Phoenix Point is so much like XCOM it scares me

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The mutant spider queen ripped through another building and I knew my team was dead. This didn’t bother me, I’ve played enough of nu-XCOM to accept the loss of humanity’s last hope. But there’s something more unsettling than being impaled by a large arachnid in Phoenix Point. Its the game’s uncanny and unnerving resemblance to its XCOM cousins. It’s like seeing a doppelgänger of your mate suddenly appear behind him, walking to the bar. You sit there stuttering, looking over his shoulder, wondering who’s really sitting in front of you.

I’m not the only one to remark on this similarity. At one point during my playthrough in the halls of GDC, two developers from Firaxis – the developers of XCOM: Enemy Unknown and its sequel – appeared behind me like phantoms. They stood there watching the massacre unfold. “Looks good,” one of them said, pointedly. “I like that line-of-sight thing.” I stood between the developers of both games, controller in hand, and felt like a guest at an awkward family barbecue.

There are differences, of course. The story is an aquatic interpretation of the apocalyptic B-movie threat. A microbial mist is spreading across the globe, creating mutant hybrids of sea creatures that want to wipe out humankind. But more important than the tale are the changes to the combat. That “line-of-sight thing”, for instance, is fresh. When you hover your mouse around the map, contemplating where to move soldierman Billy Bigarms (as his customisable name will surely read), you’ll be able to see shimmering blue lines which reveal the enemies you could target from that particular spot. A line will also turn red to show you if an enemy will be flanked, making it easier to consider possible vantage points at a glance.

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This small but useful change seems to be representative of the game’s attitude to its XCOM brethren. It doesn’t seek to make sweeping changes to the machine. It just wants to add a cog here, a spring there. Small, workmanlike alterations to a device that already functions perfectly well. At least, that’s how it appears in the midst of a fight. It took me less than a minute to feel comfortable on this battlefields, and all the controls – camera rotation, soldier swapping – were identical to Firaxis’ alien stompers.

This attitude of incremental improvement is part of an odd relationship that’s arisen between Firaxis and Snapshot. Jullian Gollop and his team at Mythos may have invented XCOM back in the early nineties, but Firaxis re-invented it, putting Gollop’s new studio in the odd position of building upon a design that was already based on his own work. Imagine being asked to renovate a church, knowing that it was built on foundations of an even older temple you built yourself decades ago. A lot of people would be so affronted by this new religion, they’d want to knock that church down. Gollop wants to refurbish the steeple.

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Other differences are hard to notice at first but they’re pointed out to me by Snapshot co-founder David Kaye. Bullet trajectory matters here, he says, so a lamp post or a crumbling wall between you and your target will sometimes get in the way. Which means there is an element of aiming down your sights, or at least making sure your firing line is clear before you put Sally Shotgun in harm’s way for the sake of an opportunistic shot at a shielded crab man.

Each unit also has limited “willpower”, a row of blue pips next to the character’s health. You need a certain amount of these to use special abilities, like using a jetpack or dashing into cover after taking a shot. Even going into Overwatch (yes, it’s called Overwatch here too, so strong is the flavour of XCOM) will require a certain level of willpower. But willpower can be diminished by “serious injuries, death of a comrade or facing terrifying monsters”. You can refresh each soldier’s willpower by resting for a turn, killing enemies or achieving mission objectives. In my demo, reaching a control room gave one of my soldiers three willpips back – not exactly a windfall and not enough in my mind to make the suicidal dash for this room worth it, but in other circumstances it may have made all the difference

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Oh, there’s also the limbs thing. When targeting an enemy (mutant crab, rotten gunman, quite-large spider) you get to aim at specific body parts, a la the VATS system of the modern Fallouts. Damage the leg of a crabbie and he will be unable to scuttle long distances during his turn. Blast the arms of a decaying muto rifleman and he’ll be unable to lob grenades at your squad mates. There is a trade off here, however. Your soldiers are all susceptible to the same injuries. Riley Rocketlauncher won’t be able to do his job with two busted biceps.

