Julian Gollop’s new game, Phoenix Point

Could this be the most exciting game in development today?


 

Phoenix Point and the viral invasion

Julian Gollop, the designer of the 1994 masterpiece X-COM, is now returning to the genre he helped immortalize to make a modern successor. Phoenix Point promises to be a squad-based tactical war game in which you fend off an alien Apocalypse by securing one area of the globe at a time and expanding your power whenever you can, just like in the X-COM formula, but there are many important distinctions in how this will work. The aliens this time do not hail from outer space, but rather as a type of virus which originates from the oceans. This means they lack aircraft and can only encroach onto the land from water. Much like the Zerg from StarCraft, they evolve by stealing DNA from other living creatures in order to rapidly mutate their troops. Already, this elegant sci-fi premise has enabled Gollop and his team to incorporate a few brilliant design choices.

First of all, your enemies will evolve and adapt over time in a literal way, beginning with features belonging to sea-creatures (since that’s where they originated) such as tentacles, carapaces, and scales, but eventually mixing in DNA from land-based creatures such as — well, I don’t know yet, but I’m guessing bears, wolves, and maybe even birds. But that’s not the most clever part. As the enemy forces are killed, the game will randomly mutate certain parts of their troops (heads, arms, legs, etc.) and deploying them as a test to see if they’re more effective. If the new strain performs better, the aliens will produce more of them and less of the inferior kind. If they fail to improve the results, the aliens will try again with a different mutation. This is similar to what Hideo Kojima incorporated in MGSV, where enemies learn from your tactics and equip themselves accordingly, only more drastic and scary. This is extremely exciting for a strategy game that needs to have deep replayability. Each body part can be targeted in combat separately too, making the variations more than just change in statistics.

The enormous blackened sky of mist generated by the oceans is a visual representation of what the aliens have conquered, allowing you to see where the threat is biggest. You’ll pick your starting location from a wide range of cities, then deploy to wherever you can fight the enemy or find friends. That’s right: this time, humanity has already been profoundly changed by the invasion before your operation begins, and you need to find assistance. There are various Warhammer 40,000 style cults who have their own strategies for survival, including purposefully mutating their own people to become more effective at fighting, developing advanced technology to reverse negative effects and promote positive ones, and so on. These factions are not necessarily rivals of yours, but they do clash with each other and can become hostile to you. It’s a much more bleak, horrific world than X-COM was, but this lays the foundation for a much more interesting fictional world. The virus has been around for thousands of years by the time the game starts, so it’s not a happy place. Gollop calls it a cosmic horror game in addition to sci-fi, and comparisons to Lovecraft are abundant.

 

Old and new

I was sad to hear that Phoenix Point is doing away with “Time Units” for character actions, and instead using the simplified minor/major movement system in the Firaxis remake. There are many options besides those two, and I have yet to see people explore the rich middle ground that exists between them. “Soldiers have a willpower stat as well as endurance. Will points are used to spend on special abilities and strenuous physical or mental exertion,” their fig funding page says, which I’m hoping translates into a more flexible system. It’s unclear so far whether ammunition will also be dumbed down and lazily implemented like in the Jake Solomon reboot, or whether you’ll still be able to manually aim at anything you want because your ammo is a resource you have to manage. Destructible environments are confirmed, at least, so this is a particularly important point. In the modern XCOM, targeting walls and destroying the environment in order to give yourself an advantage doesn’t work because you’re only allowed to aim at enemy targets. In the original X-COM you could aim anywhere, destroy anything, and really take the strategy to the next level.

Characters will be highly customizable, both visually and functionally. They can receive permanent injuries, drug habits, and mental disorders, but they can also get stronger, receive upgrades, and be mutated in strange and powerful ways. There is a class system with skill trees similar to the modern XCOM (booo!) but we don’t know quite how restrictive it is yet. Gollop says he’s pushing it towards something more flexible, and that it won’t be as strictly defined as in the modern reboot and its sequel. Fingers crossed, there.

Talking to RockPaperShotgun, Julian says…

“Procedural generation works on two levels,” Gollop explains. “The first is interchangeable body parts. The other thing is morphing in size and shape to some extent. It might be that an alien has a vestigial element that can get larger. Or it might be a relatively small creature that is based on a large insect or bat, but that might get bigger or nastier.”

This sounds great. Combined with the way aliens use their dark mist to shroud themselves while in the battlefield, the enemy will become a constant mystery you’ll be trying to figure out. You can aim at shapes in the mist, but you can’t get precision attacks. I suppose this means you’ll have to get closer if you want to be effective… Yikes. Procedurally-generated levels are coming back again, of course.

 

Analyzing the details

This is the battlefield HUD that contains your character information at a glance. I’ll try to be optimistic about what this means, because it might suggest quite a bit of nuance. The movement, for example, seems to allow a tile-by-tile movement system. Check out how movement looks on the map to see the connection:

If you can move, stop, and then proceed forward again with a “movement remaining” bar matching the dots on the screen, I’ll be happy. Perhaps the grayed out dots indicate where you could’ve moved if you hadn’t spent your time/energy doing something else already, and doesn’t represent the dreaded “minor/major” move system at all!

Here we see our options when aiming at a target. It’s straight out of Fallout, including the effects they have, so that’s a welcome sight in a tactical game. We also see the total “HP” with some information about the target’s range. It’s easy to see that the colors of the meters shown match up with the 3 “damage” stats under the weapon itself, but I’m not sure what that all means. Are these the chances of hitting a specific body parts at different ranges? That would explain why the dark red meter is always the largest of the bars, since that color represents either close range or precise aiming. The strategy will have to vary depending on the weapon you’re holding and what it’s being aimed at. Different body parts will be easier or more difficult to hit at different ranges. Fascinating.

Oh and this…

…NO CONSOLE SKEWING.

You know what? I’m in.

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