Phoenix Point hands-on preview and interview – the next evolution of XCOM

The creator of XCOM is working on a spiritual sequel that mixes Lovecraftian horror with sci-fi strategy.

We can go years without giving out a 10/10 in one of our reviews, but at E3 last month we got to meet two different developers that have both made games deserving that score. The first was Divinity: Original Sin II developer Larian Studios, who are now working on Baldur’s Gate III. The other was British veteran Julian Gollop, creator of XCOM. We didn’t realise he’d be at the event but we bumped into him as part of Microsoft’s ID@Xbox showcase, where he was demonstrating his new game Phoenix Point.

Technically we didn’t give Gollop’s XCOM a 10/10 score, only the sequel to the Firaxis-developed reboot, which he had nothing to do with it. But we consider him an honorary recipient anyway, not only because the game still uses the same template he established but because we would certainly have given his original game the same score back in the day.

Gollop has worked in the games industry his whole life, with a lengthy stint at Ubisoft, but after finishing Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation he left the company and set up his own studio in Bulgaria. His first project was a reboot of 8-bit strategy classic Chaos and now he’s moved on to a spiritual sequel of XCOM itself.

The second you see Phoenix Point it’s obvious that it’s XCOM in all but name, but what surprised us is just how good it looks. Despite the game’s modest budget Phoenix Point already looks more graphically advanced than the Firaxis games, with a much more realistic destruction system and some very impressive lighting and object detail. Not that that really matters in a strategy game, but it’s a very welcome bonus.

The basic turn-based gameplay is very familiar and the story seems to be only a slight riff on the official XCOM games. Lovecraftian terrors have begun conquering Earth and a significant proportion of the human population has already been wiped out, with what remains breaking off into different factions with their own very different approaches to dealing with the alien menace.

We didn’t get to see any of the strategy meta game in the demo though, just the turn-based action of a mission. Each soldier was a member of a different class, all of which seemed to have very different abilities: an engineer with a deployable turret, a sniper, and a heavy gunner with a jetpack. There was also a large rocket-firing vehicle, which was essential when fighting a very large alien reinforcement.

When it comes to the basic mechanics everything works just as you would expect, in terms of the turn-based combat, but one of the game’s key selling points is not easy to demonstrate in one sitting as it revolves around the idea that the aliens are constantly mutating. They’re randomly generated at the start of every battle and, depending on where you are in the world, will even add in local wildlife to the list of possible donor parts.

Not only that but there’s a kind of natural selection process at work where ineffective mutations are discarded and successful ones mass-produced, depending on how you defend against them. It’s a great way of expanding on the procedurally-generated maps of the original XCOM games and we can’t wait to see the full scope of it.

But while none of that was obvious from a quick demo there were some other new ideas at play, including an aiming system that works more like Fallout’s V.A.T.S. in its ability to let you target limbs and specific body parts via a first person view.

The game’s horror theme, inspired by John Carpenter’s The Thing, also adds a willpower meter which is used to activate special abilities but is decreased when taking damage, when an ally dies, or when meeting a particularly horrific creature. Soldiers can panic in XCOM if things aren’t going well but here you can lose your sanity entirely.

Interestingly, while there is still permadeath soldiers are relatively difficult to kill and are more likely to suffer permanent physical or mental scaring if defeated, resulting in the loss of limbs or seeing them resort to drink or drugs to cope with what they’ve experienced.

We would’ve been perfectly happy with an unofficial XCOM sequel but Phoenix Point seems to be making a concerted effort to move the concept forward, with new ideas and features. Whether it’ll deserve a 10/10 when it’s finished we couldn’t possibly say, but it’s definitely one of our most anticipated games of the year.

Formats: Xbox One and PC
Publisher: Snapshot Games
Developer: Snapshot Games
Release Date: September 2019

GC: So why did you choose now in particular to return to an XCOM style game? When you presumably could’ve made one at any point in the last, what… 30 years?

JG: This is a genre of game that I love, obviously, but even then I have done some games related to turn-based tactics, like Laser Squad Nemesis. Or even when I was working for Ubisoft, we released a game called Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars, which was a launch title on 3DS.

GC: That was really good!

JG: Thanks. But Phoenix Point is really the first game that I would consider to be a major evolution on the original XCOM game, that I did back in the 1990s for MicroProse.

GC: I suppose they raise the profile of the whole concept, but of course now you’ve got to compete with the official XCOM games. How much do you worry about just trying to one-up them?

JG: Well, they set the bar pretty high. I think Firaxis did a fantastic job with the reboot of XCOM. They made it accessible to a wider audience, the presentation was awesome, and XCOM 2 followed it up with a game which added some sophistication and some nuances which kind of borrowed from the original XCOM – like the procedurally-generated environments. So from our point of view, yeah, it’s gonna be tough.

We want a game that has good quality presentation and has a lot of really interesting character customisation, both visually and in terms of gameplay. But what I wanted to do differently to the Firaxis XCOM is go back a little bit more to the original XCOM games, including taking some inspiration from XCOM: Apocalypse – which had this involved world with different factions and organisations within it.

So in Phoenix Point our strategic layer… I mean it has a globe, you’ve got alien bases, alien factions, havens, alien ships flying around and stuff. It’s much more of an involved, almost like a 4X style game in the sense that you’re trying to explore the world, where the meta strategy level is more involved.

You’re exploring, you’re trying to get resources – scavenging for resources or stealing resources – and you’re also interacting with these three other human factions. So there’s a bit of a diplomatic element to the gameplay and interestingly that gives you four different possible endings for the player as well.

So you can either pursue your own objectives, your solutions to the alien menace, or you can make an alliance with one of the three human factions. And they have very radically different ideologies and technology, and three different possible ways that they can solve the alien problem.

GC: I shouldn’t say I was surprised at how good it looked, but I was impressed by the graphics and presentation. How much did you make from the Kickstarter?

JG: So we did the crowdfunding on Fig, where they have a system where it’s traditional crowdfunding plus this idea that you can invest in the project. So we raised just under a million dollars this way, roughly split 50/50 between traditional crowdfunding system and the investment system that they have. We subsequently… we continued to raise funds by selling pre-orders and the early access version through our own website. So we raised some more money that way.

GC: It strikes me that one of the most positive things about gaming at the moment, is how good an indie game can look on a relatively small budget. Because a million or so is not a lot compared to games from a traditional publisher.

JG: We have spent more than that, I must admit. [laughs] We have had some external investment in the company as well. Small independent investors, we’re not talking about anything major. Really most of it has come from continuing to sell early access through our website. But the team size is growing quite a bit now, we’ve got to 55 developers.

GC: Oh, well that is a lot.

JG: We started the project, when we did our crowdfunding, which is like March/April 2017. We had something like nine members then, and the number went up and up. But we’re based in Bulgaria, which does make the development costs a little bit lower than they would be in San Francisco or London!

GC: One of the problems with the Firaxis games was the performance on consoles, particularly on XCOM 2. But apart from some slowdown during missile attacks – which seemed to be an optimisation thing – that seemed to run very well.

JG: It is a serious amount of work to get everything running smoothly.

GC: I assume it’s the AI that’s grinding it all down?

JG: Not just that, we’re also using some real physics and the destructible environment system. Because most 3D engines traditionally are not really designed to have this level of destruction or obliteration to parts of their environment. They tend to be very static, so that there is a big problem.

GC: How much destruction can you have? I almost missed one of the aliens with my rockets and I think the dev was implying I was going to bring down the whole building?

JG: Oh, well it depends. So, for example the alien monster which shows up, which I think is the one you mean, can literally destroy almost everything.

GC: So the whole map would end up flat?

JG: Yes. It can do.

GC: One thing I love about XCOOM is how it’s a very personal experience. It’s a great game to fiddle around with and customise. You name all the characters after your best friends, or enemies, you make up all these backstories in your head and then when one of them dies it’s heartbreaking. I assume you’ve got all that in the new game?

JG: Yep, absolutely.

GC: Is there any way you can take that further? I got to the point where I wanted to be doing unique textures for the armour. I want to spend long, wasted hours customising these characters.

