This feature originally ran in PC Gamer issue 327, back in January. Subscribe here to get our lovely magazine sent to your door every month, whether you're in the US or UK.
The permafrost has melted, unleashing a terrifying alien virus. An eerie mist rolls across the planet, compelling people to wander into the ocean, where they emerge as hideous, mutated monsters. The world is a mess, and in turn-based strategy game Phoenix Point, it’s your job to clean it up.
“When the game starts in 2047, most of humanity has been killed, abducted, or transformed into alien monstrosities,” says lead designer Julian Gollop, who is best known for creating the original X-COM series. “But there are a few isolated groups that have managed to survive.”
“The Phoenix Project organisation you’re the leader of is very diminished,” he says. “You’re being attacked on all sides by various different powers. But out of the ashes of the devastation of the virus, which comes to be known as the Pandora virus, there comes a number of charismatic leaders who claim their factions will be able to rebuild the world and make it better.”
Julian Gollop has been making strategy games for decades, from Laser Squad and Rebelstar Raiders in the ’80s, to bringing the legendary X-COM series to the world’s attention in the ’90s. That’s the old X-COM, with a dash after the X, rather than Firaxis’ recent (and equally superb) reboot, XCOM. But Phoenix Point seems to be bigger, grander, and more ambitious than anything he’s done before, and I ask what inspired him to start the project.
“I wanted to pursue what I call my vision of a grand strategy game, which involves tactical turn-based battles as well as a wider strategic conflict,” he says. “I love this multilevel, multiscale aspect to strategy games, which is heavily influenced by some of the board games I used to play when I was much younger. Before computer games existed, in fact.
“I also wanted to revisit some of the ideas I was developing in the original X-COM series. For example, in X-COM: Apocalypse there was this idea of a living city with multiple factions that you had individual relationships with. This was something I wanted to explore a lot more.”
Gollop also wanted to bring back the feeling of dread and tension that permeated the X-COM series—of never knowing what horror lies around the next corner, or if your squad will make it out alive. “That was very much a part of the tension and excitement of the tactical battles,” he says. “In Phoenix Point, we have a mutation system that can generate hundreds of enemy variations, so you are never sure what you’re going to be facing.
“I also wanted to bring some of the RPG elements from the original X-COM to Phoenix Point,” Gollop continues. “That sense that you’re creating and nurturing a squad and carefully building them up to a force that’s going to save the world. We want the player to have to decide whether they’re going to risk their best soldier in a battle or save them for when things get tougher later.”
While the core of the game will be its tense, deep, strategic combat, story is also an important factor in Phoenix Point. But it’s more than just window dressing: it actively informs the flow of the game, and how you interact with the various parties in it: be they friend, foe or a bit of both.
“We’ve spent a lot of time building the world,” says Gollop. “We’ve produced a number of short stories for [crowdfunding] backers, which have been well received and give the game a rich backstory. In the game, much of the story will be revealed through the research system—as it was, in fact, in X-COM. And there are the factions, who have different ideas about how to save the world.”
New Jericho is a faction led by a powerful leader named Tobias West. He was, before the outbreak, the CEO of a major arms manufacturer and private mercenary group, and has created a militaristic society where soldiers have high status. If combat’s your thing, side with them.
“Everybody is expected to serve in West’s personal army, and their approach to the Pandora virus is that it has to be eliminated by eternal vigilance,” says Gollop. “So they’re very strict about killing infected people, and any trace of the infection they detect is dealt with without prejudice. Tobias West is firmly against any kind of corruption of the human genome.”
Very much opposed to New Jericho is the creepy, cultlike Disciples of Anu, a religious order which believes that an alien godlike figure has come to save the Earth in the form of the Pandora virus and its mutations.
“They think that if they embrace it, they’ll evolve with it,” says Gollop. “They’ve developed a technology that lets them contain the virus so that anyone infected doesn’t become completely alien, which they think will allow humanity to become better than itself. The downside is that a lot of these experiments fail, causing a lot of death and suffering. But people join them because their leader, the Exalted, is highly charismatic. She’s a mutant herself and has these powers, showing people what they could become.”
And then there’s the Synedrion, a highly ecological, anarchistic alliance. The have a technology that allows them to repel the virus, and believe they can reclaim the land—even if the seas are still infected—and rebuild society. “They want a society built on freedom, democracy, and other ideals they think have been neglected by previous civilisations. They think trying to completely defeat the alien menace, like New Jericho is trying to do, is a futile task.”