This was how it went for me. I’d stormed the gates of an enemy stronghold that was covered in goop and the remnants of civilisation, judiciously killing the crab boys that tried to stop me. But once inside, things went sour. The spider showed up, a tank of health and horror, and soon all my troops were legless or bleeding out (the bleeding status causes you to lose one unit of health every turn, like the poison of XCOM). My last surviving soldier scaled a nearby building and the spider queen stomped in pursuit, turning half the edifice to rubble. Finally, my sniper took an ultimate shot at the spider’s head, which exploded. Hooray! Wait. Not hooray.

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The spider didn’t die. It just stood around, headless and angry. Then two crab boys appeared on either side of me and poked me to death with their pincers. A sorry end for my heroes. In the final game, enemies will be designed to “mutate” from fight to fight, adapting to the methods you use to defeat them (see the GIF here for all the possible combinations of crab boy that might appear). In the end, it didn’t take any special adaptation to finish off the New Jericho squad.

These gung-ho troopers (rest in peace) are a sample of the soldiers you’ll get, says Kaye. There are three factions in the overworld. The hippy dippy Synedrion, the militaristic and prejudiced New Jericho, and a tech-loving cult called the Disciples of Anu, with your own Phoenix Project presumably acting as the mixing bowl for all of them. Although recruitment and co-operation seems to be the goal, you can end up fighting against the other factions because of decisions you make in the overworld, the Geoscape.

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And that’s the part of Phoenix Point that’s still shrouded in microbial darkness. I didn’t get to see what the management side of things looks like at all, but was told “it becomes more like Civ at that point”. Considering the similarities to nu-XCOM in every other respect, I’d be surprised to see it drifting too far from that board game tone of moving a piece there, picking up money here, accepting a mission over there, and so on. But perhaps we should also expect some glittering new cogs to throw us off.

I stepped away from my mission a failure, a victim of the giganto-spider (can you believe that scoundrel Matt says he defeated it? Propaganda, if you ask me). But I did get an understanding of the game’s closeness to its Firaxis relations. How much the final game resembles XCOM: Enemy Unknown and XCOM 2 will have a big impact on how it comes together. Right now it’s uncanny, despite the small tweaks. That’s fine for those seeking a familiar crack at a humanity-threatening menace but there’s also the risk of tinkering with a near-perfect machine in such a way that it falls apart because of some tiny-yet-vital alteration.

Or it might solve a bunch of problems we never knew existed. Who knows? Like its mutant enemies, Phoenix Point is still evolving out of sight. I’m keen to see it emerge from the mist.

79 Comments

  1. Babymech says:

    Man… I wish Jagged Alliance would have grown to have this same kind of twisted family tree, instead of a few spirited but unhelpfully janky, abortive Russian attempts.

    • zabieru says:

      Truer words, my friend.

      Hell, for a smaller wish: I would love to see any kind of progeny of 1.13’s New Inventory System, even streamlined to the point of being neutered. It super bugs me when games model the tiniest differences between two different models of reflex sight but then treat anything you might carry as if it has only weight but not bulk or shape. Seems to me that if you’re serious about your jungle warfare or whatever, you’re going to put a lot of care into selecting and maintaining your pack, right?

      (The Ubisoft/Far Cry “kill a leopard to upgrade your ammo belt” thing is frustratingly close, but still so far away: since you can’t generally trade between different sorts of inventory capacity, there aren’t a lot of choices to be made. You can’t pick the grenade belt that has three grenade pouches over the one with one big grab-bag, even. It’s just more icons to check off.)

  2. Tholesund says:

    That “line-of-sight thing”, for instance, is fresh.

    I might be misremembering, but didn’t Firaxis originally implement a similar system during early development of XCOM: Enemy Unknown, until they decided it actually hurt the gameplay and removed it? I think I saw some footage of it somewhere.

    • Jim Reaper says:

      Yeah, but then they reinstigated a version of it in War Of The Chosen. Footage of the original implementation here: link to gaming.youtube.com

    • BewareTheJabberwock says:

      There are mods for (I’m pretty sure) both XCOMs that tell you line of sight and flanking, but they are a bit wonky, in that a red reticle appears next to the alien you can see (yellow if it’s flanking), but that alien isn’t necessarily on screen as you test out different moves. PP’s actual “line” to indicate LoS and flanking sounds a lot better.

  3. Jim Reaper says:

    “I didn’t get to see what the management side of things looks like at all, but was told “it becomes more like Civ at that point”. Considering the similarities to nu-XCOM in every other respect, I’d be surprised to see it drifting too far from that board game tone of moving a piece there, picking up money here, accepting a mission over there, and so on.”

