Home > Uncategorized > XCOM in the mirror – Phoenix Point

XCOM in the mirror – Phoenix Point

In the previous posts in this series, I’ve praised XCOM for its focus, clarity, and elegance. It gives you the right amount of information at the right time to allow you to make informed decisions. It aims for simplicity, winding up at a level of complexity that allows for good tactics. In those parts of the game where it’s less clear, it’s also less successful.

Those posts are all retrospectives – written after I’d had a chance to absorb and think about XCOM’s lessons, not as I was experiencing them.

This post is different: it’s about Phoenix Point, another game made by some of the same developers, which shows how you can get it wrong, where XCOM gets it right. And it’s written as I’m in the middle of trying to get to grips with it.

Phoenix Point is what happens to XCOM when its enthusiasts want more of everything. More enemies, more complex variants on those enemies, more research, bases, faction diplomacy, decisions, action points per round, weapons… and most of all, more ways to get into a position from which you cannot win. At the same time, less information up front – more interface ambiguity, more traps hidden in subsystems, which slow you down in your race against the enemies, more forcing the player to take leaps in the dark and then backtrack later. The overall result is more confusion, more paralysis, more stress (of the “I think I unwittingly did something wrong last week and now I’m screwed” variety), and less fun.

Geoscape view looks familiar! Each of those little circles with logos inside is a site I’ve explored. Blue and pink logos are bases of different factions, whom I can befriend or raid or rescue from disease/alien incursions, which come out of the red areas.

On the tactical level, where XCOM has 2 action points, for MOVE and SHOOT, PP has 4, so you can have actions that take 1, 2, 3 or 4 points… the result of which is that your heavy gunner and sniper, who have 3-point guns, are slowed to a crawl, having only 1 point left for movement. Where XCOM has a lot of one-shot kills, PP routinely takes 3 characters’ actions to take down one enemy soldier… the result of which is that combat is much slower and less predictable, tactically – because most of an enemy squad will escape any ambush you set, or turn the tables on you by failing to die and instead swarming you. And where XCOM gives you infinite reloads, PP wants you to gather up ammo from the battlefield (or, by default, leave it there when you end a mission… so you get into a situation where you’ve probably killed all the enemies but maybe not, but you don’t want to Do The Thing to declare victory because there might be some valuable bullets lying around in the opposite corner of the map). And where XCOM has a sometimes-enraging %-to-hit counter, PP has a touchy-feely “how much of this circular sight does your enemy occupy” interface, which takes multiple clicks to access but maybe appeals to sniping enthusiasts but… those guys are probably playing Call of Duty instead.

In brief: XCOM = quick and deadly, PP = slow, fiddly, and less tactical.

Character Advancement is both less clear and less varied than XCOM 2. There are 3 classes and everyone can dual-class at level 4, so your squad of 6 people certainly contains duplicates – it winds up being a sort of class-and-a-half system. Why would you do this? The main reason I’ve found so far is to overcome class restrictions on equipment. Snipers can’t normally get the Heavy’s jump jets, which is the only practical way to get to many of the sniping platforms in levels. Dual-class, like Omar, below, and you can jump to a sniper’s perch… and leave your short-range Heavy gun at home. Update: turns out more classes unlock later in the game but they have, like, funny heads? Or mutato-cyborgo bits? I have no idea, and they won’t ever explain. The fun will be in finding out.

Ammo management is a huge part of the game, but there’s no clear interface for reloading a weapon. And there are like 6 different minor variations on every basic weapon because…………..? I guess to make ammo management harder. So that’s why you end up with a giant Storage bin on your loadout screen. For 2 dozen ammo types. Update: and there will be more kinds of very similar weapons as you advance. Also, make sure you never fire that stripey cannon shown in the picture below except in direst extremis, because you’re never getting any more ammo for it.

But where the game really makes strides is the strategic layer. This was kind of rudimentary in XCOM. Now it’s…. a lot more complicated.

