The next title from Julian Gollop, the creator of the X-COM franchise, is called Phoenix Point. Today, Gollop’s team at Snapshot Games released its backer beta, a tiny slice of the final product and one of the rewards promised to those who participated in the successful crowdfunding campaign on Fig. After spending a long afternoon with the beta, it’s clear that Phoenix Point has all of the ambition of Gollop’s 1994 classic, and then some.
This isn’t a copycat attempt to cash in on the resurgence of the turn-based tactical genre, but an attempt to reassert Gollop’s own vision for what it could be.
The original X-COM: UFO Defense, which was released in 1994, is still playable on modern hardware. You can find it right now on both Steam and GoG. It’s a remarkably complex game, one that blends squad-based tactical engagements with a base-building mechanic and a tech tree. Those are a lot of the same bullet points to be found on the reboot of the franchise made by Firaxis Games, a series that began in 2012 with XCOM: Enemy Unknown and peaked, in my opinion, with last year’s XCOM 2: War of the Chosen.
But while Gollop’s X-COM and Firaxis’ XCOM have a lot in common, there’s one fundamental difference — ballistics.
In the 1994 version of X-COM, it was possible, at times likely, that you could shoot one of your allies instead of the alien standing next to them. That’s because each and every shot that was fired in that game was tracked to see what it hit. Sometimes you’d see a plasma bolt flying straight across the map, into the dark area covered by the fog of war. If you were lucky, you’d hit an alien. Sometimes, you killed a civilian sitting in their kitchen at home. If you were really unlucky, you’d hit the pump outside of a gas station, leading to a catastrophic explosion that wiped out half the map.
In 2012’s XCOM, that level of simulation simply didn’t happen. Sure, you could toss a bad grenade or a missile could go wide of its target, but most of the shots fired in the game were abstracted. Either they hit the target, destroyed some of the cover your target was standing next to, or didn’t hit anything at all.
In Phoenix Point, every single round you fire is tracked using a realistic ballistics system. Each one will travel straight on through until it meets an obstruction. Therefore, knowing what’s in front of and behind your target is crucial in staying safe on the battlefield.
You can get an idea of what the foreground and the backstop of your target look like by aiming over the shoulder of one of your soldiers. Overlayed on the target are two concentric circles, one red and the other orange.
All the shots that your soldier takes are randomly distributed inside the red circle; only half of them will land inside the orange circle. Rather than a percentage of success, you can see visually on screen how likely you are to strike the target. If the red circle is full of alien, you’re close enough and at the right angle for a 100 percent successful shot.
But the ballistics simulation gets even more granular from there. That’s because in Phoenix Point, every single shot you make is a called shot.
If you click with the left mouse button, you can actually move the reticle around. As you do, the body parts at the center of the overlay will light up, showing you how they’re armored and what would be gained by doing critical damage to that particular location. Players have an incredible amount of precision every time they decide to pull the trigger. That creates a kind of fidelity that simply hasn’t been part of the turn-based tactical experience before, and opens up some very interesting gameplay possibilities.
One example of those possibilities is one of the beta’s more common enemies, called a crabman. It’s a mutated sea creature capable of wielding small firearms. One of its special abilities is to spawn on the map with a shield, which it can plunk down in front of itself to create cover anywhere on the map. My soldiers put full clips into that shield without doing much damage. One way around it is to flank a crabman and shoot at it from the rear.
But the shield itself has a very organic shape. By moving my squad’s sniper ever so slightly to the right or left, I could actually shoot through the gaps in the shield, taking out the crabman’s head on the other side. That makes the enemies in Phoenix Point more than just piles of hit points. Every single one of them is a puzzle waiting to be solved.
Whether you play the canned mission or a randomly generated one, the backer beta scenario always ends the same way — with a massive crab queen boss emerging from the ground on one side of the map and advancing on the players. Phoenix Point’s called shot mechanic means that players have a decision to make as soon as the queen appears.
Do they try and take out the head, potentially blinding it before it can get in range? Do they attack its spindly pincers, blunting the assault? Or do they hammer the legs in hopes of slowing it down and buying more time? Each of the approaches is viable, but some are more likely to be successful than others, depending on how many troops are left standing and how much ammunition they’ve got to go around.
Phoenix Point is expected to launch on Windows PC sometime before the end of this year. A digital copy of the game is still available for as low as $30, though you’ll have to spend $50 to get access to the backer build. For more on the world of Phoenix Point and Gollop’s inspirations, see our feature story.