In lieu of hearing about it through professional channels, most of my info on Phantom Doctrine (developed by CreativeForge Games and published by Good Shepherd Entertainment) came from hearing about it from a friend who played — and by ‘hearing about it’, I mean ‘extended chat and tweet sessions about how this game casually encourages you to commit heinous human rights violations’. And I still got it for myself, in case you were ever wondering about the power of word-of-mouth marketing. But then, it’s not like ‘nu-XCOM, except set in the Cold War era’ was ever going to be a particularly difficult sell for me.
And those human rights violations? That’s easy, I just won’t do ’em.
(Spoiler levels: Narrative, medium. Mechanical, medium.)
(Game source: Patreon funds.)
Phantom Doctrine opens on a dimly lit, smoky back room. It’s filled with documents, type writers, fans, and various kinds of Cold War-era signal processing equipment. The walls are lined in propaganda posters, as well as several clocks that are so far out of sync they’re making me remember a hospital I used to run.
Settings-wise there’s not all that much to address here: Phantom Doctrine has a regular suite of categorical graphics options (all defaulting to ‘Very High’ on my machine, which, I’m not not okay with), audio sliders, and incomprehensible gameplay settings. Do I want ‘always run’ to be on? Do I want to ‘show civilians on enemy bar’? The only two things really worth pointing out are this: Subtitle options are hidden in the Interface sub-menu this time around. Which I suppose I can understand here, because it frees up the audio menu to be an aesthetically-pleasing collection of no less than six sliders.
Somewhat more interesting is the difficulty selection in the New Game Setup sub-menu. Phantom Doctrine has ‘difficulties’, three of them, as you’d expect. There’s a Tutorial checkbox and an Ironman Mode checkbox, which I respectively do and don’t check. What’s really interesting is that there’s also a story selector: I can opt between either the ‘Regular’ Phantom Doctrine story, or the ‘Extended’ story, wherein I can ‘get to the bottom of things’. Or rather, I would, except I don’t think I can select Extended right now. Something that opens up after beating the game the first time, maybe?)
I tell Phantom Doctrine what sort of gameplay experience I’m looking for (Regular, Easy, yes-Tutorial no-Ironman, smoking optional, economy class), and it turns around and asks me who I am. In-game. I’m going to be some sort of spy guy, but do I want to be a CIA spook or a KGB one? Or a secret third on- haha, no, that one’s locked.
There’s even a for-real spy character creator hiding in the works. There’s not a whole lot of body type you can do, but as far as colours, clothes, and general aesthetic go, Saints Row would be proud of this one.
And then the action starts. Time to submerge myself in international intrigue.
The introduction that happens feels like an in-medias-res opening for a spy movie shot in French. A ship in a storm. A submarine that seizes cargo. A shady Russian interrogation office. CIA men in identical suits. And two groovy 70’s operatives assassinating one super un-groovy man, behind whom looms a large poster of something called ‘Beholder Initiative’.
The gist of it is this: The ship in the intro was smuggling high-value cargo for some shadow operation. MI6 seized the cargo, which put both the CIA and KGB on edge. The shadow organization, in the meanwhile, would really like their cargo back.
Guess whose responsibility that is!
Agent ‘Kingfish’ drives into a storage lot in the Deutsche Demokratische Republik, which is apparently where MI6 would store stolen cargo. One passport control officer is ruthlessly shot down. And then I’m in control.
What follows is a tutorial that… I guess very technically explains the basic operations necessary to play Phantom Doctrine. I don’t want to be too down on it too quickly, but also I’m glad my friend already told me how to play a little bit — the bit parts are all there, but they’re woven together by a script that seems more interested in being a cool spy flick than in being an accessible tutorial.
Phantom Doctrine‘s skeleton feels one part XCOM, and one part Clandestine, one of 2015’s coolest spy surprises that almost nobody played. The basic controls as very as-expected: Me and the other faction take turns, during my turn I have two points for moving/taking actions and one point specifically for attacking, but attacking at any time forfeits the rest of the moves. But since we’re doing covert infiltration, I’m not currently in hostile waters: There are police officers milling about, but as long as I’m out on the street they have no reason to see me as an enemy.
That changes if I enter restricted areas, though.
I could enter the restricted area on this turn. But the patrolling guard currently in this area would immediately spot me — Phantom Doctrine visualizes enemy view cones by highlighting spotted squares in red. I’m staring at the guard right now, there’s no way he doesn’t notice something’s up. What’s my answer for this difficult situation?
Some enemy movement and camera rotation later…
The next door I need to go through is guarded not by a person, but an automated security camera, which will raise the alarm if I step on any of its highlighted tiles. I’ll need to disable it to get through. Too bad the controls for this camera aren’t, like, right outside, in a conveniently empty shed.
Third challenge, once inside: A heavily-armed private security guard is making the rounds. He currently has his back to me, but unless I take action I’ll be spotted in no time flat. What will Phantom Doctrine teach me next? Melee assassinations? Silenced weapons? Simply sneaking by him while he’s distracted?
