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Phoenix Point Preview: The REAL X-COM

Backer Build 5 released this week and gives us the best look at what Phoenix Point will be like when it releases this December. Developed by Snapshot games, the Bulgarian studio founded by original X-COM creator Julian Gollop, Phoenix Point is designed as a spiritual successor to X-COM: Enemy Unknown. While maintaining the core tactical game play that even modern X-COM games (developed by Firaxis) have, Phoenix Point is pushing the genre further than it's ever gone before.

X-COM, Meet Civilization

The first thing that becomes apparent when starting Phoenix Point is that the tactical RPG side of the game is supported by a robust and thoughtful 4X meta-game. Outside of missions, players will be responsible for maintaining and upgrading bases of operation, leveling and recruiting units, protecting Havens and managing diplomacy between a group of factions, and expanding operations globally to wrest control from the enemy alien/mutants known as the Pandorans.

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While not quite as complex in terms of resource management and turn planning as say, a Civilization, the 4X side of Phoenix Point seems like it will be full of enough meaningful choices and customization to keep tactical player's attention.

Bases, the titular Phoenix Points, require maintenance and upgrades to function at peak performance. They are used to heal units between missions, upgrade their gear, scan for nearby points of interest, and research new technology. These bases are susceptible to attack and must maintain a balanced energy level among all of it's separate facilities. Expanding these bases throughout the globe is the key to winning the war against the Pandorans.

Diplomacy is earned and lost by helping out various factions by defending them from attack at their individual Havens. As favor increases, new technology will become available for research and new units will be recruitable. Factions have conflicting ideologies too, so it seems it won't be possible to max your favor out with all of them. Further, everything in the overworld (called the Geosphere) happens in real time (or faster than real time if you desire) so waiting for that last upgrade to finish researching may cost you your relationship with a faction if you chose not to defend their Haven. It's a complicated balancing act that adds a ton of variety to each run.

New And Improved Tactics

Missions are selected from the Geosphere and are played out in traditional tactical style. Phoenix Point doesn't try to reinvent the genre, like the upcoming Phantom Brigade does with it's mix of turn-based and real time strategy. Instead, Phoenix Point builds on the foundation of tactical strategy games by giving players exactly what they want: complex and dynamic battles with the freedom to overcome enemies any way you want. To do this, the game has a number of new-to-the-genre mechanics that not only feel right at home in a tactics game, but also open the battlefield up to creative and unique battles.

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One such system is the dynamically randomized, fully destructible environments. In most tactical RPGs, highly mobile units are extremely valuable for their ability to move around the battlefield, capitalizing on weakened enemies and supporting injured teammates. This is true in Phoenix Point as well, but units become much more balanced when running around a building and just taking down a wall are both viable options. All units can damage and destroy physical objects, but heavy units are the best equipped, meaning each unit feels valuable and powerful.

This may not be unique to Phoenix Point (Mutant Year Zero has mostly completely destructible environments) but the game's other invention certainly is. Combat operates on a realistic ballistic system that simulates the physics of weapon fire in the real world. To illustrate this, each unit can ADS and fire from a first person perspective when attacking. This gives players access to a system similar to V.A.T.S from the modern Fallout games, allowing players to specifically target each individual body part of enemy units, with differing effects and damage ratings for each part. The ballistic system is a breath of fresh air for a genre that's, frankly, starting to get a little crowded.

Doing The Power Fantasy Right

Units, even at level one, are pretty capable of handling themselves against the lesser Pandorans. Leveling them up unlocks their true potential, and the enormous variety of upgrade options makes for a pretty compelling RPG experience.

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Each level rewards points and access to new abilities, eventually unlocking the option to make the unit dual class. Right now the base classes are marksmen (sniper) assault and heavy, each with different functions and abilities. Increasing reputation with the other factions will grant access to unique and specialized units that can be recruited from their Havens as well.

Aside from unlocking abilities and dual-classes, you can also freely upgrade health, damage, and speed. This, along with a huge variety of gear to load out your units with, means there is nearly no limit to the number of ways to build your team (or multiple teams for different situations). Of course, if a unit dies it is gone for good, so developing a healthy roster will guarantee you have the best experience.

I've only spent half a dozen hours with Phoenix Point so far, but it's clear that the developers have taken special care to give fans of the tactical RPG genre a truly original experience. You can play Backer Build 5 yourself by pre-ordering the game, which has a planned release in December.

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