Review: Phantom Doctrine14 Aug 2018 2
Review: Phantom Doctrine
Released 14 Aug 2018
My agents lurk in a rainswept alley, hidden between the squares of light thrown from the lit windows of the base we’re about to infiltrate. The facility has been under surveillance for a few days, tactical recon providing crucial details on layout and personnel. We know where the enemy agent is, but security cameras and civilians still pose a threat.
We’ve a covert agent inside, tasked with scoping the complex and filling in our tactical blind spots. Our target? An informer, looking to be extracted and taken into the employ of the agency. The threat? An enemy hitman, with the mark being our man. He’s loose in the building, and it’s a race against time to dispatch him and get our informer to the evac point. Local security are unaware of what’s about to go down, and we’d like to keep it that way.
But Phantom Doctrine deserves to have its cover blown, because it’s fantastic.
At a glance, Phantom Doctrine is a Cold War-themed XCOM of sorts, where you build a team, conduct operations from a command centre, monitor global events and eventually get your hands dirty in intimate, complex locations. There’s an economy to manage, compromised agents to consider, enemy movement to surveil and interrupt, training to undergo and intel to parse. But the more I played, the more I drifted away from its immediate genre companion. Sure, a good place to start, but Phantom Doctrine is as much Jagged Alliance, Spycraft, Sid Meier’s Covert Action and MI6 Football Manager as it is XCOM, such is its breadth.
It’s the early Eighties, and the Cold War remains in full swing. Phantom Doctrine presents a marvelous pastiche of cinematic standbys, but it never overflows into parody. Stylised, sure, but never a farce. Starting as either a rogue CIA agent or former KGB operative, the campaign weaves a tale of international intrigue. Clandestine operations and major players with sinister plots, all leading towards thwarting a clash of superpowers. It would be not just a shame to explicitly list the way the campaigns unfurl, but given how dynamic the plot pieces are, it feels like a disservice to illustrate all but the broadest of strokes.
Players start with customizing a character, then undertaking a sheer but informative tutorial. Thereafter, so begins a hefty and highly varied campaign, split between the meta-game of agent and op management, in addition to the nail-biting elegance of tactical turn-based combat. Walther PPK to the head, I couldn’t tell you which side of the game I enjoy more, as each is equally engaging.
The safe house is akin to the base in XCOM. It houses operatives not out in the field, offers a place for training, forging, hospitalizing, parsing intel and several other crucial elements. Crew quarters offer agent loadout customization and training, allowing agents to specialize in several pretty significant capacities. You’re able to opt agents into training regimes that are measured in both cash and a commitment of time. Thereafter, they’ll come out with specific weapon proficiencies, or abilities that could be utilized in either the meta-game or the tactical missions. Moreover, an agent’s traits might not be immediately recognized, and rise to the surface after a few ops. It’s a great system, and leads to some pretty great choices when assigning agents to specific tasks – either at home or in the field.
But getting an agent’s hands dirty is only half the mission. Phantom Doctrine is fueled by intel. Be it sending agents on recon, stakeouts, capturing enemy agents or receiving information from informers, everything hinges on analysis. At a glance, the game's intel analysis is somewhat superficial. In a classic Carrie Mathison-style corkboard, players must connect keywords gleaned from documents and photos sourced from the aforementioned sources. A case might not be cracked in one sitting, and field work – be it garnered indirectly or actively lifted during tactical ops – continues to bring in the remaining puzzle pieces. Once you’ve hit the threshold of words and connected the duplicates within the portfolio, it pushes Phantom Doctrine forward. It might offer up an enemy cell HQ and auxiliary missions, or it might offer blueprints.
But what it really does is force you to examine slivers of Phantom Doctrine’s sprawling lore with a fine-toothed comb. Folders of documents come flooding in from all theatres, zebra-striped in the classic black marker of foreign office redaction. You’ve got to read every sentence, scanning for words of interest. Brimming with codenames, articles of significance, mysterious groups and events; these form the connective tissue between seemingly disparate pieces of intel, conveying the sense of a true agency at work. It’s the closest this game hews to Covert Action or Spycraft, and is all the better for it.
Other sections of the headquarters let you craft gear and expand surroundings. The former offers an ever-growing array of tools for ops, such as lockpicks, grenades and silencers. The latter adds additional beds to the infirmary, or installs additional defenses to the base to bleed off any heat that trails back to HQ after a tough and bloody mission. Yes, you just might need to relocate your safehouse if it becomes compromised.
Speaking of compromised, agents also attract heat during missions. It comes down to a number of things, but primarily how well-equipped the operatives are for location-specific missions. If an agent is sent to infiltrate or observe a point of interest in Pakistan, it would be wise to set them up with a Pakistani passport and Urdu language training, otherwise there’s an increasing chance they’re going to get burned. If an agent ends up compromised, it would be wise to either keep them in the home office doing analysis or fixing them a new identity in the forging room. Thus, it becomes a game of management. Operatives on field missions have travel time, and time-sensitive ops elsewhere just might be beyond their reach if recalled. An infiltration specialist running an enemy sabotage op may not make the window to join a Port Said assault, where his or her undercover skills would be crucial. Some agents suffer mental stress. Rotation, training and knowing when to recall is key.
There are also events that pop, such as bugs being discovered in the safe house, or an agent acting suspiciously. You’re faced with a binary choice, and the outcome can have a resounding knock-on. Will you keep discovery of the electronics a secret, to continue the internal investigation until more proof presents itself? Or do you make a public show of finding the listening devices and risk the agent responsible disappearing? These are terrific little morsels that help illustrate that you’re just as at risk of being infiltrated as the enemy.
