Ass-kicking alien strategy games are now a genre all their own.
You could be forgiven for assuming Phoenix Point, the latest game from Julian Gollop, is an X-COM clone. The two games do look strikingly similar at a glance but peak deeper underneath the game’s hood at its core mechanics and you’ll find something quite different. Gollop is, of course, best known for his work bringing the original X-COM franchise to life back in his days at Mythos Games – a franchise that he argues has gone on to inspire its own genre, of which Phoenix Point is its latest card-carrying member. These XCOM-style games – identified by their mix of turn-based strategy and squad-based tactics – have found an audience of late following the success of Firaxis’ take on the franchise. Gollop hopes to capitalise on this by creating the X-COM-like game he has always dreamed of.
We recently got access to an early build, made available to the backers who helped raise over $500,000 on Fig – the crowdfunding platform that lets backers earn money from investments. Although still in early access, the game is very much in a playable state and already seems to give a clear glimpse of what players can expect in the finished title. Although on the surface it might parallel similar titles in the genre, it hides some interesting mechanics that make it stand out in the crowd and separate it from the groundwork laid down by the legacy of the X-COM franchise.
One of the most striking additions to the usual squad-based tactics you’d expect is the introduction of vehicles. The armoured personnel carrier we had access to in this build is an instant game changer. You can accelerate through enemies, crushing their armoured alien bodies with a satisfying crunch at any moment should you begin to feel overwhelmed or surrounded. Seconding the suicidal urge to charge through enemies in your armoured tank, you can utilise its huge mounted gun to mow down some of the bigger enemies you come across, which makes a noticeable difference when it comes to some of the more gargantuan enemies you face.
These huge monstrous boss battles, such as the massive alien hive queen in the latest trailer, pit your small squad against towering behemoths that require advanced tactics and perseverance to take down. The vehicle is a great help in this endeavour with its strong armour and manoeuvrability. That isn’t all Phoenix Point’s enemies have to offer, though. The Pandoravirus creatures you battle can also mutate their forms, mixing up tactical approaches and forcing you to adapt your strategies to survive. There are even Alien-style face huggers that take control of your soldiers and turn them against you.
All this sci-fi action takes place in gritty, detailed environments with fully destructible buildings that collapse and buckle in convincing ways. Ramming your armoured tank straight through the doors of a decrepit building, crushing the aliens harbouring within, is a great feeling and invokes the gung-ho attitude of the Alien series’ iconic marines. You do all this to a funky, sci-fi soundtrack that has hints of an industrial influence. It makes you feel like a squad of Space Marines on a Xeno Hunt mission to eradicate the horrors concealed by the post-apocalyptic rumble around you – it’s sci-fi at its best.
Customisation is at the heart of building your squad and managing your teams in Phoenix Point. Soldiers have a multitude of options for loadouts and expansive skill trees they can progress along. Slight changes to how you fight your alien foes also enhance the on-the-ground experience of using this array of weaponry. For instance, the free aim is a breath of fresh air in this style of game. Gone are the rage-inducing days of point-blank misses, instead replaced by a precision aiming system that lets you target the specific body parts of your adversary and take advantage of its weaknesses. The whole system feels a lot fairer and leaves you less at the whim of the RNG gods when it comes to reliably hitting your targets.
It seems like Phoenix Point is in a good place right now. The core groundwork has been laid for a solid X-COM-like that injects a bit of its own personality into the genre. We loved the fact it had a slightly more serious tone than we’ve come to expect from the genre; gone is the tongue-in-cheek humour of the X-COM series. What you will get instead is a game dripping with a hazy kind of science fiction vibe analogous to something more like Blade Runner than Starship Troopers.
Of course, there are similarities to Firaxis’ X-COM; that can’t be denied. The UI and graphics are very similar, but the subtle changes Snapshot Games have made on top of that template create something with more of a simulation feel to it than the less believable world Fraxis portrayed. It’ll be interesting to see how far away from that template Phoenix Point is willing to venture as its development continues towards its release in June next year. Either way, it seems like the turn-based strategy genre has a new hit on its hands.
Jon loves the experimental nature of indie games, and has written about them for the likes of Eurogamer, PCGamer and GameReactor. As editor of The Indie Game Website, Jon is responsible for the overall content direction of the website, and enjoys moving things around in our Google Calendar.