This video, ostensibly offering tips for the strategic game, actually provides a really thorough list of its design problems. First, it says the way to win the game is to strike before the aliens get to show you much of the content (which, OSR sensibilities aside, seems like a funny way to spend your development dollars). Friendly relations with other human factions are vital, so you should murder the first few humans you meet for their stuff, because the bad will that generates will only grow more expensive later (mixed messages, anyone? What sort of character are you playing, anyway?). And you should avoid researching anything that you can get by any other means – the video explicitly calls most of the research options “traps:” wasteful sinks for time and resources. Avoid developing your bases, building aircraft (steal them instead – but early on, before factions get properly mad at you for doing so), and try to win faster than both the aliens and the human factions’ mutually-assured destruction countdown. In other words, absolutely do not try to explore the things that the game puts in front of you. Along the way, there are several sub-games you should exploit without getting attached to them: a gold-farming trade game, diplomacy that’s kinda doomed, and a flying Godzilla, impossible to attack, that destroys the friends you first invest in.

Do I sound bitter? Well, I’ve only sunk 20 hours into it, and I’ve already realized that I should probably restart rather than sinking another 20 into a lost cause. I bet that puts me ahead of the average player.

The experience has, however, reinforced one thing for me: the importance of managing the player’s cognitive capacity, when learning a new game. Dribbling out information, letting the player grok the basics before getting fancy with special conditions. Some folks resent XCOM’s hand-holding tutorials, which callously kill off your soldiers to show you that soldiers will die and throw grenades at you to show you how dangerous they are and so on. When you’ve gone through XCOM’s 0-level funnel-like first mission, you think “that was really basic, I totally could’ve handled more options” ….but XCOM is smart to start with that funnel, allowing you to figure out movement and cover without thinking about the affordances of different character classes.

PP offers a very unattractive alternative, where you’re assumed to know how XCOM works, therefore you’re ready to have your expectations subverted. It throws you right into its XCOM++ world with all the options open from the start and… it’s overwhelming. Hundreds of (trap) research topics; pages and pages of (mostly probably irrelevant) lore about factions, your own history, the aliens; half a dozen separate base/aircraft/weapon/manufacturing systems to optimize, much of which, apparently, not worth the bother. And laced through it all, a basic failure to explain. To take one, stupid example, look at this interface element:

a yellow, dotted circle around your aircraft. It shrinks as you move toward a goal.

I bet you think it represents the range the plane can go without refueling at a friendly base, right? I was pretty scared even to approach that edge. I thought I might have to always have enough fuel aboard to make it back home. No. The plane can auto-refuel (if, in fact, that’s what it means at all) at any abandoned graveyard/alien base/curious swamp-grotto you’ve explored. You can tell it to go somewhere far outside that circle and the circle will just keep re-setting to max every time you pass over an icon. It took me 20 hours to find that out by accident. There is no manual where the dotted circle is explained.

If only the game dribbled that stuff out a bit, maybe its complexity would be a virtue, not a vice. So my positive lesson from this not-so-positive experience is, an empire-building game/earth-girdling campaign begins with a single step. Is there exploration? Let the players explore a small map (maybe an island or cave) first, revealing the next, bigger step when the first one is internalized. Is there redundant research? Let the players do some useful research first and then give them clues about what redundancy looks like, before having them lose a game to find out… There is never a point in the game where you should abandon this design principle: any time you’re about to radically expand the scope, even late in a campaign, add a little training, where the players can figure out the new possibilities before they have to depend on them. And for god’s sake, teach the players about any new thing with a good, reliable example, before betraying their hopes with a treacherous one.

Update: this is reinforced by the fighter plane minigame, which unlocks around hour 40. If you want to know why that ends the game (for me, at least) read below. If you don’t need any more reasons to avoid, then avoid this too.

——— actual whining below ————

LATE ADDENDUM: I get obsessive about video games – in general I avoid picking them up because I find it so hard to put them down again, but Phoenix Point has offered me an off-ramp after 60 hours of play, and I’m taking it. I mention it here because I feel there’s a lesson about RNGs and the need to place some limits on them.

PP has a small but real chance of just throwing a giant boss monster into a level full of mooks. Specifically, a super-beefed-up version of the Acheron into a game where the ordinary Acheron has just appeared. The Acheron is itself a Swiss Army knife of disasters – it introduces a new mechanic that directly erodes your soldiers’ abilities to resist it, it summons 1d4 mooks a round (which means it might double the monster count of a level in 2 rounds before you even know it’s there), it jumps, giving it more and different mobility compared with other monsters, and it’s a plain old giant bag of hit points and damage-dealing. So randomly throwing one into a level is wildly destabilizing, like making the level 6 times harder, where the regular monsters are supposed to offer a “balanced” challenge. It’s like having “red dragon” on a wandering monster table for a first level dungeon and then locking the players in one room with the dragon so they can’t run away.