And then, there are the field missions
First, let me mention Phantom Doctrine’s levels. It takes a lot to wow this grizzled old operator, but all the environments on show are just sublime. I’m usually very critical of arbitrary asset placement in these games, particular as a lot of titles hinge on procedurally-generated content. Every building feels incredibly realized here. Rooms have the right density and dimensions. They’re furnished exactly as you’d expect. Military complexes, civilian hospitals, morgues, enemy safehouses, industrial haunts; each touting logical arrangement, and largely served to the player in drizzly nocturnes.
If environmental architecture is something you appreciate, Phantom Doctrine should get you nodding. It’s subtle at first glance, but without a doubt, masterful in its entirety. The field missions, be they retrievals, assassinations, defusing bombs or information gathering, all start with assembling the agents. Kitted out, as well as assigning undercover operatives if the subsequent pre-mission tactical recon has been performed, each mission generally lets a player select their deployment and exfil locales – though these might differ and are mission-dependent.
The turn-based mechanics are easy to parse, immediately recognizable to any tactical squadder fan. Players shunt their agents around the map on a grid, throttled by action points and feats. The aforementioned recon mission lets players have helpful information like enemy agent positions or other locations of note. Undercover agents also start within the confines of the target structure, with the benefit of internal visibility balanced by the risk of discovery. Maintaining stealth does put a premium on these undercover agents, and it can lead to a heavy reliance on them. But this is primarily an espionage game, and the mechanics work just as well as a turn-based stealther as a turn-based barn-stormer. The levels, in all their often-multi-story complexity, are fantastic to stalk around, with lots of halting at corners or to the side of doorways to see if the coast is clear.
What also adds to a level’s difficulty is the resident civilian population. Rarely are there any locales that are purely Beholder cells. Often, they’re littered with civilian workers or local security forces, and while they’re often not sharp enough to spot an undercover agent, they’ll raise the alarm if something looks amiss. Non-lethal takedowns become a better weapon than a silenced pistol, and if you’re trying to extract an informer or captured enemy agent, a gentle tap on the head can solve a lot of problems. But it’s not just civilians. There are other high-tech security measures in place, and much like in Klei’s marvelous Invisible Inc., being able to target the control consoles to shut down infrared alarms or security cameras makes a squad’s job a lot easier.
When the proverbial hits the fan, though, this game's incredibly lethal gunplay kicks off. The game features oodles of weaponry, and a similar level of attachments and combat gear. Those extremely detailed environments become arenas for running gun battles, alarmingly punitive but rarely a dull moment. Agents sport two weapons – with weapon preferences reaping increased proficiencies – as well as a bag of gear. Atop that, each operative has a number of different actions, dependent on training and their inherent skills. Some members tout increased overwatch reactivity, others enjoying increased firepower from cover and so on. Phantom Doctrine’s intricacies rival the great Jagged Alliance 2 in terms of squad interplay, just minus the relationship minutiae.
Two elements of Phantom Doctrine’s combat really stand out, namely the overwatch mechanic and breaching. Overwatch is exactly as it sounds, with a detailed direction assigned for agents to cover during the enemy turn. It draws from an agent’s awareness pool, a decent proxy for stamina, which favours the focused over the strained. Plus, Phantom Doctrine’s overwatch just looks damn cool. A cinematic zoom slowing down the engagement with your agent stepping out and firing on their foolhardy interloper.
Breaching lets multiple agents expend their action points and awareness on a door-kicking adventure to take an area. One agent initiates the action, and any applicable nearby comrades can be selected to engage on confirmation. Participants are given destinations inside the area, as well as designated targets if they’re visible. Once the player is happy with this Rainbow Six-reminiscent planning, it’s all about hitting that button and watching your little gang storm the room. What’s more, if you’ve the means, the rim-fire silencer attachment is king in these brutal, surgical events. Helps keep nearby thugs from hearing too much and joining the party. Engagement ranges are longer than your average TBS squadder, which makes scouting extra crucial. There’s also the option to have off-map support, such as snipers or an overseer able to mark unknowns from a particular vantage point, helpful in a pinch or just to make sure.
Generally, once an alarm has been triggered, it’s time to enact a fighting retreat to the exfil point. Security forces and enemy agents will keep coming in waves, as well as heavy off-map events like helicopter gunship strikes that terrorize anyone caught in the open. Line of sight isn’t immediately apparent in, and if there’s one issue, it’s coming to terms with how some cover is seemingly measured. I’ve had operatives in half-cover at a second-story window, but were still able to receive considerable damage from a nearby gunman below on the street. It’s not perfect, but the map intricacies more than make up for the rare moments of head-scratching.
Alongside the odd cover snafu, I can’t level any serious criticism toward the tactical side. I mean, it feels pedantic to mention that an undercover agent can smash their way through a window to enter a building, and security forces won’t bat an eyelid. Or an agent being able to throw an enemy operative or a wounded comrade over their shoulder and leap down from a second-story to the ground as though it were nothing. It’s just tiny, negligible inconsistencies in a top-shelf game.
Phantom Doctrine is one of the most ambitious games in recent memory. A sprawling, globe-trotting espionage thriller, nesting deft tactical mechanics in a deep pastiche of everything we love about hard-nosed spy fiction. CreativeForge Games have combined the likes of Commandos and Spycraft, Spooks and The Americans, John le Carré and The Falcon AND the Snowman, with the resulting product being the best game I’ve played in a long time. To say this is essential strategy gaming is an understatement.