If ever Sam Fisher and a Sectoid’s eyes met across a crowded room, if they were to have a few drinks, exchange phone numbers, go out on some dates, find a place together, declare their love for one another and finally have a baby, then that sprog would be named Phantom Doctrine. It’s an odd name and that kid would get bullied at school a lot, but my point is that Phantom Doctrine plays a lot like a cross between XCOM: Enemy Unknown and Splinter Cell. Such a lazy comparison does it a disservice though, as Phantom Doctrine achieves enough on its own merits to stand alone from these titans of the videogame world.
Set within a parallel universe in which the cold war never ended but technology continued to develop, Phantom Doctrine sees the player take on the role of a covert operative working within the Cabal secret organisation. After a bout of detailed character customisation, my agent – Deadpan – was not only prepared to command a crack squad of spies, but also ready to give Nick Fury a run for his money in the badassery stakes, thanks to her eyepatch wearing and cigar chomping appearance.
The player is greeted with an impressively uninformative tutorial upon starting the first playthrough, and in only covering a few of the basics it does Phantom Doctrine a disservice. This is a complex and multi-faceted game, but CreativeForge Games do a poor job of explaining what you need to do to survive and thrive in its early stages. Aside from a few on screen prompts, you’ll be left very much to your own devices to figure out how to progress. Sometimes this is a positive, allowing the player to uncover solutions to a problem by adapting their own play style, but it can also severely and unnecessarily hamper the player’s progress and understanding of the game. Thankfully, after a few hours grind, the game starts to make sense and soon a great deal of fun can be had.
Players are tasked with running their own spy network with the goal of uncovering a sinister conspiracy. One aspect of this is to investigate suspicious activities occurring across the globe. Agents can be sent out to meet with informants, track targets and gather intel, all of which are conducted from a central map in which time can be accelerated or paused at the tap of a button. These activities are all carried out on the map screen itself, and in an example of substance over style, various brightly coloured bars and text prompts keep you notified of everyone’s progress and the danger your organisation is under from discovery. It’s not as dull as it sounds and there’s a strange satisfaction to be had in keeping all of the spy shaped cogs running smoothly within this secretive machine.
Then there’s your HQ. A considerable variety of new facilities can be built here, such as a forgery where agents can print more cash or have new IDs made for them if their cover is blown, or a laboratory which provides the morally dubious opportunity to pump your agents full of strange new drugs in pursuit of some permanent stat boosts. This base of operations is well presented on screen and you could take the time out to watch your miniature agents move around their clandestine lair, but you’ll mostly be flicking between menu screens. There’s a lot of micro management to be done here, from training agents to investigating dossiers.
These simple puzzle sections involve finding codewords within various documents and then linking them together with bits of string on an investigation board. It’s what the average paranoid cop gets up to during the plentiful generic police dramas clogging up Netflix – other streaming services are available – and now I can understand why. There’s an alluring sense of discovery steadily unweaving a web of conspiracy, finding the common pieces in each document and figuring out the next step of the conspiracy’s dastardly plan. Solving these investigations reveals your targets and an accompanying mission, and it’s here that the games segues into its turn based tactical component.
It’s also here that it does most to differentiate itself from Firaxis’ finest. In XCOM, the player uncovers individual alien units whilst exploring the environment, they’ll do battle with that small group and then move on. However, in Phantom Doctrine if an enemy agent discovers your team they will, rather sensibly, alert all of their conspiracy loving colleagues on the map, and while they suddenly know exactly where you are, it doesn’t feel unfair that they’d coordinate like this. Soon the enemy will be orchestrating a pincer attack with your small team of spies trapped in the middle. They’ll also call in reinforcements, sometimes something as straightforward as additional enemy troops or their backup might be rather more formidable, like a helicopter gunship
Therefore infiltration proves vital. Certain areas of the map are restricted and your agents will trigger an alarm if spotted there, however, they are free to move around the rest of the map. This enables you to scout out enemy locations, note their moment patterns – placing your cursor over a foe handily shows where they’ll be walking next – and pick just the right moment to strike. It’s a refreshing take on the established template of turn based strategy and the risk/reward nature of having to both attack and evade had me hooked.
Brilliantly if guards don’t check in this will trigger other enemies to try and find them, creating extra tension but also providing the opportunity to pick the enemy off one at a time. Under certain conditions limited numbers of your agents can even wear disguises, enabling them to travel anywhere on the map without concern – provided they don’t do anything suspicious like drag an unconscious guard past a security camera. Not that I did that. Honest.
There is, of course, permadeath. In my opinion its inclusion is vital to create the pressure that makes this game genre tick. I found that agents could absorb a decent amount of damage during my playthrough on normal difficulty and if they did end up being filled with so much lead they could take a part time job as a pencil, then I still had several turns to stabilise them. Then I played it on a harder difficulty setting and I cried. The challenge is there if you want it and I did not.
There are some missteps, such as storyline missions that lead to major difficulty spikes. You can try to tackle them as soon as they’ve been unlocked, and with no time pressure to do so, but you will need to level up your characters to have even a chance of completing these missions. Unfortunately you have no way of knowing if your squad is ready for a particular mission until they’ve all been annihilated halfway through, forcing you to reload an earlier save and trying again later. This grinding sits at odds with the rest of the game and serves to undermine the fine work CreativeForge Games has done elsewhere.
If you’re someone who lives a life of danger, if everyone you meet is a stranger or perhaps you find that with every move you make another chance you take, then Phantom Doctrine is ideal for you. For everyone else, this is a deep and compelling tactical strategy game that provides innovation in a stagnant genre. I’ll be playing it long after I’ve finished reviewing it, and I can think of no higher praise than that.
Version Tested: Playstation 4
Also available on Xbox One and PC