    I think they’re looking at the original X-Com for inspiration regarding the geoscape rather than the new games. Apparently, you’ll be able to scavenge from resource sites, build new bases and invade other factions’ bases. Personally, the less like a board game it is, the happier I’ll be.

    • JonasKyratzes says:

      Yes, it’s properly dynamic and not particularly boardgame-influenced. Much more like the original, but with the addition of factions (similar to X-Com Apocalypse, except fewer and more detailed) and random story events.

    • BewareTheJabberwock says:

      I’ll be happy if they jettison the “bullying” (for lack of a better term) that you have to go and do a mission RIGHT FING NOW that plagued vanilla XCOM2 and even WotC.

  4. G_Runciter says:

    “a la the VATS system of the modern Fallouts”

    I’m offended.

  5. Kefren says:

    I have sunk months into UFO and X-COM and still play them, but hated the modern XCOM reboot. Everything about it – controls, UI, loss of the top-down base, inability to explore the Geoscape. If this is like the reboots that would be a huge turnoff for me.

    • cpt_freakout says:

      To me, this is what makes Phoenix Point so attractive, it being a sort of synthesis of X-COM and XCOM from none other than the guy who came up with the first. It’s almost academic. Of course, I did love the new one as much as I did the old one (heresy, I know), so yeah.

    • JonasKyratzes says:

      Proper basebuilding and a proper geoscape are central features of Phoenix Point. But the game’s still in pre-alpha, so what we’re showing is a (single) combat scenario.

    • Arhaeus says:

      For those who want something different from the new X-COM line, there is a game that wants to bring the depth of the old TBS in a new graphic and with new ideas right here: link to terran-shield.com

    • Kefren says:

      I should add that I’ll keep following this! I hope it achieves what it is aiming at. Even Xenonauts didn’t work for me. Though I spent ages with an X-COM mod that was covered on RPS about a year ago (a load of Amazon women? Good fun but way too hard!)

      • suicicoo says:

        X-Piratez 8) im still playing it since then – and development is closing in on 1.0

      • Rituro says:

        I’m curious as to what parts of Xenonauts didn’t scratch the X-COM itch for you? For my money, Xenonauts was/is a fairly solid love letter to the original while adding some new wrinkles and QOL improvements to the formula. What missed the mark?

        • CalvinCoolidge says:

          I’m also curious as to what about Xenonauts you didn’t like. If maybe you were looking for more of a challenge, check out a Xenonauts mod called X-Division. It’s like if Xenonauts, XCOM Long War, and Satan had a baby.

          • Raoul Duke says:

            I’m not the person you replied to, but Xenonauts lacks the graphical style, amazing music and B movie flair of the original.

        • Stillquest says:

          Yeah, Xenonauts is basically a remake of old XCOM, as opposed to Firaxis’ “re-imagining”. I actually liked both games, but ultimately prefer the former. A big part of what made the original attractive was the freeform, simulationist gameplay – Firaxis’ version lost all that.

        • Kefren says:

          It’s hard to say. I would have to play Xenonauts more to be able to put a finger on it, and I don’t feel any compulsion to do that at the moment. UFO/X-COM swallow weeks (as FTL is doing with me again right now), but Xenonauts left me cold. I’m not saying it is a bad game – I bet it is a great game – but something didn’t click. Maybe it was the graphics and music and colours. Maybe it was the base. Or the weapons. OR the geoscape. There were things I expected that had been changed and felt worse. I really can’t remember how much was the UI, how much the geoscape, how much the interceptions, and how much the actual missions, but for me the thrill wasn’t there. Though I’d rather go back and give Xenonauts another try than the modern XCOM, which I just thought was awful.

  6. Premium User Badge

    Drib says:

    “The story is an aquatic interpretation of the apocalyptic B-movie threat.”

    Sounds Terror From the Deep-ish. Let’s hope not.

    But really, I enjoyed the new XCOMs. I mean sure they’re not as fiddly and micromanagey as the older titles, but they’re good fun and enjoyable tactics sims with a thin spreading of longterm strategy on top.

    Phoenix Point continues to look interesting.

