You scurry around the corner of the store ahead of you, a bullet ripping through its sandstone and almost hitting you… Damn it – You were only meant to be monitoring the Beholder Initiative outpost, how on earth did they discover your presence? You’d been so careful! You turn another corner up ahead in this seedy part of Marrakesh, but this time, you meet a dead-end; sweating, and bleeding, you ready your pistol as your pursuer turns the corner…

And you smile. Of all the luck..!

You drop your weapon, and surrender to the assailant and let him close in to apprehend you. When he’s close enough, and you’re certain no others will be joining you just yet, you whisper it to him.

“Activate Babbouche: Authorisation, November-Uniform-Foxtrot 7.”

The man’s eyes widen, and his grips the side of his head in pained confusion. A moment later, he straightens up, his eyes locked on yours.

“Sleeper Agent code accepted. What are your orders?”

“Return to the others, and pretend you lost me. Otherwise go about your regular routine, and investigate who tipped you guys off about me on your end. When you discover that information, message it to the secure data point; if you are discovered at any time in this process, terminate yourself immediately.”

The man nods, and walks away. The chances you’d be caught by the only sleeper agent in the cell were small, but it seems luck favoured you today. No to focus on the more immediate things, like stopping this pesky bleeding…

And such is the way the world works in Phantom Doctrine. Creative Forge’s latest title is a passionate exploration of espionage and spy-tactics during the Cold War – Specifically, the early 80’s. You control a small squad of American, Russian, or Israeli operatives through three unique but interconnected campaigns, attempting to rout a new entrant into the wetworking world – The Beholder Initiative – A mysterious and private cabal that may want to turn the Cold War hot for its own interests. The title released on August 14th for the PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC – The latter of which being the version I’ll be looking at today.

The gameplay can be most directly be summed up as ‘XCOM Clone’: 3D, isometric turn-based strategy game, utilising a variety of weapons, equipment, armours, and a cover system, with a planning and management phase taking place in a base. It is, in fact, so exactly like XCOM that if I didn’t know any better and you told me this was an elaborate mod for the game, I’d have believed you.

You start off your campaign with a tutorial level – In my case, as I played the CIA campaign, this was an investigation of Pakistani nuclear capabilities. This level does a good job explaining mechanics with you, allowing you to learn basics about moving and performing actions, about disguises, stealth takedowns, as well as stealing items and taking photos of classified documents. By the time the level goes hot (Ideally at the end, though you very much can screw up earlier), you should know your way through basic combat and interaction (Especially if you’ve played an XCOM title as mentioned).

You will learn some of the dubious quirks from those XCOM titles aren’t present here, though – there’s no accuracy percentages in this game, for example, nor are there classes (We’ll discuss that later). Phantom Doctrine determines whether or not a shot lands by taking into account the target’s cover, as well as the target’s ‘Awareness’ – A resource that depletes whenever the target takes a major action (eg. Shooting, turning on security systems) that slowly recovers with time, or through the use of focusing instead of taking an action besides movement that round. I’m personally more of a fan of this system – You’re more directly in control of things instead of leaving the situation to the RNG gods, and it feels like your decisions on cover and the like matter more. That being said, some of the shots both sides can make are still a bit questionable; this is the Cold War, not the movie Wanted.

When the tutorial level is over, you’re taken to the base screen, and it is here the tutorial kind of… Disappears. Instead, you’ll now come across some blink-and-you’ll-miss-it pop up boxes. A little more of a run through or a reference guide would have been nice. For example, you can gather what some of the facilities do: Crew Quarters will affect agent limit, Infirmary heals wounded agents, Workshop allows you to sell collected weapons/mods found in the field, make some items, and build other facilities, but then there’s Analytics. And this is a pretty neat part of the game that could really have more reference materials.

In Analytics, using intel you collected from those classified documents, you uncover more information about the plot and the key players in it via an investigation board. You can read the intel, highlight certain names dropped in the documents, and connect the pieces to each other via drag and dropping string from one document’s thumbtack to another’s (Only legitimate connects stick, so don’t worry). Completing these boards will not only provide more info, but will also reward you by revealing more potential agents, or unlocking an agent’s hidden skill. You can also assign agents to look at the board to make connections you miss, or just don’t see, which can be pretty useful.

Speaking of useful, the lack of classes means agents can be more well-rounded than you’d expect; whilst every agent will start off with a specific background, giving immediate proficiencies to certain weapons or possessing certain abilities off the bat, no-one is barred from any skill, weapon, or equipment. Proficiencies merely mean that characters can modify those weapons, and, like skills, can be gained by selecting the appropriate perk after every other level up. Proficiencies seem to be presented from a standard list of options, but skills are much more of a hodge-podge: You pick out of a randomised pool, presented each time a perk point is earned. Not the best system, but it still works.

Agents you recruit can come from a wide range of different service backgrounds, each with their own proficiencies. They can have a variety of different nationalities, known languages (which help with disguises in appropriate regions), and they can also be customised visually. There’s a wide variety of different outfits, accessories, hairstyles, skin tones, and faces: you can re-shape your agents to match their passport photos almost perfectly, if you’re so inclined.

