There are three constants of life: death, taxes, and the sexy coolness (cool sexiness?) of spies. What is it about them that fascinates the everyman? Is it the glamour that popular culture gives them? Is it because they’ve been a key part of the geopolitical order since the First World War? It’s neither of those things that I arbitrarily cherrypicked to make my point – spies are mysterious. What’s more thrilling than silently killing a target? Silently killing a target without a trace.
Without spies, the Cold War would just be two superpowers shaking fists at each other or shaking fists at things resembling each other. Espionage is key to the Cold War zeitgeist, which is why every game set in (or inspired by) the period has to have them. In the Red Alert series, they sap funds. In Team Fortress 2, they sap sentries. In Phantom Doctrine, they sap XCOM’s formula – to great effect.
Phantom Doctrine is CreativeGorge Games’ spiritual follow-up to their other XCOM clone, 2015’s Hard West (You can read our review of that game here). If this review’s intro didn’t give it away, CreativeForge have this time taken a turn-based hammer to the height of Cold War paranoia and aggression: the early 1980s. The spy agencies of the world worked around the clock to get any advantage they could both internally and abroad for what seemed like an inevitable third world war.
Comrade Plane, we meet again
Combat lacks the dice rolls that spice up XCOM’s combat
So, perfect territory for an XCOM-inspired game. Especially when you throw in a shady cabal called…The Cabal…that happens to be your employer. You’re tasked with preventing a global conspiracy that threatens to take this Reagan-boiled situation and spill nuclear fire across the globe. No pressure.
XCOM fans will instantly recognise the similarities between it and Phantom Doctrine – base-building, map screen, cover-reliant turn-based combat, the whole shebang. These parts function nearly identically to their alien-killing counterpart. It’s in the details that Phantom Doctrine deviates from its inspirations. These details are good in theory, but range between ‘that’s neat’ and ‘but why tho?’ in practice.
You’ll start the game by deciding where your character cut their teeth – the Soviet KGB or the American CIA. Being a Pinko-lover myself, I chose to throw away my Ushanka and join The Cabal to hunt bigger game. At least, that’s what I figured out later. Phantom Doctrine’s story isn’t the most well-thought out or interesting in the world, which was the first red flag. I could understand a lack of focus on the story if it was a more straightforward XCOM clone, but a spy thriller is so closely tied to gripping narratives that you simply cannot have one without the other.
A red spy is in the base!?
Nevertheless, even without the story, Phantom Doctrine has one thing drawing players in: XCOM but stealthy. In this respect, the game does well when you do well. Combat is treated as an end-game; a thrilling finale to a slow-burning mission. You’ll start missions in a stealth segment, which is when the game is at its most interesting. You’ll ideally sneak to your objective, carry out the mission quietly, and take your evac van back to base with nary a peep from the guards.
If you’re caught out early and start taking fire, however, you’re not expected to carry on finishing the assignment. At that point, buggering off home is essentially the only realistic option you have. Your agents, while professionals, are going to be swamped with more enemies every few turns after combat is declared. You can only hold the fort for so long before you’re turned into Lead Surprise. The surprise is that you’re full of lead, and ‘lead’ rhymes with ‘dead’ for a reason. Great fun when it’s at the end of an outing but save-scum bait if it happens sooner rather than later. Being forced to wrap up an operation within the first ten minutes is not only frustrating, it’s usually the game’s fault.
Keeping it grounded in reality/real-world conspiracy was clearly a priority
Information is more valuable than you are. Any spy or Facebook executive will tell you that. It should stand to reason, then, that Phantom Doctrine withholds any information it can. But, y’know, it’s good at being a spy but not very good at being a game. I was constantly caught aback by an enemy movement or effect that I simply didn’t have the information (much less the tools) to anticipate. If I move here, will that enemy be able to shoot me? Will approaching this agent trigger combat? Tutorials give you the bare bones, but you’re expected to figure the rest out by yourself.
Do ya feel well-armoured? Well…do ya, punk?
Combat lacks the dice rolls that spice up XCOM’s combat, although that could be a relief for those who want a more clear-cut approach. Each character has an ‘Awareness’ bar instead of a dice bag, which is used for abilities and acting as pseudo-armour; shots will deplete Awareness before they hit your health pool. As shots don’t miss targets, the game relies on damage ranges for variety.
It’s a good idea on paper and honestly does provide some more strategic thinking in the earlier stages of the game, but it becomes a counting game in the later ones. Deciding how to use Awareness became a meta-game aspect that was mastered after only a few hours. Besides, not missing shots makes fights less thrilling. Missing a 95% shot in XCOM may be a training exercise for ‘don’t break your keyboard in half’, but you’re guaranteed to remember that moment for a very long time. Phantom Doctrine unfortunately lacks that memorable quality, and not just in combat.
Phantom Doctrine borrows a great deal from its peers but doesn’t provide any new cuts to them worth noting. Your agents can level up and attain new perks, but none of them are make-or-break decisions that make said character more interesting to use. (In one instance, you can even make agents literally undetectable. I won’t say how, but it’s absolutely possible.) The spy aesthetic is utilised plenty in the game’s presentation, but it’s sorely underutilised in spicing up its weapon and gadget choices. Keeping it grounded in reality/real-world conspiracy was clearly a priority for CreativeForge, but even just a couple of tongue-in-cheek gadgets would have been a nice change; boring loot makes for boring games.
Can I talk about the mail with you?
Regrettably, Phantom Doctrine’s presentation is also hit-and-miss. Missions are unlocked through a pin-board styled minigame screen to match the CRT-glowing map screen, which was charming as anything. Menus lack shortcuts to basic functions like freeing up unused equipment and weapons. Music is subdued but high-tech enough to be noticed, striking a good balance. The voice acting will unfortunately dim down the experience as most of it isn’t very good. The setting is a fantastic choice, but poorly realised.
Phantom Doctrine is a game I was excited about, and that excitement had some serious staying power for the first few hours. After a while, though, I started to unravel the yarn ball. It’s an interesting concept that may find some love XCOM fans who want a more subdued experience in the genre. But, much like Hard West, what makes it unique isn’t grasped as firmly as it could be.