    • JonasKyratzes says:

      It’s not, although it does have Lovecraftian elements. You can read stories from the world we’ve built on the website (link to phoenixpoint.info) and in a couple of ebooks we’ve released. Quite a lot of work has actually gone into this.

      • Heimdall2061 says:

        I’ve been keeping up with PP for some time now, but those stories really caught my eye. I liked them a lot! I have faith that this team will turn out a worthy successor to X-Com, and I hope something ultimately greater (though that would be a pretty tall order!)

      • DatonKallandor says:

        Note that there are some HUGE spoilers in those stories. If you like the part of x-com-likes where you slowly research the mystery behind the attackers as you progress thorugh the game, don’t read the pre-release fiction.

    • khamul says:

      The tactical combat in the new XCOMs is absolutely superb, and I love them to bits. Incredibly well designed and thought-through. Not altogether without issue – some loss of atmosphere for mechanics, for example – but very very good.

      Done some reading on Phoenix Point, and the changes are not minor. Things like bullets that travel – needing to worry about lines of fire to avoid friendly fire! – are *huge* differences.

      A game that takes the tight design and clarity of UI of the modern XCOMs with the depth of mechanics of X-COM Apocalypse (always my favourite) is really really exciting. I’m worried that’s too much for anyone to successfully deliver, but I have my fingers crossed.

      Also, yeah, definitely sign up with PP and get the e-books. Well worth a read!

  7. FreeFrag.UK says:

    “Phoenix Point is so much like XCOM it scares me”

    Just to highlight this, Julian Gollop (the creative mind behind Phoenix Point) is the father of X-Com.

    Here’s hoping for a true successor to the original X-Com franchise.

    • Premium User Badge

      Drib says:

      The article outright states this already, of course.

      • FreeFrag.UK says:

        Aye, I’ve just sat down and re-read the article as I only skimmed it before while on the tail end of my commute. Some how I thumbed over a couple of paragraphs.

        I still maintain my point about hoping that it’s a true sequel to the original X-Com’s and, to be blunt, I think it’s a bit of an idiotic title for the article despite the acknowledgement given to Jullian in lieu of the history surrounding the X-Com franchise.

        • UncleSmoothie says:

          You still show no evidence of having read the article, mate.

          • DatonKallandor says:

            The article is also really bad. He’s right, it’s a true sequel to the original x-com, not the remakes.

          • FreeFrag.UK says:

            @UncleSmoothie: Apologies, I’ll upload a video to YouTube straight away providing full recitation for your pleasure.

            Or alternatively I could complete a questionnaire/quiz for your pleasure?

            You do realise that your comment is as absurd as this one.

  8. Palindrome says:

    You didn’t mention that Phoenix point uses time units, not the arbitrary and restrictive ‘actions’ of the new XCOMs.
    I am looking forward to this far more than I did for the Firaxis remakes.

    If anyone knows how to make an X-COM it is Julian Gollop and so far it looks as though he is well on track.

    • Stillquest says:

      Really? This IS good news. Having read the article, I got the impression that PP’s combat is going down the simplified, modern-XCOM route.

    • Raoul Duke says:

      This is critical, and it is concerning that the article doesn’t mention it. I really hope that Phoenix Point moves as far from the kindergarten ‘move -action’ crap in XCOM as possible.

    • Captain Yesterday says:

      Eh, “time units” strike me as kind of “game-y”, and don’t reflect on how people actually move in real time. In time unit games, you’d have your entire squad bunched up behind a corner, and one by one they jump out in the open, take their shot, and go back behind cover. All I can think of is that, if played in real time, every fight would like like Benny Hill with laser guns.

      The “action point” system might not be as flexible, but to me at least, it seems more realistic.

      • DatonKallandor says:

        If you did the pop-around-a-corner-shoot-and-pop back in Phoenix Point what would happen is that you pop out, shoot – then the aliens shoot back if they can immediately – then you can pop back into cover. And that’s far more realistic than the awful 2 action system in XCOM, especially the part where it randomly ends your turn on some things and not others with no indication or consistent reasoning.

        • Dominare says:

          There IS an indication, there’s an icon that looks like this >| on the action panel when the currently selected action will end that unit’s turn.

