Phoenix Point for me is how your decisions can really change the outcome of the game. There are multiple ways to finish the game, including the ability to go full military and take out most of humanity while beating the Pandorans. Or you could choose to work closely with one of the other factions to support their strategy.

This creates a lot more flexibility in this game than we see in XCOM 2 or similar turn-based games like “Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden,” which tend to keep you tightly on the rails and have a much more linear feel to them.

This openness might be annoying for people who just want to ‘win.’ Still, those who like to take the time to explore the universe in which they are playing the game should find it interesting.

Areas for Improvement

Hopefully, what I’ve written so far has helped to explain the positive aspects of this game. However, there are clearly some areas that need to improved for it to reach its full potential.

Character

Right now, each member of your squad has little character or personality. They come to you with their nicknames, but no backstory and they don’t interact with you much. XCOM 2 and Mutant Year Zero excel in giving each character real personality, both through the use of the language, their posture, and movement. It’s great to see some characters who are naturally cautious versus those that are a little cocky in XCOM 2, for example. Future DLC should introduce more characterization, more voice acting and more video to enrich the experience.

Also, the logic should be tightened-up; if I’m at war with the Disciples of Anu, then how come I can still fly to one of its havens and recruit a soldier from them? That doesn’t make sense.

Finesse

I imagine that the Snapshot development team’s backlog is pretty full right now. That being said, it should prioritize removing some of the bugs that give the impression of the game being unfinished. For example, if I throw a laser turret (Scorcher AT), while it is flying through the air, it reverts to being a Watcher AT before turning back into a Scorcher once deployed. The interface needs some tweaks; for example, it should prevent the game from jumping from a ship that you’re managing to another without any apparent logic. None of these are terminal, but the persistence of such issues undermines the confidence of the player.

AI for NPCs

It’s quite counter-intuitive that if I land in a haven that is being overwhelmed by Pandorans that it appears entirely undamaged before the battle (not for long once a Scylla starts running around). It’s bizarre the there are no NPCs around that join the action or even put up a fight. Bearing in mind that the havens are populated with people who know that the world is at war with Pandorans, I would expect civilians to run to safety as soon as they see that your crew has made it safe them.

That said, some of the Pandoran AI is pretty good: I’m sure that I’ve seen a Scylla cower at the back of a citadel when it realized that it was going to get smashed. Instead of rushing in head-on like usual, it sent out its minions using its instill frenzy ability, forcing me to go to it.

Overall

Phoenix Point has gone from a weak 7-out-of-10 to a strong 8-out-of-10 for me in the last couple of weeks thanks to the DLC and patches, but I fully expect this game to become a 9 or 10 depending on how much more they can invest in the game.

There is no doubt that it had some early teething problems. Still, those of us who stuck it out have been rewarded with many hours of engaging gameplay.

If you haven’t tried it for a while, I encourage you to go back and take a look. You might be pleasantly surprised!

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