Phoenix Point Preview

If you don't consider Firaxis' XCOM to be the gold standard of tactics games, but you like its general idea and presentation, then you'll probably enjoy Snapshot Games' Phoenix Point. According to this Rock, Paper, Shotgun preview, the two games are quite similar, with the latter offering a more robust set of mechanics propped up by a distinctly Lovecraftian setting. An excerpt:

There are differences, of course. The story is an aquatic interpretation of the apocalyptic B-movie threat. A microbial mist is spreading across the globe, creating mutant hybrids of sea creatures that want to wipe out humankind. But more important than the tale are the changes to the combat. That “line-of-sight thing”, for instance, is fresh. When you hover your mouse around the map, contemplating where to move soldierman Billy Bigarms (as his customisable name will surely read), you’ll be able to see shimmering blue lines which reveal the enemies you could target from that particular spot. A line will also turn red to show you if an enemy will be flanked, making it easier to consider possible vantage points at a glance.

This small but useful change seems to be representative of the game’s attitude to its XCOM brethren. It doesn’t seek to make sweeping changes to the machine. It just wants to add a cog here, a spring there. Small, workmanlike alterations to a device that already functions perfectly well. At least, that’s how it appears in the midst of a fight. It took me less than a minute to feel comfortable on this battlefields, and all the controls – camera rotation, soldier swapping – were identical to Firaxis’ alien stompers.

This attitude of incremental improvement is part of an odd relationship that’s arisen between Firaxis and Snapshot. Jullian Gollop and his team at Mythos may have invented XCOM back in the early nineties, but Firaxis re-invented it, putting Gollop’s new studio in the odd position of building upon a design that was already based on his own work. Imagine being asked to renovate a church, knowing that it was built on foundations of an even older temple you built yourself decades ago. A lot of people would be so affronted by this new religion, they’d want to knock that church down. Gollop wants to refurbish the steeple.

Other differences are hard to notice at first but they’re pointed out to me by Snapshot co-founder David Kaye. Bullet trajectory matters here, he says, so a lamp post or a crumbling wall between you and your target will sometimes get in the way. Which means there is an element of aiming down your sights, or at least making sure your firing line is clear before you put Sally Shotgun in harm’s way for the sake of an opportunistic shot at a shielded crab man.

Each unit also has limited “willpower”, a row of blue pips next to the character’s health. You need a certain amount of these to use special abilities, like using a jetpack or dashing into cover after taking a shot. Even going into Overwatch (yes, it’s called Overwatch here too, so strong is the flavour of XCOM) will require a certain level of willpower. But willpower can be diminished by “serious injuries, death of a comrade or facing terrifying monsters”. You can refresh each soldier’s willpower by resting for a turn, killing enemies or achieving mission objectives. In my demo, reaching a control room gave one of my soldiers three willpips back – not exactly a windfall and not enough in my mind to make the suicidal dash for this room worth it, but in other circumstances it may have made all the difference

Oh, there’s also the limbs thing. When targeting an enemy (mutant crab, rotten gunman, quite-large spider) you get to aim at specific body parts, a la the VATS system of the modern Fallouts. Damage the leg of a crabbie and he will be unable to scuttle long distances during his turn. Blast the arms of a decaying muto rifleman and he’ll be unable to lob grenades at your squad mates. There is a trade off here, however. Your soldiers are all susceptible to the same injuries. Riley Rocketlauncher won’t be able to do his job with two busted biceps.