Phantom Doctrine – Cold War Tactical Combat
PC, PS4, Xbox One
**TOP SECRET** **EYES ONLY**
Post-release report for OPERATION PHANTOM DOCTRINE
CLASSIFICATION: LIMA ECHO THREE-ZERO-THREE
Agent Reference: Romeo Whiskey
Executive Summary: Expedient Acquisition Recommended
TAKE everything that is great about turn-based strategy games such as XCOM or Jagged Alliance 2 and combine it with the Cold War-era spy thriller elements of a John Le Carre or Frederick Forsyth novel or the TV series The Americans.
What you’ll find is Phantom Doctrine, developed by Creative Forge Games and published by Good Shepherd Entertainment on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One – and it’s very good.
The game starts with your agent working either for the CIA or the KGB, investigating an information leak that turns out to be connected to a wider conspiracy being orchestrated by an outfit called The Beholder Initiative, led by the enigmatic “Valhalla”.
At first glance, it’s very easy to “So it’s XCOM during the Cold War?” which is more simplistic than the game deserves. There’s a lot of the Microprose/Firaxis classic in here, but Creative Forge has done a marvellous job of creating something new, innovative and engaging.
One of the innovations which I really liked was the Conspiracy Theorist Corkboard mechanic. We’ve seen them in countless TV shows and movies – a corkboard with lots of newspaper clippings and photos and reports pinned to it, with everything connected by a red string as the antagonists try and piece all the clues together before the cat decides to play with it all or something.
In the game, you’ll uncover intel from informers and missions, which you’ll need to analyse for keywords. You, as the player, literally read communiqués and highlight the terms you’re looking for, identifying codenames and the like, and then connect the intel with those terms to other intel with matching terms or key phrases, unravelling the identity of top-secret operatives, base locations or further clues in the wider conspiracy puzzle. The secondary conspiracies you’re unravelling are randomly generated and can produce some hilarious results, but the main story touches on a few key events of the early Cold War as well, which was nicely done.
The intelligence analysis/conspiracy board aspect is all really well handled and something that really adds to the atmosphere and experience of the game, taking it well beyond the basic “XCOM in a Frederick Forsyth novel” lift pitch aspect of the game.
Your agents are a diverse bunch too, coming from a range of backgrounds (Spetznatz, CIA, SAS, and others) – but there’s usually a question mark over whether to trust them completely. Agents who are captured by the enemy may get brainwashed and turned into double agents, or have locator beacons in them which lead your enemies straight to your hideout, or any one of a number of other security flaws.
Low-level paranoia is one of the hallmarks of the game, constantly making you ask what’s going on, who you are working for, and whether your agents can really be trusted.
This comes up a lot when your agents’ sometimes colourful pasts catch up to them – one time I had an ex-spouse chasing one of my top agents for child support payments, and had to decide whether to brainwash her into going away, or paying or off, or simply telling her to get stuffed and seeing what happened. Another time, it turned out one of my agents was working for MI6, feeding harmless information back to them about what our organisation was up to. My choices involved putting a bullet in her, ignoring it, or confronting her about it. Confronting her meant she admitted she was doing it, but it was misinformation to keep them off our track – and after allowing her to keep doing it, she became loyal and therefore immune to Beholder Initiative brainwashing.
As the game progresses, you can unlock the MKULTRA facility which will let you do all sorts of classic espionage thriller stuff like brainwash enemy agents, turn them into Manchurian Candidates, implant command phrases in them so they switch sides during battles and all sorts of similar things.
The major issue is that actually capturing enemy agents is quite a lot of work – you not only have to incapacitate them, but you then have to carry them to the extraction point, invariably while being shot at – for not a huge reward, at least until a few hours into the game when you unlock more of the MKULTRA capabilities.
Some of the implications of things you can do with the MKULTRA facility are quite dark, too – for example, you might have an utterly useless agent of questionable loyalty – so if you’re feeling particularly like a Bond Villain, why not turn them into a brainwashed suicide-assassin, fire them, wait until they join The Conspiracy, then activate them so they wipe out the entire cell and die in the process?
The game, like the conspiracy you’re working against, spans the Northern Hemisphere (although the map appears to make reference to Africa and Asia, so perhaps we’ll see those parts of the world in forthcoming content?) and the language abilities of your agents come into play here – for example, a fluent Russian-speaking agent can distract guards during a mission in Vladivostok, while an Arabic-speaking agent will prove useful on operations in the Middle East and an English-speaker will help on missions in the UK, USA or Canada.
One other under-appreciated aspect of the game is the importance of your agents retaining cover – if they attract too much heat, their ID is blown and they’re likely to be ambushed or captured by enemy agents when alone on missions – so you can create new identities and appearances for them.
Your agents are surprisingly customisable – and yes, I did make my character into Sterling Archer – although since you can’t really see their faces in missions much and they never match their passport photos anyway, it’s more of a fun thing to do than offering much in the way of gameplay addition.