All three factions have their own agenda, technology, and proposed solutions to the alien menace. And you, as an independent party, can use different, often risky methods to get this information for yourself. “You can choose to ally with a faction, defending their settlements to curry favour,” says Gollop. “Or you can attack them and just steal their resources and technology.
“You can also trade and exchange research and technology peacefully. So that aspect of the game, including from a storytelling perspective, is a lot richer than X-COM. We also have plans for the story beyond even this first game, about what happens next in the world of Phoenix Point.”
The beliefs of the factions means you’ll be navigating dangerous diplomatic waters. “Your actions will have consequences and could lead to a faction turning on you,” says Gollop. “But if they’re under attack and you choose to intervene, they might trust you more. However, if you defend a Disciples of Anu base and not a Synedrion one, because you’re more interested in forming an alliance with the former, the latter may react badly.”
You also have to consider the structure of each faction before you go charging in looking to make a deal. “With the Disciples of Anu, you can’t just march in and talk directly to the Exalted. You have to progress through several levels of their, let’s say, priest hierarchy to reach her. The Synedrion are changing leadership a lot, as they’re having these internal debates, so you might talk to different people with different demands.”
And the faction you side with, if you decide to side with one, can also directly affect how you win the game. “Each faction has its own solution to the alien menace,” says Gollop. “They haven’t developed it at the start of the game, however, so you can choose to ally with one of them and work with them to achieve their goal. There’s also a fourth solution to the game besides siding with one of the three factions, which you can pursue without creating any alliances, but it’s more difficult to pull off.”
The game’s tense turn-based combat will have you making equally interesting and important decisions, albeit on a smaller, more immediate scale. One of the most exciting features is how, thanks to the weird mutating properties of the Pandora virus, enemies are procedurally generated from dozens of different parts, and you’re never sure what it’s going to throw at you next.
“The alien mutation system works at a strategic level,” says Gollop. “For example, there are arthropod-type enemies with primitive claws and shields. But if you beat them a few times, and decisively, they’ll go through a mutation process. So next time you face them, they might be able to use human weapons, or develop different types of attacks such as poisons. And the more they defeat you, the more successful the mutation will be. This will require players to constantly change and adapt their combat tactics in battle.”
Another interesting feature is the free aim system. Similar to VATS in Fallout, this lets you target specific body parts of an enemy, opening up a realm of tactical possibilities. “This is important tactically because a lot of the aliens’ abilities stem from their various mutated body parts,” says Gollop. “If you have, say, a crab-type enemy with a shield and a gun, you can disable its arm to knock the gun out of its hand, which limits it to using a close-quarters shield bash. Some mutations have weak spots to deal extra damage, too. If you attack an enemy’s leg, it might stop it from moving as quickly.
“When you’re fighting a monster, the free aim system is more important than ever,” Gollop adds. “They’re like organic battleships with multiple weapon systems and you have to try and pick a strategy based on that. Do you want to take its weapons out? Or focus on the most vulnerable part of its body? These things are all a very important part of your tactics in battle.”
Pick and choose
Grand strategy games are obviously an influence on Phoenix Point, and I wonder if players who want to focus on that side of things can choose to automatically resolve battles. “You can’t automate battles, because they’re really the essence of what the game is all about,” says Gollop. “However, you do have a lot of choice in what battles you pursue. It’s a much more free-form mission system than you’d normally find in a game like this. You can instigate battles if a faction has something useful: an aircraft factory, say. You land your squad, fight the local defenders, and steal the aircraft. That’s your choice.”
And, in an example of things coming full circle, it’s clear in Phoenix Point’s slick animation and interface that Firaxis’ XCOM has inspired Gollop in some ways. “I love those games,” he says. “I really like the sense of drama they manage to get from a turn-based game. There’s some impressive 3D graphics and camera work in there. A nice interface too, which works smoothly with a mouse and keyboard or a controller. XCOM 2 in particular had great character customisation. They obviously streamlined a few things compared to the old X-COM games, most of which I think were good decisions. And they managed to reach a really wide audience with those games, too.”
It’s great to see Gollop return to the genre that made his name. Phoenix Point is currently set for release in September and it’ll be interesting to see how it stacks up against Firaxis’ take on XCOM. The added layer of grand strategy—warring factions, diplomacy, espionage, and so on—will hopefully sit comfortably alongside the more granular, turn-based decision-making of a battle. With such a rich, storied history of making strategy games, from the ZX Spectrum to the present day, I reckon Gollop can pull it off.