          • DatonKallandor says:

            Yeah except that there are a ton of abilities that end your turn without having that icon. There’s also multiple colours of action icons and you’d that indicates something too. Nope it doesn’t you just gotta look it up on a wiki or guess.

  9. Premium User Badge

    Big Dunc says:

    I love old X-COM and new XCOM, Rebelstar and Laser Squad, and am definitely looking forward to this.

  10. upupup says:

    Nice, nice. It’d be great if they stylistically pull off a UFO/Lovecraft mix the way the original X-COM was heavily influenced by UFO, unlike the Independence Day/superhero combo of the remakes. That’s the amazing UFO tv-show from the 1970s for you youngsters.

  11. geldonyetich says:

    If the XCOM remakes turned out to be so good that it inspired a whole new genre, would I be bothered by that? Probably not.

    But then, maybe something ridiculous might happen like Nintendo and Ubisoft would colloberate to make one that is a crossover between Mario and the Rabbids. And maybe it would turn out to be fantastic because it’s such a solid gameplay foundation, thereby blowing my mind by forcing it to accept that cloning game concepts and recycling IP is perhaps not a universal evil after all.

    But thank God that hasn’t happened.

  12. Cerulean Shaman says:

    It shouldn’t scare you. Xcom was good but it had some design issues… for example, the game practically forcing you inch forward spamming overwatch as core gameplay which was incredibly tedious, boring, and not very strategic. With one simple mechanic overwatch spamming is not possible.

    And already Phoenix Point is breezing ahead of Xcom.

  13. elevown says:

    War of the chosen has the line of sight info stuff – like what you will be able to see or flank etc if you move to a square. It has also been in the xcom games a long time via mods. I think it was the popularity of those mods that made them add it in.

  14. buzzmong says:

    From what I can gather, PP is basically restoring to nu-Xcom stuff that was in UFO:EU, like ballistics, more destruction, an actual geoscape and basing functions etc…

    Which is good and I like that a lot. LW2 made strides towards it for XCOM2, but wasn’t enough.

    Oh,

    Overwatch (yes, it’s called Overwatch here too, so strong is the flavour of XCOM)

    I mean, it’s totally not like Overwatch is a named mechanic from the mists of time (eg, the 90’s Space Hulk + many others).

  15. pantognost says:

    Someone mentioned it above, but it’s worth repeating…
    This is a remake of Terror from the Deep after the success of modern X-COMs.
    Damn happy about it too!

    • Stillquest says:

      …Vague memories of my child self, muttering angrily to himself, searching immense liners for that last bloody alien…

  16. Wormerine says:

    There are actually quite a few mechanics which should make it quite a different beast than Firaxis’ XCOM. Inventiry, action points, resource system, no pods, fog. It seems like they adapted the good parts of the reboots but they also do their own thing. This demo does look worringly similar to new XCOMs but underneath it has a lot of its own tissue.

    If final game will be anything like Snapshot promises it should be quite different. You won’t be deploying small squads for example. The geoscape is supposed to be really indepth. We will see. Time will tell.

    • khamul says:

      UPVOTE.

    • DatonKallandor says:

      ^^This Yeah. The only similarity between firaxis XCOM and Phoenix Point is that they’re both turn based tactical games. Everything else in Phoenix Point comes from the original x-com, not the new one. The movement works differently (granular), the shooting works differently (simulated), the actions work differently (action points instead 2 actions), it has an actual strategic layer, there’s vehicles.

      And most importantly the aliens don’t get free turns for no fucking reason.

  17. fearandloathing says:

    Look, I know what a shitty position Gallop is in, PP was in development before XCOM2 (maybe even XCOM:EU?, not sure but PPs development started loooong ago, prototyping and so on) and DLC by DLC XCOM2 covered all its weaknesses. Most inspiring thing about PP was the strategic layer; interacting factions, evolving enemies etc., and well XCOM & LW have that now, don’t they? There is much about the geoscape we still don’t know yet, but did the tactical layer have to be so similar? I don’t know how, but they ought to come up with a twist, like that Mario vs Rabbits game did, I don’t think vats will be enough to differentiate it. Granted, PPs context is much too similar to XCOM, and they are heavily constrained by this. Then again, for god’s sake, at least have a different artistic vision. I thought the game would look much more horror-y, but everything (UI, design, animations, oh especially animations) look so much like XCOM. Since they don’t have the budget XCOM had, a cheap imitation it is. I wish they embraced something different, even a comic-horror style would do. I really don’t think it will be a commercial success even if it turns out to be a good game. I think their only chance now is to focus on military sim aspect of the game and benefit from XCOM2 going all super-heroey, but I don’t now even that is possible seeing that the game is nearing development.Hope time will prove me wrong on this.

