7th best game of 2019: Phoenix Point
You can play X-com for the first time exactly once. And what a precious time that once. All the mystery and uncertainty, the danger, the discovery, the horror of what those weird little aliens were doing to our cows. Our innocent cows! What else were they up to? What would you reveal when you finished researching this thing that you found? What startling discoveries would you make on the UFOpedia? What new powers and weapons would your soldiers carry down the ramp of the Sky Ranger? What horrific things would happen out in the field? What was out there, in the darkness, just outside the range of your flare? And what is that? You’ve never seen one of those before!
Even after Firaxis picked up the mantle and applied lessons learned from a decade or so of game design, it was a reboot of some of the same mysteries, the same settings, the same aliens, the same weapons. It was familiar territory, which is partly the point of a reboot. UFOs invading Earth is old-school comfort food, familiar and delicious. Even XCOM 2’s slightly forced concept of a rebel uprising against conquering aliens was mostly familiar. New words for the same concepts.
Then there’s Phoenix Point.
I loved the XCOM reboots, but I didn’t realize what they were missing until I started playing Phoenix Point and slowly realized this was no comfort food I’ve ever played. Fog coming out of the sea? Crab monsters? Religious nuts, military nuts, and eco-nuts? A post-apocalypse instead of an alien invasion? Is that a zeppelin? I think it’s a zeppelin. What’s an oneiric insanity index? What’s going to happen as that index goes up? I don’t want to spoil anything for anyone, but here’s a word for the sheer “holy shit-ness” that I haven’t experienced since mind control in X-com back in 1994: scylla. There have been a few moments like this in Phoenix Point, involving things other than enemy creatures. Soldier upgrades, factions, hardware, even gameplay systems. This isn’t just Gollup’s modern day iteration on his 1994 design. This is a reboot of 1994’s mystery and thrill. This is an opportunity to play an X-com for the first time again.
It’s also a smart rebalancing to address the classic problem of two types of gameplay in one design. The worst case scenario of this problem is Creative Assembly’s Total War games. They began as richly realized tactical battles given context by a relatively simple strategic shell. But as the strategic shell got more attention, as it got more sophisticated, the games felt more bifurcated. One moment I’m playing a cool battle, then I get yanked into a strategy game. But once I’m grooving on this strategy game, now I’m yanked into a tactical battle. Whiplash by game design.
X-com and XCOM didn’t really have a solution for this. That was just the way it worked. For the most part, it minimized the strategic shell and felt like an early Total War game, before the strategy maps got so much gameplay. Turn-based tactical battles against aliens given context on a mostly simple world map. But Phoenix Point does two things that simultaneously double-down on the classic problem and make it less of a problem.
The first thing Phoenix Point does is make the tactical battles shorter. It focuses on the shooting instead of the searching. There’s not a lot of tension as you creep around the map, because you’re probably not going to go more than a turn or two before the shooting starts. Now no one is creeping, because almost everyone is dashing from cover to cover. The tactical battles get to the action quickly, at which point it should be over soon enough. There are longer missions, but the bulk of the tactical gameplay in Phoenix Point is short, to-the-point, intense shootouts that are going to be over any minute now.
The second thing Phoenix Point does is make the strategic layer richer. There’s more gameplay out here than just queueing up production and waiting for it to finish, all the while standing by for a mission to appear. In fact, you will initiate the missions in Phoenix Point. There are exceptions, but you’re mostly picking which battle to fly into, and when to do it. The wider world is a series of hidden points, each a mystery waiting for you to visit it, and then resolve it on your own time. X-com was UFOs flashing across the sky. Quick, intercept that one! Now hurry and send the Sky Ranger while the wreckage is fresh! But the battles in Phoenix Point are skulking, patiently waiting, willing to let you set the schedule. And there’s plenty going on in this wider world besides the battles. Exploration, an economy, logistics, even a huge chunk of the gameplay progression. All this is present on the globe with a level of detail and interactivity completely new in Phoenix Point.
So if Phoenix Point makes the battles shorter and the strategic layer deeper, how does this address the whiplash problem of two types of gameplay in one design? I would argue that it addresses it by applying a complete rebalance to the equation. Instead of being pulled back and forth by two lopsided elements of a single game, it balances two equally rich gameplay modules. When you segue between them is almost entirely in your control, and the relative weight has been carefully calculated by the developers at Snapshot Games. It feels less like whiplash and more like the rhythm of breathing. Breath in during the intensity of the tactical battles, breath out as you explore the globe. Inhale, exhale, each a part of the same larger process, both equally important.
The tactical combat is as good as you’d expect, and at first, it might feel like a clone of Firaxis’ XCOM. But that’s not what’s going on here. One very big difference drives the battles entirely: there are no random numbers. If you can put the entire reticle on the target — Phoenix Point gives you a camera that drops you eye-level into battle — you will hit it. And if you can get close enough, or use a weapon with a tight enough zoom, you can guarantee exactly where you will hit the target. Want a headshot? Move closer or use a sniper rifle from a moderate distance. Your headshot is assured. Want to make sure a monster can’t use a certain ability? Destroy the part of its body that gives it that ability, Want to shoot the gun out of someone’s hand? Want to hit an unarmored weak spot? Want to slow someone down? Have at it. These are all fundamental parts of how the battles play out.
What’s more, damage is strictly deterministic. Just as there are no die rolls for whether you’ll hit, there are no die rolls for how much damage you’ll do. If your rifle does 120 points of damage, it always does 120 points of damage. Firaxis’ XCOM gave the X-com gameplay a tidy boardgame-inspired streamlining. Phoenix Point goes even further by taking out the dice. Did you play Snapshot’s Chaos Reborn in Law mode? Phoenix Point is like that.
I do have one big issue with Phoenix Point. Big enough that I’ve put it down for the time being, in the hopes that the developers can give it another pass. Whereas XCOM used random numbers for combat, with a lot of under-the-hood voodoo massaging the numbers, it used a strictly deterministic system for stealth. It was always explicit whether aliens could see you, which meant stealth was a well defined gameplay system. You had all the information you needed to make meaningful decisions. That’s how strategy games should work.
It’s the complete opposite in Phoenix Point. Combat is very gamey and deterministic, but stealth is all under-the-hood voodoo. You never know whether an alien will see you or not. You can see a stealth number and a perception number, and you can affect these numbers in different ways. You know the interaction of these numbers determines whether someone is visible. But there’s no indication of how the numbers interact. It’s the worst kind of information: presented without any of the context you need to make decisions. There’s no way to make sure your sneaky assassin stays out of sight as he creeps around the map while everyone else is shooting. Stealth is obviously supposed to be a gameplay system in Phoenix Point, which has cloaking suits and noiseless weapons and varying levels of light to affect visibility. But in its current state, it is no such thing. It’s a locked black box, good for stubbing your toe and not much else.
I’ve been told in an email from folks at Snapshot Games that they intend to improve this, which seems like it should be easy enough for people who have shown a knack for weaving together gameplay systems with clarity and intent. All the numbers are there. They just need to be implemented in such a way to inform decisions. But until that happens, stealth in Phoenix Point is a dangling and poorly connected gameplay system, sputtering like a loose wire that needs tightening.
Hopefully, they’ll get to it soon, because I sure would like to start playing again.
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The best of 2019:
10. Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3
9. Transport Fever 2
8. Rebel Galaxy Outlaw
7. Phoenix Point
6. Field of Glory: Empires
5. Age of Wonders: Planetfall
4. Void Bastards
3. One Finger Death Punch 2
1. Sunless Skies
At once, a reboot, a revival, and a rebalancing act. An opportunity to play X-com for the first time all over again.