I remember playing the demo for X-Com: Apocalypse. I got it from a CD that came with an issue of now-defunct Greek gaming magazine PC Master. I’d only just recently gotten my own computer; I think the only game I’d bought myself so far was Shadows over Riva. (We weren’t exactly rich.)
I immediately fell in love with the game. Everything about it appealed to me. The mix of sci-fi and horror. The RPG elements. The combat. The way it felt less like a game and more like a simulation. The sheer amount of options. It felt like a whole world had been crammed into that game, a world with complex rules, with mysteries, with behaviours that weren’t just responses to the player, but somehow happened on their own.
I bought it, and I’ve rarely been so excited. I read the manual (on the toilet, the proper place for reading manuals) and it just made the game seem even bigger and more wonderful. And then… I have no idea. Did I bounce off it at first? Did it take me a while to understand all of its systems? It’s possible, but I can’t really remember. I just remember finding myself utterly absorbed. I had favourite bases, favourite soldiers, even favourite scientists. I had opinions about the various organizations in the game, including a vicious war with one of the gangs (and, of course, the Cult of Sirius). The combination of a detailed fictional world full of specific detail and abstract, dynamic mechanics created the feeling that you were defending a real, living place. It drew me in.
The combat was completely fascinating. In games, I have a strong tendency to look for unusual solutions, and X-Com: Apocalypse offered so many of them. I remember an alien shooting at my soldiers from a balcony, and instead of killing the alien we just shot the balcony away from under it. I remember repeatedly raiding the same gang over and over to ruin their finances and enrich myself, using a truly devious strategy: find a room with a destroyable floor that contains a smaller room, use incendiary ammo to destroy the outer part of the room, then use teleporters to turn the room into a floating fortress of safety. Man, those teleporters were overpowered, but they were fun. I did the last missions with just one or two soldiers. Teleporting guerillas.
There were real moments of horror, though, especially when you encountered a new type of alien. The sound design was superb – you learned to identify the enemies by the sounds they made, which made hearing an unknown sound doubly terrifying. And there were even a couple of surprises in the late game.
(Side note: my computer at the time had an extremely peculiar property, which I discovered while playing X-Com: the sound card would randomly pick up signals from passing taxis. Suddenly hearing the loud voice of a taxi driver shouting through my headphones while I was in the middle of a tense mission literally made me jump.)
All of the brilliance of the tactical combat (best enjoyed in real-time mode) wouldn’t really be half as much fun without the strategic layer, though. Managing your base, equipping your soldiers, making alliances with other organizations – these provided a context and a feeling of freedom to the whole thing that other games just couldn’t match.
After X-Com: Apocalypse, I went back and played the first two games, and enjoyed both very much. Even later, reading up on the history of the games, I found out that Apocalypse was essentially unfinished, and had been something of a nightmare project for its creator, Julian Gollop. I still think it’s a brilliant game, though, and even all these years later I still tremendously enjoy it. The last time I replayed it was a couple of years ago, and it was still properly exciting. I frequently feel like games from that period represent a lost branch in the evolutionary tree of games, before the desire to simplify and streamline everything. (My holy trinity of strategy games is X-Com: Apocalypse, Master of Orion II, and Master of Magic. I replay all three regularly.)
I played the demo for X-Com: Interceptor, but just couldn’t get into it. It wasn’t what I wanted, it wasn’t X-Com. Its only influence on my life ended up being a running joke with some friends about future sequels being increasingly unlike the original, until X-Com 27 was a toaster or something. That joke was revived when the game that eventually became The Bureau: XCOM Declassified was announced, which like many others I felt to be a cheap attempt to slap a franchise name on something barely related to sell a few more copies. Then XCOM: Enemy Unknown was announced. And you know what’s really ironic? I ended up enjoying The Bureau a lot more.
Not that XCOM was bad. It really wasn’t. It was a very solid, very well-designed (except for those satellites) game. It took the original X-Com and evolved it in a different direction. But it wasn’t for me. Too many of the things that I really loved about X-Com were missing. The world didn’t feel alive, the base-building didn’t feel strategic. I enjoyed the time I spent with it well enough, but it didn’t grab me. (The Bureau, weirdly, did. Mainly because of the superb atmosphere and surprisingly solid combat. If only it had been more dynamic, or at least longer. It was like one third of a brilliant game.)
There are two things I spent years looking for, slowly acquiring a huge collection of bargain bin CD-ROMs: a good follow-up to X-Com and a good RPG. There were a few attempts at mimicking the formula, but to be honest all of the results were pretty terrible. That’s changed recently, with games like the very solid (and surprisingly well-written) Xenonauts and a fairly impressive X-Com modding scene, but none of those existed in my own personal Dark Age. (I still have trouble finding satisfying RPGs.)
Which brings us to Phoenix Point, the new game by Julian Gollop, a return to the genre by its very creator. When it was announced, I immediately asked whether I could work on it. I don’t normally do that; I’m not fond of trying to sell myself to others, it just feels crass. But I couldn’t pass up the opportunity, and with some highly acclaimed games under my belt (which would have sounded pretty amazing to the version of me who’d just gotten his first PC and was thinking of learning how to program so he could make games) I thought I might actually get this gig. And I did! Holy shit.
I’m both excited and terrified to be working on Phoenix Point. In many ways, Phoenix Point is intended to be the game that X-Com: Apocalypse was never allowed to become. It has a detailed setting, but it’s also very dynamic. It has tense and challenging tactical combat, but also a proper Geoscape. It has distinct factions, scary aliens, oodles of atmosphere. It’ll draw players into its world, make them feel like they’re fighting for something that matters… if we do it right.
It’s not going to be easy, and it’s going to be a ridiculous amount of work. Phoenix Point will be a game with a lot of narrative content, but also a lot of systems. The narrative isn’t something you just slap onto the systems, or even worse, something you force the systems into. The narrative has to be grounded in ideas that have depth, so that the player’s actions have a context that gives them meaning, but it also has to be dynamic, capable of responding to those actions. Of course, that’s precisely what’s interesting about games as a medium: the kind of writing required to make something like Phoenix Point work is entirely unlike any other kind of writing.
Some of the things I’ve written as background material are already available on the website: The Hatch is a short story about the Phoenix Project in the 1970s, and there’s also a Phoenix Project file on one of the factions, the Disciples of Anu. More will be posted soon. Finances and time allowing, I want to help make this game as rich and rewarding as possible. Maybe Phoenix Point will be to someone else what X-Com: Apocalypse was to me. Wouldn’t that be great?
- I didn’t generally keep game boxes when game boxes were still a thing, but I still have my X-Com: Apocalypse box.
- Julian Gollop is very nice. He also sounds and looks like an older version of Joel Goodwin of Electron Dance.
- I can’t remember who it was (Terry Cavanagh? Gregory Avery-Weir?), but someone once commented on the influence of X-Com on my unplayable, broken masterpiece Phenomenon 32. They were correct, even though it’s a totally different type of game.
- I once couldn’t finish an X-Com: Apocalypse UFO level because I couldn’t find the last alien. But I kept hearing gunfire. Eventually I discovered that it had attempted to cut its way through the hull. Seriously. It had carved a freaking tunnel into the hull! Was it an accident or was the A.I. really thinking it could avoid my soldiers that way? Even Julian wasn’t sure.