Phoenix Point marks Julian Gollop’s return to a genre he first created back in 1994 with the original X-COM. It sees you fight to unite the surviving factions of Earth and rise up against the strange crab-like aliens that have pushed humanity to the cusp of extinction.
It looks much like the Firaxis XCOM reboots, a fact Gollop makes no attempt to hide when we meet him to play the game, but it takes the genre in new directions by imbuing the alien enemy with the power to adapt itself to your play style.
When you first start a campaign in Phoenix Point you are on the back foot as the aliens have all but completed their conquest of our home planet. Human settlements are dotted about the Earth, struggling to hold back the aliens, but it is a ditch effort. They call on you for aid when they come under assault. In time, though, you will have to start trying to do a little more to push the tide back.
Before you can eradicate the aliens you must learn as much as you can about them. You can talk to the other havens who will “give you intel about the aliens and also the location of their hives,” Gollop tells us. But that will only reveal so much. To work out what makes them tick you are going to have to take some alive.
“If you recover an alien you can research its individual body parts to work out what its function is,” Gollop explains. The function of a limb may appear obvious but studying it can also reveal its weaknesses. For instance, if a crab evolves a shield it is plain that it blocks bullets, but in researching it you can learn its limitations - such as the fact that when it is deployed, the crab is locked in that direction, leaving it vulnerable to flanking moves.
Your scientists will also suggest research to invent that may help to counteract particularly powerful mutations. The example Gollop gives is of a poison-spitting ability, “which is quite nasty,” he adds. When you first encounter it, you don’t have anything in your arsenal to counteract the poison’s effects, but if you can catch a spitter and study it then you can develop antivenoms and armour to protect your soldiers against it.
“They can also evolve laterally, completely changing some of the function of their body parts,” Gollop reveals. “It's that progressive development the aliens have that you need to keep track of. You'll get quite different creatures encounters in different parts of the world and between different games as well.”
The world map can shift and change dramatically throughout a campaign too. Deep under the sea, alien mist generators belch out a strange semi-intelligent fog that rolls across the land. The AI can direct the mist towards human settlements, surrounding and engulfing them. “Any haven or base that becomes enveloped by the mist is in severe danger of being attacked,” Gollop says.
The vaporous menace is more than a cloak: “The mist is what the aliens use to communicate with each other, to regenerate their systems, their health,” Gollop explains. The aliens can only build their structures in areas wrapped in mist and, the longer they go undisturbed, the larger they can build.
The simplest structure is a nest that produces monsters with simple mutations. They are more of an irritation than a serious problem. However, a nest grows into a hive, and a hive is ruled over by a hive queen.
The many-legged Hive Queen is quite the thing to contend with: crammed with health points and built like a tank, she is able to charge through walls, even collapse entire buildings. She will run down any soldiers in her path and force your squad to abandon their positions and scatter before her. However, you can drive her back to the hive if you cause enough damage - “she will try and preserve herself,” Gollop explains. Until you raid the hive and kill her once and for all, the queen will repeatedly appear in battle. Worse still, if you blast off her limbs they will grow back even stronger than before. “Each body part has several levels of power,” Gollop adds.
There are bigger structures than the hive and with tougher guardians than the Hive Queen, but Gollop isn’t showing them off just yet. “Locating these structures and destroying them is very important because they will expand the aliens’ area of influence,” he says. Gollop also explains that, early in the game, the aliens have such a strong grip on the world that you will be spending most your time leaping to the aid of settlements under assault by the aliens. “You will get rewards from havens for doing this, in terms of resources, or, if it's from some of the major factions, they will start to share some of their technology and research with you as well.”
There are three major factions in Phoenix Point and each has its own specialisation and technology tree, so you can benefit from befriending them all. The Synedrion, for example, focus on tech that repels the mist and hides their structures from enemies. “You can install [mist repulsors] in your base to reduce or eliminate the threat of aliens attacking their bases,” Gollop says. “That way you don't have to do so much defensive fighting.”
You can use the Synedrion tech to infiltrate hives, letting you jump the queen without having to fight your way through all the aliens on the way there. Or, if you are feeling nefarious, you could use the stealth tech against other factions “to steal their stuff.”
Your faction, the Phoenix Project, have their own technology but to get it you will need to track down and reactivate old bases that were lost in the mist. “You have the only active Phoenix base at the start of the game,” Gollop says. “All of the other Phoenix bases are potentially operable and have some of their own archives and research that people were doing there.” So bases are well worth searching out and taking back from whatever faction or alien now calls it home.
“You slowly manage to put together the Phoenix archives which is the history of the Phoenix Project and what they did,” Gollop continues. “There is an entirely Phoenix-Project-based solution to the alien menace that doesn't necessarily involve the other factions but it’s quite a difficult one.”
If you aren’t up for saving other factions or stealing from them, you can always try to trade with them for the tech and materials you need in your fight against the mist monsters.
To trade, you need gear, and to get gear you are going to have to scavenge. “Scavenging is a major part of the game,” Gollop says. “You need to send out your squads to reclamation bases” - weapon depots that were built in the last stages of the war - “often they're damaged and infested with aliens.”
You will be looking for weapons, materials, and, most of all, the “extremely rare and sought after” air vehicles. They are so valuable as the number of soldiers you can deploy is determined by “what kinds of air transport you have.” You have some manufacturing capabilities but “it's slightly different from the original X-COM again, the workshop you build is more about modding the weapons and vehicles rather than building from scratch because there is such a scarcity of high-tech resources in the game.”
There is much about Phoenix Point that will be familiar to anyone who has played X-COM. The moment-to-moment play follows the same beats that Gollop established back in the ‘90s, but it is fascinating to see how that familiar structure has been expanded. Between vying factions, evolving aliens, and scarce resources, there will be tonnes for you to get to grips with when alpha access is opened in the next few months.