JG: [laughs] So Phoenix Point does evolve things a bit. One of the things you can do, for example, is sort of mix and combine different sorts of armour systems that you get from the different factions. There’s also a mutation system in there. You can mutate human body parts and create some very interesting combinations.

This particular technology comes from one of the human factions called the Disciples of Anu, which is kind of like a religious cult, but they do have a technology where they’ve managed to reverse engineer the aliens’ own evolution system and control it and you can then use that technology to mutate your own soldiers and give them some interesting abilities.

GC: Like superpowers?

JG: Not quite that extreme but they do give you certain things which are very useful. Again, as with any XCOM style game, it’s about how you combine the different equipment abilities and classes in your squads that determine how effective they are. So yeah, the mutations can add a lot. There’s also a mutant monster that you can control and mutate called the Mutar, which is quite cool. You’ve also got vehicles in the game as you saw from the demo.

GC: Are there lots of vehicles?

JG: There’s three types of vehicles, that do different things, with different armaments. They’re all capable of carrying soldiers, which can be useful in certain situations.

GC: It’s great that games like this have enough of an installed audience, and you can make the game cheap enough, that it doesn’t really matter if they have traditional mainstream success or not. You can satisfy your audience and develop it cheaply enough to make a profit.

JG: Yeah, strategy games are doing pretty well these days, I would say. I think it’s partly a consequence that the gaming audience has become much bigger and also more diverse. And really what used to be extremely niche now is much bigger than it used to be.

GC: It’s still the same percentage of people but the overall numbers are much larger.

JG: All the niches are bigger, yeah. [laughs] And also, you could probably argue that there’s still an element of the game audience maturing as well. The actual diversity is not just horizontal. It’s a question of age diversity as well.

There’s much more desire for players to explore other genres now, throughout their game-playing career. They will progress and evolve what they play. I think strategy games are something which probably can appeal to everyone, but particularly to people as their twitch skills degenerate as they get older. [laughs]

GC: I find a lot of people just assume it’s not for them, but if it’s put in front of them they often find it’s not at all what they expected.

JG: One thing you’ve identified about XCOM though is it actually has a very sort of RPG-oriented feel to the gameplay, because of the way you invest in your soldiers. I always regarded the original XCOM as very much like an RPG, except it obviously doesn’t have that sort of narrative story design that RPGs have. But there’s still a narrative, in terms of the story and soldiers themselves.

GC: Are you planning to make Phoenix Point an ongoing franchise?

JG: Yes, hopefully. I mean, as soon as the game launches we’ll be working on additional content, a bunch of free updates – for our backers and for general customers, of course. There’ll definitely be DLC. So we’ll be adding some new interesting ideas to the game.

GC: And the console and PC versions are coming out at the same time?

JG: Yep.

GC: That’s great. But what about Chaos Reborn coming to consoles?

JG: Ah, no. I love the game but It’s just not as popular as the science fiction squad-based, turn-based tactics that I’ve done.

GC: Is Phoenix Point an Xbox exclusive?

JG: No, it’s not. We will see where it takes us after this, but it is PC and Xbox initially.

GC: But there’s no Switch version planned or anything?

JG: No, no. We’d need to re-engineer the game for Switch.

GC: It’s a shame as strategy games on the Switch are great. Did you ever try WarGroove?

JG: I’ve got it, I haven’t actually played it yet. Is it any good?

GC: Well, it had a lot of problems a launch, but as I understand it the patches have fixed a lot of the issues.

JG: Problems in terms of what?

GC: The maps were too big. It was an Advance Wars clone, basically…

JG: One of my favourite games!

GC: I’m with you there! But Advance Wars always had tiny maps and they thought, ‘Oh we can do massive maps now, that’ll be even better’ but they didn’t realise that that was actually a terrible idea because it took you ages to get anywhere or do anything. But I think the patches put in checkpoints.

JG: Yes. That’s always a big problem with turn-based games. You have to make sure that during each turn you have something interesting to do, otherwise it can start to lose people.

GC: I find it strangely pleasing that you’re an Advance Wars fan.

JG: [laughs]

GC: Well, it’s been great to meet you. Thanks for your time.

JG: Thank you.

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