    • Raoul Duke says:

      I must have missed the bit where the Firaxis games stopped cheating with magical spawning enemies, restored action points, implemented actual bullet physics, allowed proper squad sizes and had a proper strategic layer.

      • Sandepande says:

        Well, I rarely bothered with more than six guys in the original X-Com anyway. “Proper” is such a subjective thing…

    • Josh W says:

      I am honestly happy to just play more “new” xcom; xcom 2 has it’s own feel that you pick up as you discover it’s enemy units and how they interact, that is different from xcom. If phoenix point was extremely similar to xcom except with a new set of well designed unit types to discover, it would still be a valuable addition for me. If it has a different geoscape, is more forgiving of miss-clicks, and manages to change that curve of enemy development from game to game with it’s AI, then it will be worthwhile to me.

  18. Kakrafoon says:

    Phoenix Point is right up my alley.
    Firaxis’ XCOM, although fantastic, has recently turned up the comic-opera vibe a little bit too much for my taste, and Gollop’s new creation sports proper cosmic/oceanic xenos horror enemies again. For maximum contrast between the muto-boys and my squad, I will be cooperating heavily with New Jericho, of course.

  19. TonganJedi says:

    If this manages to merge the base building/strategy layer of X-COM with the tactical playability of XCOM, it’ll be close to perfect.

  20. gmx0 says:

    So basically, this is the XCOM: Terror of the Deep remake.

  21. falcon2001 says:

    Man, I’d absolutely kill for a quality successor to Tactics Ogre or Final Fantasy Tactics that was the quality of Nu-XCOM, but for the fantasy genre.

    Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoy the new XCOM games. I’m just more of a fantasy over scifi guy by nature. I replay Tactics Ogre on PSP semi-regularly at this point just because of how good it is.

  22. Coming Second says:

    I never got on with the original XCom, loved Firaxis’s reboots, and am looking forward to this. Fight me.

  23. Caiman says:

    Not quite sure I understand the tone of the article, the similarity to XCOM. I mean, that is the point of the game, and naturally as XCOM is based heavily on UFO: Enemy Unknown it’s not going to look dramatically different on first inspection. But what appeals to me about this is that Snapshot have done things with the XCOM formula that I wanted right at the beginning. I think Firaxis did a great thing with XCOM but it wasn’t what I wanted, and PP looks to be exactly what I hoped XCOM would have been when I first read about it. The Geoscape along is going to make a massive difference.

  24. icemann says:

    I should note that V.A.T.S was in the Fallout’s all the way back to the first game, and was even in the “Tactics” game.

    And as a backer I expected a “XCOM”-like experience from this one.

    It’s a bit like going from Wolfenstein 3D to Doom, or Quake 2 to Half-Life. Same overall game mechanics and style, but just enhanced/modified. I see no problem at all with that.

  25. DatonKallandor says:

    Yeah this is what I was afraid of – their UI looks enough like nu-XCOMs UI that people don’t know any better will think it’s just like nu-XCOM.

    When in actual fact, it has almost nothing to do with it – 95% of the game are just like old-xcom, including granular action point movement, inventories, ammo, simulated bullets, etc.

    But because, instead of painting hideous AP numbers in every square, they went with a nice and easy to see 2-colour range marker in the same colour as nu-XCOM, the game is going to give the impression it’s just like it.

    I feel really sorry for them, because that simple colour and one tiny bit of (completely differently working, but identical looking) piece of UI leads to articles like this.

    • Alien says:

      Absolutely true! I hope PP has the complexity and almost simulation like depth of the old X-COMs under it`s streamlined looking surface.

      The geoscape will be great and complex. What I am still worried about is the tactical part…

  26. Jimbo says:

    I want modern xcom with pirates.

  27. Meatpopsicle says:

    Not to sound like a know it all turd, but overwatch is a common military term isn’t it? So it’s use here isn’t that surprising.

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