Ah, no, see: Phantom Doctrine places itself in that particularly weird heyday of spy fiction, when people were worried about covert operatives and shifting allegiances and even CIA mind control experiments. So this agent, right here? Just happens to be a pre-programmed sleeper agent for my faction. All I need to do is speak the control word, and…
As a sleeper agent, Rook isn’t bound by the same rules as Kingfish: They can easily go anywhere without arousing suspicion. They could even walk up the stairs, get face-to-face with another agent, and punch them right out without anyone blinking an eye.
Then things go rapidly. Kingfish has a spotter nearby, which gives me vision into a nearby closed room. Kingfish and Rook can work together to ‘breach’ that room, killing everyone inside before they have a chance to retaliate. Since both of them are using unsuppressed weapons, this does mean the alarm is raised from a distance, as different people hear the gunfire. Kingfish quickly steals the… documents? I thought we were here to get cargo, but apparently the first step is to swipe shipping manifests.
At any rate, Kingfish steals the goods and calls for evac, which will take two turns to arrive on the scene. Since enemy reinforcements are almost definitely coming in, we’ll need to defend ourselves. And any XCOM veteran will know what that means!
Phantom Doctrine takes its overwatch a little more seriously than XCOM. Overwatch has to be set in a direction, and highlights the specific tiles that are looked at. Short-range overwatch becomes a circle, as the character generally keeps an eye out around them, while long-range overwatch becomes a cone. And of course, of course, these distances and possibilities are weapon-dependent, with a pistol being much more suited for doors-and-corners fighting.
Phantom Doctrine tries to pack an incredible amount of information into the literal last turn of the tutorial, so much that I’m almost guaranteed to miss the most important parts. As far as I understand it, the long and short is this: Phantom Doctrine doesn’t use percentage hit/miss chances, but uses a character-specific resource called Awareness to modulate if any shot Hits or Misses. If the character you shoot at has enough Awareness to survive, they pay that Awareness amount and take the listed Miss damage on your attack; if they don’t, they take the Hit damage. This means getting shot decreases Awareness over time, making you increasingly susceptible to being hit for real. Certain special abilities also cost Awareness, turning the whole thing into a risk/reward trade-off.
Gameplay systems thus somewhat adequately explained, Kingfish and Rook make good their escape. And then time moves forward two months, and now I’m finally my actual character.
If the first mission with Kingfish was overtly a tutorial, this second mission — with my character, agent Kodiak, and agents Indigo and Theremin — is more like a test of concept. I’ve been given no more guidance than that I’m here to arrest a man called Yukon, for some crime or another. Except we’re not here to arrest him, we’re here to see who else might try to make a move on him — I assume the reasoning on this is on a need-to-know basis.
So we infiltrate. And disable the cameras.
And… loot? I guess?
I didn’t really have the freedom to explore the tutorial level, but this map is open to me — and I can start to appreciate how nice this map is put together. The building I’m exploring looks and feels like an actual place. A reception area with plants and rugs and tables downstairs. A network of cables and servers in the back, where I was never supposed to step foot. Casual central hallways, lined with rugs and posters and the occasional bench. A single patrolling police officer that I punch in the back of the head.
Similarly, I try to learn a little about my different characters. Kodiak carries a heavy machine gun and a pistol, and he has the ability to distract people, or blind them with a laser pen. Indigo carries small weapons and can enter a Zen-like state of boosted Awareness regeneration. Theremin carries an AK-47 and a flashbang grenade.
Not that I use any of this, since the mission itself turns out to be pretty straightforward. Let’s just say I don’t actually arrest Yukon. I do find the files they were going to leak, as well as some loot and other confidential documents, and I take out a few suspect figures walking around the upper floors. Then I evac, unheard, unseen, unnoticed. I didn’t even have to reload a quicksave after dumbly being spotted or anything.
At this point, all I’ve done in Phantom Doctrine is two missions of pre-generated tactical combat. Which is fine as far as first review page goes, but I hope it isn’t all that Phantom Doctrine actually is. There’s nothing wrong with tactical combat puzzles, but where’s the character customization? Where’s the decision-making? If Phantom Doctrine borrows from XCOM, I should really hope to be entering some sort of global layer or base management system right about now.
As much as I would like to take you on a whirlwind tour of this… ugly-looking warehouse, this part of the review is already running up to Let’s Play length. How about I do some more systems mastery in the space between pages, and then I check back with you next page to tell you if Phantom Doctrine is something you yourself should want to get into?
Alright, we break here. See you at oh-six-hundred hours tomorrow. The password is ‘rudderless’.
Well, you could argue that it encourages players not to rely on their A team for combat, kinda like XCOM 2 WOTC’s Fatigue system. But the escape hatch of “just pay money for a new ID” kinda undercuts the idea.
As much as I love Burn Notice-style semi-realism, I think you can go too far, and things like this are why.
Yeah, both things show the same underlying concept: The devs really wanted to replicate all the ideas and trappings of the spy thriller genre, and they molded game design and mechanical considerations to fit that wish.