OK, fine, reload the level, it won’t have the Boss, continue playing. If you allow savescumming, I guess this is just the game scumming back. But… what if you have a similar random avalanche waiting to kill the player, that gets set at the beginning of the game and that only goes off, say, 40 hours into play? 40 hours is a lot – maybe the player could plan around it? Maybe it’s not that big a deal if they know it’s coming?

Yeah so the story is, if you buy the complete PP now, it comes with all the later DLCs auto-installed. And one of those DLCs has a flying Godzilla that randomly wrecks everyone you’re trying to trade with. It sets you up for a whole arc where some people will get wrecked but then you’re in another arms race to learn how to resist it and eventually you can fight back. And to get you started and give you some hope, the DLC also straight up gives you a fighter plane to fight it with, at exactly the same time the Godzilla appears. It’s all scripted – hey, here’s your fighter… oh noes a Godzilla, go fight it. Except my fighter plane arrived in Africa and my Godzilla’s in Brazil, and the plane doesn’t have the range to cross the ocean in between, so it can only get there via the north pole, and only if I’ve built a daisy chain of bases where it can refuel. It would take, say, 20 more hours to navigate a path for it to come and fight. During which, I think, the only way I could resist the Godzilla at all is by researching and building another fighter plane.

So I tested that idea – made a new savegame, invested a couple of hours, tried to arm up a new fighter (knowing it would bankrupt me, prevent me from pursuing any of the other half-dozen life-saving technologies… but that’s actually a typical feeling for the XCOM strategic game so); for science, I decided to sacrifice my morning. And… the fighter minigame has no documentation. I don’t know if it’s not working because I’ve failed to do something, or because I can’t find the fire button, or what. Maybe I just gave my fighter some missiles to carry rather than a missile launcher (a thing you can do with infantry, and no the game doesn’t warn you that anything’s wrong). Maybe I need a new pilot or gunner class that the game didn’t tell me about. Maybe it’s an actual bug. I dunno, the interface has nothing to say.

So, that’s my off ramp. Thanks, PP.

  1. Braden
    March 26, 2023 at 6:27 pm

    It’s actually a bit more interesting than “made by some of the same developers” since Phoenix Point is the creation of Julian Gollop who is responsible for the original 90’s X-Com, but was not involved with the modern “Xcom” reboot games. So in some ways it’s seen as a successor to the classic, more challenging original games. I haven’t played either Xcom 2 or Phoenix Point so I have no comment on how they play in contrast to each other, but I do think it is useful to know each games heritage.

    • March 27, 2023 at 8:45 pm

      and it’s at least 25 years since I played the original, so I can’t really judge if it’s a true successor.
      I will say I’m on the cusp of giving PP up. I really think it has problems with information design. There’s a lot of different pieces to game design, and really no one person is ever responsible for the whole of any big title. I’m guessing Julian wasn’t in charge of UX

      • Braden
        March 28, 2023 at 3:50 am

        Games can be complicated but he is credited as the lead designer and he also happens to be the founder and CEO of the publisher Snapshot Games, so I’d be surprised if he didn’t have the final say in what went into the game, in contrast to his time working for Ubisoft.

        As I’ve learned from doing board game playtesting sometimes you’re too close to a project and can’t see UI/rules issues easily without taking a step back and distancing yourself from what came before.

        Maybe you should use the time that was scheduled for unhappily playing PP for trying out “The Long War”…

        • March 28, 2023 at 4:52 pm

          that would make more sense. I’m going to kick it up a notch and use that time to do some actual adventure development, tho.

          ….when I say “I’m guessing Julian wasn’t in charge of UX,” I mean on XCOM, which is simply a much more market-ready product. I have added some more whining to the post but you already get the picture: these guys never got honest feedback from testers who didn’t already know what they were doing. Or if they did, they managed to ignore it. I’ve been in that position and I know the temptation.

  1. May 1, 2023 at 6:11 am
  2. May 5, 2023 at 7:34 pm

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: