The Forever War

HIGH Rich tactical gameplay, sharp writing, great tactical UI.

LOW Inconsistent pacing, numerous technical issues, simplistic AI.

WTF If alien captures are critical, why are non-lethal weapons so weak?

I’m reluctant to buy into the idea of auteurs in videogames, but there’s an undeniable link between Julian Gollop and turn-based tactics. His legacy in the genre spans multiple decades and platforms, from the 8-bit sketches of 1984’s Rebelstar Raiders to the 3D-enhanced sheen of 2011’s Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars. However, for many players and critics, the 1994 release of X-COM: UFO Defense was the moment Gollop’s ideas coalesced into something magical and groundbreaking.

Naturally, when Gollop co-founded a new studio called Snapshot Games and made a crowdfunding pitch for Phoenix Point that mentioned X-COM, there was excitement… and a little apprehension. Recent revivals such as Firaxis’ XCOM: Enemy Unknown have established a contemporary audience for turn-based tactics by charting a different course from Gollop’s designs. Could Phoenix Point find a way to tap into those players while capturing the more expansive elements of classic X-COM design?

At first, Phoenix Point’s phase-based combat doesn’t disappoint. All the genre standards like focused fire, overwatch, cover and flanking are here, but real-time physics and ballistic modeling lend a satisfying weight to it. Destructible environments, body-part targeting, and multi-floor environment designs build on that foundation to provide tactical possibilities, such as breaching into enemy entrenchments, disabling an enemy’s arm to keep them from using their weapon, or firing into combustible materials to trigger a devastating explosion.

This focus also applies, controversially, to the lack of a visible hit percentage when judging the potential success of a shot. Players can switch to a first-person aiming view to infer the quality of an attack from its reticle size, but they will never see a number or a die roll. Much like the 100%-50%-0% simplification in Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle, I see this as a welcome diversion from a genre that is a little too willing to get lost in numeric weeds.

Of course, it helps that these decisions are prefaced by a clever tactical UI that is a clear evolution from classic X-COM. Each character’s range of motion on any given turn is highlighted in different colored line gradients on the map, along with a preview of remaining action points and potential line-of-sight contacts for each tile in that range. Though the over-the-shoulder camera zoom for attacks occasionally gets hung up on nearby scenery, the isometric 3D view generally does a good job at framing both the cramped hallways and the spacious verticality of the numerous post-industrial landscapes.

When these mechanics seamlessly work together in concert, Phoenix Point generates fantastic micro-narratives in battle, even with enemy AI that is far from sophisticated. The lack of cunning is somewhat understandable from a narrative standpoint – these enemies are not the technologically-advanced aliens, but plague-infested horrors that are more Lovecraftian – but it’s still noticeable in the long run, especially when more difficult variations of enemies simply tack on more hit points and armor to raise the stakes in later battles.

It’s harder to rationalize that the tactical combat doesn’t always seamlessly work, however. Though recent patches have shored up some of the instabilities, I encountered a raft of critical bugs and glitches throughout my review period that were almost game-breaking, including an infuriating situation where the game would freeze after completing a base defense mission. It’s a testament to how well Phoenix Point works in ideal circumstances that I still felt the desire to soldier on, but players who are less forgiving will find an uncomfortably bumpy road.

When it comes to the strategic layer, Phoenix Point’s conceptual grounding is a little shaky. The overarching premise for the game is standard fare – the player dutifully follows the X-COM tradition of completing various research and manufacturing projects to build up enough resources and technological advancements for a decisive counterattack against a growing planet-wide incursion. The problem is that the pursuit of these goals doesn’t always track along a satisfying reward schedule because the research trees and weapon progression curves are surprisingly shallow.

Thankfully, one of the unexpected joys of Phoenix Point comes when the player occasionally unearths small vignettes that add flavor to the world-building. Tactical games like these aren’t typically renowned for strong writing, but the script covers unexpected and welcome topics such as surreal body horror, the exhaustion from long-term resistance, and even an look at whether a global paramilitary force like the player’s Phoenix Project is really all that trustworthy. Despite lackluster endings, the writing does such a good job that I still feel an urge to replay after spending almost 150 hours with it.

Even with all its technical flaws and strategic hiccups, Phoenix Point manages to pull together some of the best aspects of classic and contemporary turn-based tactical design and, in doing so, it somehow leaves me wanting more. It’s not a recommendation that comes without caveats thanks to the bugs and hiccups, but the struggle is worth it.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Disclosures: This game is developed and published by Snapshot Games. It is currently available on PC. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on PC. Approximately 145 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.

Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated T due to Violence and Blood. Blood sprays from wounded characters during tactical combat and rag-doll physics are used to embellish the violence of specific attack types, such as showing an arm being severed for an attack targeting that arm or awkwardly contorting a dead body after an explosive or concussive blast.

Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: There are no required sound cues for gameplay and all voice acted text is accompanied by subtitles. There are no options to recolor text. The following screenshots show the typical sizes of critical text:

Remappable Controls: Controls are not remappable and there are no options for additional control setups. Here are screenshots of the control diagrams for strategic and tactical control:

Steve Gillham
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