Somewhere out there, in the vast expanse of the internet, some brave, creative soul will write a review of Phantom Doctrine without mentioning XCOM; this is not that review.
CreativeForge Games, the developers of this latest entry into the strategic/turn-based tactical genre, seem well aware that such comparisons will be made, and when the similarities between the two extend from the overarching concept down to the font used in some of the tooltips, that’s probably just as well. That’s not a criticism in and of itself; when any game nails the core structure and mechanics of a genre the way the XCOM reboot did, it’s inevitable and logical that others will take inspiration from it (see also: Battle Royale games). The real question is whether Phantom Doctrine introduces enough of its own ideas to the mix to make it stand out, to elevate it beyond being merely a reskin of an earlier game. The answer to that question is yes – for better and for worse.
Phantom Doctrine is set at the height of the Cold War and puts you in command of The Cabal, an above top secret spy organisation made up of agents recruited from all over the world. You’re up against an emerging global conspiracy which is trying to… well, I won’t discuss the story in any great detail (as what is a good spy thriller without a few twists and turns?). Suffice to say the usual genre staples of secret plots, enemy agents and betrayals are all present. You start by selecting your protagonist’s background (CIA or KGB) and then work through a character creator. Your agent is very much part of the team and can be selected (and is occasionally required) to go on missions. It’s worth noting that if your agent avatar is killed in action, then that’s an immediate game over, something that I imagine would make the game’s ironman mode even more tense. I gave my agent a fedora because of course I did. Also, Oxfords not Brogues.
Gameplay is split between, on the hand, the strategic business of expanding your base and managing your agents, and on the other, investigations and turn-based tactical missions. The exact objectives of the missions vary, but they generally require you to infiltrate a building, get the job done and get your team out alive. You can select and equip your agents before each mission, and completing reconnaissance ahead of an infiltration enables the use of disguises and support agents (spotters, snipers, etc.). In keeping with the spy theme, a heavy emphasis is placed on stealth. Enemies can be eliminated silently, new equipment stolen and intelligence gathered. If your agents are recognised, or if they’re noticed doing something suspicious, then the alarm is raised and combat begins. Although it takes some patience and a little forward planning, it really is very satisfying when you manage to complete a mission without being spotted; how difficult it is varies quite a lot depending on the objectives and the agents you have available, but it’s always a nice payoff.
Unfortunately, this is in part because the combat which follows the alarm is the least enjoyable part of the game. It’s not terrible or anything, but it is unforgiving and takes some getting used to. For starters there are no hit percentages when firing. Instead, damage dealt varies depending on a number of factors. If a target is flanked or out of cover, they’ll take a lot of punishment very quickly. Given your agents are usually outnumbered, any mistake or misjudgement on your part will be good news for your agents’ tailor. Such misjudgements are easily made, too, as working out line of sight between combatants is a constant struggle, with locations spread over multiple floors with interior and exterior doors and windows. This in turn incentivises a very cautious approach. In fairness, the best summary of the main issues with combat I’ve seen is from the developers, who have published a detailed explanation, along with promises of coming improvements.
Organisation of The Cabal is done from your base of operations. This is where you recruit, assign and develop your agents. One of the strengths of Phantom Doctrine is that it keeps your agents busy outside of missions. You constantly have to shift your people around to ensure everything is being covered. If there’s suspicious activity which needs checking out in Hong Kong but the agent you had in the area is busy training, do you move the agent you have based in Stockholm, drag someone out of the infirmary or just ignore it and hope it’s just a red herring? It’s that kind of plate-spinning balancing act which the game does well – you never seem to have quite enough agents or quite enough money. Your base is also home to the Investigation Boards. These “investigations” are essentially pretty simple matching games which serve to advance the story once you’ve gathered enough intelligence files from missions and other sources. They’re nothing too involving, but they’re more engaging and thematic than just filling a meter.
Between the above and additional facilities that you can construct (the MKULTRA facility, which allows you to interrogate and brainwash captured enemy agents, is my favourite), there’s a lot to do apart from the missions. In fact, there’s so much available at first it’s hard to work out what you can do and where. The tutorial covers the basics of running a mission, but beyond that there’s a lot of trial and error and digging through menus involved before you fully get to grips with all of your options. Once you get there though, you can really start to mould your recruits to suit your playstyle. Agents’ stats vary quite a lot, influencing things like hit points and movement range. They also develop their own perks, which convey a number of bonuses; for my money the “actor” perk, which makes it impossible for enemy agents to see through disguises, is by far the most valuable. It means that your agent can infiltrate with virtual impunity and, if anything, is probably too useful.
It needs to be said though that at launch Phantom Doctrine is a bit rough around the edges, and I did experience some bugs. These ranged from the camera controls freezing (which was fixable with a quick alt+tab), to losing the option to save mid-mission, to the game crashing entirely. The more serious bugs were far less common in my experience, but some patching is required. There are odd little design quirks, too; for instance, on missions your agents will be identified if they’re seen doing anything clearly suspicious, but this doesn’t seem to extend to entering a room by smashing through the window. The introductory cut scene doesn’t explain who you work for or what it is you’re trying to do, but does mention plot points you don’t hear about again until several hours later. In fact, it took me the best part of an hour to work out the name of the organisation I was meant to be running, which feels like taking the secrecy a little too far. Also, the missions all happen at night and it’s almost always raining. Aside from, I think, the very first mission after the tutorial (set in a sandstorm), it’s invariably pissing it down, whether you’re in London or Libya. Perhaps this too is the work of the global conspiracy?
All in all, there’s a lot of fun to be had with Phantom Doctrine, but it’s not without its frustrations. Initially, the most jarring thing about it is that, despite the conceptual and presentational similarities to XCOM, it’s very much its own game and does things in its own way. Once I started to play what was in front of me rather than what I expected (especially regarding combat tactics), I enjoyed myself a lot more. There are a lot of options available to you, with most decisions having pros and cons. As such, you really have to act wisely and in a timely fashion, which is exactly how this type of game should be. At times though, it feels like there are almost too many mechanics in play at once – there are far more than I could describe here. Almost all of them are good ideas in their own right, but it takes a while to get a feel for how they all work and interact with each other. I think a little stripping down could make for a clearer, more enjoyable experience while still retaining a good level of complexity. That being said, if you’re a fan of the genre or of the Cold War setting, then there is plenty for you to enjoy.
Phantom Doctrine is available for PC, PS4 and Xbox One. We reviewed the PC version.
Disclosure statement: Review code for Phantom Doctrine was provided by Indigo Pearl. A Most Agreeable Pastime operates as an independent site, and all opinions expressed are those of the author.