The combat mechanic works a bit differently to XCOM in that there’s no “percentage to hit” change – so there’s no danger of absurd situations like your highly trained operative failing to hit someone a metre away with a shotgun – and instead the combat is calculated by how much damage the target will take when you hit them. Agents have an “Awareness” stat, which influences their ability to dodge incoming fire, take down enemies, headshot targets or fire on full auto.
This can take some getting used to, especially for people without much real-world exposure to guns. Initially, your agents could and would get shot from the other side of the map when combat kicked off, which could be frustrating for gamers used to limited engagement ranges, but for anyone who realises an AK-47 has an effective combat range of about 300m and a marksman’s rifle is accurate to a kilometre or two it was a nice change.
A post-launch patch reduced weapon ranges and also made changes to the line-of-sight mechanic, but broadly speaking, the slightly different combat mechanic to the sort of thing people are used to from XCOM, Shadowrun and Jagged Alliance was well done and helped set the game apart from the usual “Turn-based tactical with a big map room” mechanic.
In fact, it’s important to realise Phantom Doctrine calls for a different playstyle to other squad-themed turn-based shooters out there.
For a start, the game is designed so that it’s still playable even if your Elite Squad gets wiped out when things invariably go pear-shaped. Every agent can use every weapon, but it’s only when they start getting trained in it can they do things like add silencers or do rapid reloads. Your agents gain skills and perks as they level up, giving further abilities like undetectable disguises, lowered awareness costs for dodging bullets, and movement bonuses when carrying unconscious characters.
The levels are well designed, offering a variety of settings from warehouses and taxi garages through to banks, office buildings and military bases.
Missions are divided into two parts: Infiltration (stealth) and Combat (shoot everything). In an ideal mission, you’ll never leave infiltration; sneaking in and out while avoiding raising the alarm. Of course, missions are rarely ideal so things are going to go horribly wrong and it’s not at all uncommon to have to cut and run, leaving agents behind – and raising questions on whether they’ve been turned into double agents or assassins themselves when they return –
There’s a timer on the extraction, too – typically it takes 3-4 turns for your getaway vehicle to arrive once you call for it – and it’s amazing how quickly a routine operation can turn into a bloodbath in that time. A worker on a smoke break wanders into the room and sees your agents where they shouldn’t be, or someone stumbles across a body, or a video camera captures someone doing something spy-like and triggers the alarm – or, sometimes, it’s an ambush and you’ve been set up.
The other thing to keep in mind: Once combat begins, enemy reinforcements are summoned – and to paraphrase the lyrics from a Smash Mouth song, they keep coming and they don’t stop coming. Every few turns a new wave of enemies will spawn until you evacuate the level or all your agents are incapacitated – the latter is just as likely as the former.
Between the intriguing premise, tactical combat, and espionage theme, I really enjoyed my time with Phantom Doctrine, only finding it a bit rushed towards the end – just as I’d really started getting decent equipment, had a few teams put together that were working well, and was starting to have enough cash to actually pay for training etc, it was time for the final mission.
My first playthrough lasted about four in-game months, which seems a ludicrously short time period to be unravelling global conspiracy in an era when mobile phones tended to be mounted in cars, the internet had six computers connected to it, and it was still OK to smoke on aeroplanes.
Real-world time-wise, it took about 40 hours for me to finish the campaign as a KGB agent and there are two other background options available as well – CIA and another one which unlocks after you complete the first playthrough. There is a longer, “enhanced” option for a second or subsequent playthrough, in which the conspiracy is more complex and you find out more about what’s going on elsewhere.
Interestingly, both CIA and KGB stories start out very differently, only dovetailing later on in the game, so there’s an incentive to come back and see things from the other side of the Iron Curtain – the stories are quite different at the start as well, so I’m glad I had a look at the CIA campaign after I finished my main playthrough as a KGB agent.
While Phantom Doctrine does a lot of things extremely well, it has some problems too.
I also encountered some bugs – most irritatingly, a sound glitch whereby only one of the speakers on walkie-talkie could be heard – and also a problem whereby the game didn’t always recognise an enemy had been neutralised if they were turned via control phrase or brainwashing activation, telling me I still had enemies remaining on the map when all I could see were unconscious or dead bodies everywhere surrounding the Manchurian Candidate agent I’d activated mid-mission.
The mechanic where your organisation needs to find “trade contacts” to buy equipment like guns and armour doesn’t work all that well either – I constantly found myself asking how come a spy agency which could make top-quality fake passports, driver’s licences and actual cash, and was run by a high-level KGB operative, couldn’t forge the appropriate permits or end-user certificates to buy firearms.
While the flaws are disappointing, they’re by far outweighed by the great things about this game, and there are many.
It speaks uncoded volumes that despite having at least two other AAA games on my review list at present, including [REDACTED] and [REDACTED], I still kept finding time to play more of Phantom Doctrine.
My executive summary is simple: If you like tactical squad-based games, the Cold War, or a good spy thriller, make acquiring a copy of Phantom Doctrine a priority.