Friday , February 23 2024

PC Videogame Review: ‘Phantom Doctrine’

From a Phantom Doctrine playthrough:

Once again I find myself wandering the barren side streets of Prague – It is far after the mandated curfew hour and my contact is late. I was here to look into a suspected beholder cell and instead I believe someone is tailing me. Looks like they are here after all.

Our latest safehouse is in Prague and we strongly suspected that the enemy was looking into the area to find our people…looks like we are correct. Assuming my contact was a false lead or dead I decide to perform a feint on my tail and try to discover where they are holed up to perform a counter op.

My long years of training in the CIA taught me to act quickly on my feet in situations like this so I quickly blend into a crowd and reverse my coat. Quickly discarding my hat I drop my hair that was tucked under and release my skirt, rolling up the pants I had under it. Within seconds I have changed from a nondescript man wandering the town to a tallish woman with high cheekbones who could be from anywhere in Eastern Europe.

Pausing by a group I spot my tail and slowly follow them; they realize they lost me and take their time doubling and tripling back but eventually head to a nondescript building in the northern district. This must be it. 

I find a secure place to contact the safehouse to call some support to recon the suspected Beholder cell. A painstaking day passes and the team reports it is an active cell and, even better, they seem to have an agent onsite whom we suspect has key information about Project Valhalla.

This could be a major breakthrough for us to decipher how they are brainwashing our agents. I make the call to deploy an assault team, as this information must be obtained. Thanks to our recon we are able to place two agents with disguises in the building and others observing the site.

It is always a challenge sending agents in, friends and mentors, who may never come back, but the information is too important. That missing piece of Intel we need to crack the code is close to our hands and the Cabal will get it.

Never one to expect more of my agents then I am willing to do, I lead the assault team. With agents inside the building and stationed outside I give the cue to begin infiltration. With luck we will make it out and finally get a way to combat Beholder’s most dangerous weapon.

This is the theme and tension that are always at the forefront of the new videogame Phantom Doctrine from CreativeForge Games and Good Shepherd Entertainment. This turn-based tactical Cold War spy thriller is a stealthy take on the XCOM formula. With a variety of systems and complex mechanics, the game could easily have been a disaster, but the end result is a thoroughly engrossing game that has hooked me from start to finish.

The spy-thriller premise of Phantom Doctrine as alluded to in the short story above is that a new agency called the Cabal is battling against another group called Beholder. The story is convoluted and meandering, as one would expect from a Cold War thriller, but nevertheless manages to hold together in a meaningful way.

In a neat twist, you can choose to have your lead agent (customized at the start of the game) be ex-KGB or ex-CIA, and each choice has different narrative outcomes. There is a third choice available after completing the game that I won’t reveal.

This ability to play through two scenarios is quite interesting. I started as KGB, then after playing for a number of hours restarted as CIA, and noted the differences in the story choices. This points to one of the few things about the game that annoyed me: The tutorial is limited and there was no manual or help system at launch.

This affected me, as I did not know how to trigger some key improvements to the base or create new identities if my agents were compromised. I also never hid bodies for the first stretch of the game, which caused me all sorts of issues.

One I did master the systems the full breadth of the game opened up to me, and I was completely hooked and wanted to keep playing turn after turn. The progression can be very addicting as resources are finite and the world keeps shifting, which requires HQs being moved or identities shifted or new rooms created in the HQ. All of these require missions or research being completed to obtain these resources.

The main hub of the game is the HQ, and in that base the world map and Investigation Board are where most time will be spent. On the world map enemy hotspots are tracked and agents can be deployed to investigate. This will trigger options depending on how many agents are close by. Catch the spot early enough and a counter op can be triggered to end the threat. Catch it later and recon of the site is possible. Wait too long or have no agents nearby and an unassisted assault is the only option.

Waiting around is never a good thing, as enemy activity adds attention to the HQ, and eventually it will need to be moved at great cost in order to avoid being assaulted. I could run my own Recon missions as well and would typically unlock agent recruits, Intel, or even details on enemy agents.