Agents come with four primary attributes: Circulatory, Sensory, Respitory, and Motoric. Circulatory stats determine HP and Fire points; Sensory stats cover Awareness, sight, and Overwatch distance; Respitory stats hold domain over Damage threshold/resistance and Movement range; and Motoric stats impacts Action points, Awareness regeneration, and Dodge cost (How much Awareness is used when attacks miss). The higher all of these stats, the better.

After every mission, an agent will gain some ‘heat’, risking exposing their identity. You can reduce this by keeping a low profile over time, or just buy your agent a new identity. Having an exposed agent puts them at risk of being ambushed by the enemy whilst on route to missions, and if they are captured… Well, if they come back saying how they escaped, maybe be careful about that.

As that little prologue hinted, double agents are absolutely a thing – Failed agents, or even hired strangers from way back when have a chance of already working for the enemy, or becoming double agents. The only sure-fire way to avoid this is by earning an agent’s Loyalty, a trait gained after choosing the correct option when presented with a side-mission about their background. These side-missions are just dialogue boxes, but their impact can really matter – You’d hate to disappoint your best agent only to find she became a turncoat, after all. And, of course when you have the appropriate facilities, you can capture and seed your own double-agents around the world, too.

You can even randomly come across these guys in missions, waiting to be activated. The game is very proactive in how you go about tackling things in general: You can stealth a level, or turn it into a full on raid, if you want. And there’s 60 unique maps to explore your options on.

In regards to mission planning, story missions are (Mostly) untimed, allowing you to tackle them at your own pace, with random missions occurring on the map so you can still grind a bit. Initially, you’ll only have access to the Middle East, but the globe will slowly open up to you. When you find out about an enemy mission (Which occurs randomly; there’s a chance it could be a false positive, though), you can send agents and perform a variety of tasks to tackle it. You could try to interrupt their efforts, foiling things without risk if you’re quick enough; tail the enemy for more info about them; research the area to set up spotters and disguises; or just head straight into an assault.

And you’ll want to be as prepared as possible: Failure of a mission, losing agents, and killing civilians can result in an increase of ‘Danger’ – A stat measured at base. If a danger level gets too high, your base will become compromised and you’ll lose. The only way to reduce danger is by moving your operation, which can be incredibly expensive and almost impractical considering your limited means of income, so be careful!

In addition to Phantom Doctrine’s main campaigns, the game also features a multiplayer mode, which is a neat idea, but unfortunately no-one seems to be using it when I checked. Still, if you and a friend own the game, you can set up your own matches. Essentially, each of you plays as an opposing team on one of several map options. You may choose turn limit before game ends, as well as your agents from a preset list. It’s essentially team death match, which isn’t the worst idea for this sort of game.

The game options are decent: basic video options; adjustment of levels of foliage, shadows, textures, etc; ambient occlusion and anti-aliasing; a whopping six sound types to adjust; autosave enabling, shortest path usage, and other gameplay changes; basic keyboard/input remapping. About what you’d expect. The game also has three difficulties: Easy, Medium, and Hard, as well as an Ironman mode, and a mode that makes the plot a little more elaborate than the default (Requires one playthrough to unlock).

Graphically, the game is pretty nice – About on par with what you’d see in XCOM 2, and that’s just fine for a game like this. The game has pretty interesting aesthetics, seemingly striving for both an 80’s grunge and 60’s-like cleanliness: You’ll come across things like men in peaked caps and women in pencil skirts walking through wood-panelled hallwalls, whilst the building itself is surrounded by a foggy, urban night, and its neighbours the victims of graffiti. It’s pretty cool, actually – It ensures you’re aware of what era you’re actually in, but subtlety conjures forth thoughts of when the Cold War was at its hottest. There is the odd graphical issue, though – Stocky male characters warp thin when wearing certain clothes, and in some levels the lights can be seen hanging a little lower that the ceiling (Only viewable when an agent performs an action showing a zoom-in, like shooting or carrying an unconscious body). Hopefully these issues will be addressed in patches.

The sound effects and overall sound design of the title is decent. The music of the title is mostly subtle, mood-evoking tunes; all work well, but none stick with you. Perhaps more striking tunes, or some of the 80’s cheaper licensed hits could have helped this aspect.

PROS
+ Immersive Cold War atmosphere
+ Fleshed out tactical experience
+ Multiple sides to choose from
+ Large array of maps

CONS
Occasional dodgy shot
Lack of Tutorial reference material

 

Overall, Phantom Doctrine is an admirable exploration of Cold War espionage, using and improving upon the core gameplay offered by the XCOM series. If you loved that franchise, you will love this: Playing Phantom Doctrine just feels so satisfying, with a wide variety of options at your disposal when initiating and conducting missions. If they had a reference document in-game for those times you miss the pop-up windows, I’d have given this game a higher score. As is, I’ll still be playing this for a fair while to come.
8.4 / 10
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