The phrase “Cold War Xcom” has been thrown around a lot for Phantom Doctrine and having spent (at the time of writing) 16 hours and 55 minutes in the murky depths of Phantom Doctrine, I have to really say: I don’t think this is a fair comparison. At first, it’s easy to see, with Phantom Doctrine & Jake Solomon’s modern reboot of X-Com, both games feature the “two-moves one action” ruleset, both are a multilayered, isometric & turn-based strategy game, the Graphical User Interface (GUI, for short) are also very similar. It’s here, however, where the similarities end.
Though it wears a similar skin to Xcom, Phantom Doctrine plays very differently, the themes of the game suit it perfectly: Subterfuge, Infiltration and Assassination. Phantom Doctrine is set during the Cold War Era, where you can play either: A CIA Agent or a member of the KGB who has gone rogue. It’s with this story that you take control of your own spy network called the “Cabal” to challenge the Beholder Initiative. Phantom Doctrine’s theme really shines through in its gameplay, whether you’re pinning confidential information to a board and making connections with twine, assassinating/kidnapping a Beholder agent or launching an assault on a location of interest. The first thing I’m going to address will be the “Investigation Board”.
The Investigation Board
Phantom Doctrine is a game about Counter Intelligence, subterfuge, and assassination; As such it’s only fitting that you are provided with space to pin your (potentially stolen) sensitive information and build connections. It is through this board that you will gather evidence, build your investigation and unlock new gameplay mechanics, crafting recipes, Agent traits/perks or even the identities of rival Agents. The Investigation Board really brings a puzzle element to the strategy game and is easily one of my favourite features in Phantom Doctrine. The investigation board can do some fantastic things to greatly push the games immersion, tiny details such as uncovering messages about Beholder Agents attempting to bribe your own Agents or reporting that they were unable to trail them back to your Headquarters. There are also some humorous conspiracy-theory themed messages you can uncover too, such as how “the real John” of a particularly famous band from the 60’s has been dead for years. Along with these messages, maps, photographs and satellite images, you can also uncover the real names of story characters.
Because of my opinion on the “Tactical Missions” in Phantom Doctrine, I’m going to cover them in two sections: Covert & Assault. Covert will be tactical missions where subterfuge is a strategically better choice than urban warfare.
In the “Infiltration” stage of a tactical mission, the agents you have present on the field are currently undiscovered and can perform stealthy/saboteur actions, such as knocking out guards & civilians, hiding bodies, deactivating security systems and photographing sensitive information/stealing gear from the opposition. It’s in this mode that I find the game to be at its best, with the turn-based mechanic forcing you to consider every action you take and every move you make, are you going to blow your cover and barge right through this corridor between you and the security room? Or maybe there’s a pesky guard between you and extracting your unconscious target from the area, will you just run past and trigger the alarms or will you have your other guy come from the back and knock him out? The room your target is located is shrouded in Fog of War and you have no clue if there are bodyguards/civilians in there, but thankfully you have a look-out in the support slot, so you can safely investigate the target’s location with a handy telescope.
During the infiltration stage, there is a set number of takedowns you can perform on guards before the enemy Agents start to become suspicious and begin burning sensitive information & looking for your agents. I’m not entirely sure how many guards this is myself, but I think it’s around 3 or 4 per-mission you can knock out.
If you manage to find your target undetected and have discovered that they are in a room with bodyguards, you can position (at a minimum of) 2 Agents by the entrances of the room they are in and commit to what is called a “Breach”, where your Agents will conduct a SWAT-like breach, gunning down the inhabitants of the room in (hopefully) one clean sweep. The best part of a Breach is that if your Agents are equipped with suppressed weapons (and you kill everybody in the room) then your infiltration stage will not transition to combat. Before activating a breach, you can select your agents and select which person in the room they should focus on taking out, too.
The combat in Phantom Doctrine is… Wierd, to put it simply. If you fire your weapon at an opponent, you don’t have a chance to hit, but rather a minimum-maximum damage with a ‘dodge’ chance which is at cost of the targets ‘awareness’. I personally find this system to be bothersome in the way that an itch you can’t scratch would be. I personally feel as though the minimum & maximum damage mechanic is a fantastic idea, but without any chance to hit this makes the firefights feel like a tug-of-war rather than an all-out firefight. There’s also the issue of the AI having no range on LMG equipped soldiers, being capable of firing across the map or from suspicious angles (this is partly due to the firing mechanic being tied to the line of sight, however, this “wallhack” has already been addressed by the developers.) which feels spectacularly unfair, especially when they receive a flanking bonus and effectively half your Agent’s health. It can be frustrating when you’ve played an entire mission and then had to extract a heavily wounded agent because of one turn against an LMG-carrying troop across the map.
During combat, you are also on a countdown for an escalation, which comes in a number of forms:
- Enemy Reinforcements
- Attack Helicopters
- Enemy bombers
These are mostly self-explanatory events with the bombings and attack helicopters targeting any agents ending their turn outside of a building or overhead cover. I personally think this mechanic of escalating events reflects well on the themes and setting of Phantom Doctrine. There are some problems with the escalation system, however, if you’re assaulting an enemy stronghold and your objective is to terminate, say, eight Enemy Troops, the mission becomes a game of “hide-and-seek” with a fog of war and the hiding team get to shoot you. Then add on the need to keep your agents indoors to avoid being shot at by helicopters or bombed (really they’re missiles, but still), which in some maps can make finding the last remaining enemy frustrating – but then you’ve got a set of reinforcements coming in and you suddenly have double the amount of enemies to kill.
I haven’t gotten particularly far in the story of Phantom Doctrine just yet, so maybe this is something you can unlock later on down the line, but having some method of blocking enemy communications to halt incoming reinforcements (even if just temporarily) would be a huge addition to the Assault missions.
If your agents completed the Recon operation before you start a tactical mission/assault, you will have access to disguises and support slots. Disguises can be used during the infiltration stage to freely roam the map, however, Agents in disguise can only carry two types of weapons: SMGs & Pistols, they are also locked out of wearing any body armour and my least favourite feature of disguised agents: they cannot equip items such as medkits or lockpicks. Support slots can be used to assign after-mission cleaners to reduce heat, lookouts to peer into the fog of war for you or even marksmen and deployable smoke screens to help your Agents when combat starts.
There are some other things in the Phantom Doctrine worth mentioning, such as the body engineering or MK Ultra facilities, where you can enhance your Agent’s skills with chemical compounds or brainwash/interrogate Beholder Agents for information, at later stages with the MK Ultra you can even turn Beholder Agents into sleeper agents or have them sabotage their own headquarters.
All in all, when it comes down to it: for every feature I like in Phantom Doctrine, there’s a bug or even a feature I don’t like. That isn’t to say it’s a bad game or that I’m not enjoying my time with it, it could just use a few fixes for bugs and crashes.
I also think that maybe the marketing/public response to this game is a bit one-sided, as (in my opinion) Phantom Doctrine doesn’t really play like Xcom or Xcom2, as you really need to make use of your infiltration stages and take your time with it, rather than setting up an ambush and going guns-blazing for the objective.
It also has significantly fewer aliens.