When ground missions are triggered, either through story missions or side missions, agents are equipped and deployed on site with specific goals. The story missions are generally unique and handcrafted, but the side missions are more procedurally generated. In either case agents are deployed with the goal to eliminate agents, defuse bombs, find Intel, or capture/kill informants.

The turn-based combat is very interesting as the agents typically have areas where they are not trespassing and interiors where they are. Disguised agents can be inside the restricted areas but can be spotted by agents until a specific perq is unlocked. This makes traversal necessarily methodical to avoid setting off an alarm and triggering reinforcements or airstrikes.

There are typical security systems that can be disabled, as well as numerous pieces of Intel and items scattered in the buildings to collect if desired. My one piece of advice to grab as many items as possible. Weapons are expensive and finding them on missions is the best way to equip your agents.

The turn-based combat will be both familiar and odd for veterans of the XCOM games. Moving agents will bring enemies and civilians into view based on line of sight. Once an enemy is sighted or in view a silent takedown can be utilized, or a silenced pistol for a more lethal option. If the enemy is spotted going down or the body is not disposed of, an alarm could eventually sound, so care is required if stealth is the preferred approach.

Once open battle does start, a feature called awareness come into play in a big way. Every agent has awareness points and these can be used for special headshots or takedowns, but dodges also need awareness. Spend them when surrounded and the agents will be dead meat in no time. Carefully positioning and taking out enemies is key to surviving the missions. These points to regenerate over time, or with skills to further, add to the tactical depth.

Other features like customizable weapons, various types of grenades, and support agents who can snipe or spy from afar are key to a successful run. Completing missions brings the team back to HQ where the Intel found can be used to unlock missions or items via the Investigation Board.

The Investigation Board is a truly cool mechanic that requires Intel to be reviewed and keywords unlocked. The first keyword or two specify the end goal, which may be a person, place, or organization. Drawing literal links between these initial words and the unlocked phrases unlocks the mystery and results in new missions, agents, or unlocked tech.

There are various other mechanics in the base, such as the MK Ultra Facility where enemies are interrogated, brainwashed, or converted. The forger changes identities for compromised agents and generates more income.  There are also workshops, infirmaries, and body conditioning to enhance skills or create new items. All in all base is fun to manage and key to a successful campaign, as the new enhancements, items, and agent techniques are incredibly helpful to complete the missions.

I recorded a variety of playthroughs looking at these mechanics as there is a lot to take in. As you see from the footage the systems are well done and incredibly interesting to work through. Take a look to understand the core systems of the game.

All the varied mechanics in the world are useless if they don’t result in a fun and engaging experience, and I can easily say Phantom Doctrine delivers a game that is enjoyable and addicting.  The core game has so many facets that once you dig into them it is hard to stop exploring deeper and deeper.

The story missions are enjoyable, the side missions are a great way to beef up your agents or equipment, and tying all the pieces together using the Investigation Board is just plain fun.  There is something truly special in how the developer crafted the experience in Phantom Doctrine, leveraging all the interlinked pieces to make the whole package a tense, methodical, and thoroughly engaging spy thriller.

The title does have some issues, like minor loading glitches and enemy turns that seem not to end on a rare occasion (easily fixed by reloading an autosave). There is a weird step-out mechanic that makes agents hit things they seem to not be able to see – it is intentional but odd to XCOM veterans. The lack of initial support documentation was also an issue, but that has since been addressed with a manual.

These minor issues aside, the overall game is stellar and delivers a rich and deep experience that is incredibly satisfying. I continually notice small, cool things: enemies in various countries speaking the home language, or names in newly created identities matching the nationality. These are special flourishes that enrich this great game, one that is well worth checking out.


Four and a Half Stars out of Five

About Michael Prince

A longtime video game fan starting from simple games on the Atari 2600 to newer titles on a bleeding edge PC I play everything I can get my hands on.

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