Of the many words that could be used to describe Phoenix Point, the one that sticks out most is ‘vast’. The scope of the game is breathtaking, but that brings with it a sense of overwhelming. Julian Gollop’s long-awaited return to the global strategy/battlefield tactics genre he helped found with XCOM is bold and bulging. While not rewriting the playbook, Phoenix Point carves out a unique space characterised by systems stacked upon systems to create a mind-boggling level of complexity. Players with plenty of time on their hands and a love of the genre will find a meaty, intricate experience. Everyone else may just get the sense that the game is a little too big for its own good.
Perhaps the most significant drawback of the scale is the sense that small things slip through the cracks. Likely only a pedant will notice the spelling and punctuation errors in the game’s text, but they are symbolic of other fumbles. Moving units about the battlefield is slightly clunky. Switching storeys and setting overwatch are peculiarly fiddly. Soldiers can sometimes be difficult to pick out from amidst the visual noise of the level layouts. Nevertheless, players willing to put in the time will adapt to these inconveniences and from that point dive into the wild ambition towards chaotic excess that permeates the very fibre of Phoenix Point.
For all that, anyone who has played XCOM will find themselves on relatively familiar ground. In Phoenix Point, the modern world has already fallen apart and divided into ideologically motivated factions, while the player takes control of a clandestine organisation dedicated to protecting humanity. That mission begins from a single base and a handful of rookie soldiers. The first battle is won, the base is restored to working order, and players arrive at the GeoScape—a holographic globe—and realise the magnitude of the mission ahead. Phoenix Point, the tiny corner of the world map where that initial base is located, is already populated with a surprising number of icons, and that number expands exponentially as players explore further.
While pitched battles comprise a significant portion of the icons, faction bases and text-based quests are also prevalent. The latter typically provide additional resources or tough decisions about factional support, while the bases (havens) are more integral to success. Players can raid, trade, or recruit from havens. Each option has benefits, but most actions will affect the diplomatic standing between the four factions (including the player’s Phoenix Project). Poor management of those relationships can lead to war, and therefore to the destruction of havens and the loss of the advantages they provide. Alongside the infighting is the ever-present danger of the apocalyptic threat.
Phoenix Point’s grand adversary is a virus, a mutagen that transforms life into all sorts of bizarre new forms. Stemming from the oceans, this virus presents as a mist that slowly swallows the land and makes existence ever more dangerous. That encroachment brings with it an army, and developer Snapshot Games deserves praise for its inventive designs. The Pandorans, as these creatures are known, are a frightful bunch. Beginning as humanoids merged with critters from the deep, they quickly diversify into more alien forms, though the aquatic motif remains prominent. However, the most intriguing component is the evolution system. XCOM and most similar games have enemies present as stronger forms over time, but Phoenix Point plays on that by having the Pandorans change. A crab-like foe may have a pincer and a shield in one level, but a machine gun and grenade launcher in the next. This system demands that players do not get complacent, but instead adapt their approach for the situation in every battlefield.
Thankfully, the capacity to do so is enormous. Although players are unable to see what foes they face in advance of any mission, soldier types vary. Players begin with the standard options of assault, heavy, or sniper units, though each faction provides additional possibilities, including melee specialists or soldiers that can control or panic enemies. Furthermore, these units level up with experience gathered in the field, learning new abilities and new specialisations. The number of tactical opportunities blow out further still, with research or collaboration introducing a host of new weapon types. If anything, the options are too many, with the inventory becoming difficult to manage, even with the ability to toggle the display of equipment best used for each class. The amount of time spent customising the abilities, appearance, and loadout of soldiers can be enormous, but it pays off on the battlefield.
Within the turn-based framework, running-and-gunning is always a viable option, but it is rarely the wisest. For one, the ballistics-based shooting, although an improvement over the RNG of XCOM and other tactics games, feels wildly inaccurate except at very close range. Units can be lost in battle quite easily—and Phoenix Point includes permadeath—but even sustaining injuries can be devastating. A soldier with a disabled arm will be unable to use two-handed weapons, and a wounded leg severely limits movement, which is particularly problematic in ambush mission types wherein soldiers need to reach an evacuation point. Instead, canny players will use their units’ special abilities to really manage the battlefield on their own terms rather than reacting to enemy movements.
This preponderance of tactical possibilities makes battles thrilling, but the disdain of familiarity will still set in before too long. Despite the enormous array of mission icons, level layouts, and visual variety stemming from the different locations, the number of mission types is fairly small. Completing the same objectives over and over—even with different adversaries and levels—becomes tedious. Although initially exciting and continuing to pulse with a new challenge every now again, the tactics layer as a whole is less interesting and less involving than the strategy layer.
Phoenix Point, therefore, is tough to score. Multiple small things detract from the experience, and, fundamentally, the game does little new in terms of either mechanics or story. Nevertheless, boldness and competence should be recognised. The evolving enemies keep the player on their toes and the sheer mental effort required in balancing the demands and relationships of the factions makes doing so entrancing. Phoenix Point may not be as good as XCOM, and it may not be as narratively intriguing as Phantom Doctrine, but it still feels like a benchmark that similar games will be gauged against for years to come.
Reviewed on PC. PlayStation 4 and Xbox One versions launching in 2020.