STAFF REVIEW of Phantom Doctrine (Xbox One)

Wednesday, September 26, 2018.
by Adam Dileva

Phantom Doctrine Box art They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, which I believe is true, but what happens when you’re trying to imitate one of the most beloved games in a genre, yet can’t quite capture the essence that makes it unique and special? That’s somewhat what we have here with CreativeForge Games’ newest title, Phantom Doctrine; a top down 3D turn based tactical game that has borrowed very heavily from games like XCOM. They’ve brought some great ideas, some of which I hope Firaxis takes note of and ‘borrows’ back, but it’s hard to compare to one of the best in the genre, even if it’s decent in its own right.

Instead of an alien assault and saving planet Earth, the narrative behind Phantom Doctrine is that it is set within the Cold War in the early 80's, with the CIA versus the KGB in a battle of information, spies and assaults at its height of tension. You never know who you can trust and you begin to question everything. An agent has been missing for a week and returns unexpectedly; do you interrogate him out of paranoia or take him at his word? You risk having your informant lay dormant in an enemy filled country; do you have them lay low and risk being caught, or try and find out more information about a conspiracy? These are just some questions you’ll need to ask yourself as you progress in the campaign.

You lead The Cabal, a secret organization that’s tasked with stopping a global conspiracy. Of course, you’ll need to do so in the shadows with covert ops, spies, interrogations, highly classified documents and more. But you’ll also need to be swift and decisive, as there’s a more sinister plot at stake that could mean doomsday if you don’t act quickly. The campaign is said to have 40+ hours of gameplay included, which sounds about right if you’re counting the multiple playthroughs if you want to see everything.

You see, you’re able to choose from the CIA or the KGB, altering gameplay somewhat, along with a second playthrough that will be needed to experience the fuller narrative with the campaign. Why some lore and other things are locked behind the extended playthrough, I’m not sure, but finding out I would need to play through it all again just to see everything was a letdown in someway. Sure, you’re given more of a reason to spend more time with the game, which is never a bad thing, but for someone like myself, who has limited gaming time, asking me to go through again just to see some new content was disappointing.

If you’ve never played a XCOM game or any XCOM-like titles before, it’s a turn based strategy game where you play on a grid-like system, moving your team as you try to defeat enemies in turns. Things become much more involved, but it’s all about strategy; how to place your team behind cover, disguise yourself, how to flank enemies, and in the case of Phantom Doctrine, how to be as stealthy as possible for as long as possible, as going hot and loud has some dire consequences.

Even though the XCOM influence is heavy at times, the whole 80’s espionage theme and stealth focus makes for a great change from the standard that has been set before it. While the bulk of your gameplay will undoubtedly be focused within stealth missions and firefights, there’s almost as much to do outside of these missions, which oddly enough, I found myself enjoying more than the traditional gameplay.

Regardless of choosing CIA or KGB, you’ll have a home base that you’ll do all of your investigative work, interrogation, brain washing, hiring new agents, forging money and more. You earn limited money over time, so you need to choose wisely what upgrades to spend towards, but you’ll also need to budget for hiring new agents, technology upgrades, extra slots for infirmary, DNA upgrades, forging documents and a whole lot more. This part will take a bit of time to get used to, as the tutorial for the base operations is not explained very well, barely at all even, which is what frustrated me greatly early on. Once I got the hang of how everything worked and was intertwined, it became much more strategic.

Your base is where you will have access to a world map. It is here where you’ll be able to fly your agents out to many counties and states, having them investigate leads, scout for headquarters when the enemy finds out your HQ location and more. Certain opportunities will arise where you’ll be able to send in agents to gather extra intel, or even thwart your opponent's plans entirely. Sometimes the extra intel will make a huge difference before going into an assault mission, as you’ll know where the computer to shut off the cameras and alarms is located beforehand.

This is where you need to balance your time and money for gathering your own intel and using counterintelligence as well. Agents will level up when completing missions, able to craft new items like weaponry, gadgets and earn new abilities. Something that doesn’t make sense to me though is why I need to spend so much money on weapons and such. You work for the top intelligence agency in the world but have to simply use a pistol because you don’t have enough funds for something else? Oh, and I found out the hard way that there IS a doomsday clock in play, much like XCOM, so don’t sit back and dawdle too much or else you’ll find the forced game over once the enemy carries out its own plot without much resistance.

Now, we get to my favorite gameplay mechanic about Phantom Doctrine; the Investigation Board. As you gain clues from your agents and informants, you’ll have to piece them together on a classic corkboard, tying string from the clues that match together until you have all the clues needed and make a logical connection about your target. Some clues appear as a classified document, where you need to click the button over certain words you may think are clues, until you find them all.

For example, you found a clue and one of the key words you found was “Tredwell”. Now with your other clues, you’ll need to see if that same keyword exists, and if so, tie a string between the two, as there’s a logical connection. You do this until all of the clues piece together and point you to your mystery target. It may be basic, but putting together these clues was the most enjoyment I had from the whole gameplay experience. The classic corkboard has a very retro vibe to it and it is something you’ve seen on TV a million times before. Bravo, and I hope other games implement something similar, as this was quite unique.

And now we come to combat within missions. Ideally you’ll never need to experience combat, as you want to be stealthy in the shadows, ducking in and out before you’re even noticed, but that’s not what’s going to happen a good portion of the time. When, not if, you get spotted by a guard, enemy, or even civilian when in a restricted zone, an alert appears and every enemy will know exactly where you are, with reinforcements coming non-stop. Yes, a game about stealth punishes you for being in combat so harshly that it becomes harder the longer the match plays out.

When you’re able to stay in stealth, avoiding guard’s paths and line of sight, it can be exhilarating, but more than once I found that these “hand crafted” missions had flaws in them. One mission, for example, had me needing to neutralize a target, but there was absolutely no way to get into his second floor room without being seen by a civilian or camera. Of course I had to go hot, and that’s where I learned about the endless waves of enemies that will come until you’re able to extract. Given that some missions force the combat as well, prepare for a lot of frustrations, for numerous reasons.

One of the biggest complaints I had about XCOM was its combat randomness. This is where you’re literally standing beside an enemy and miss a shot, or an enemy is shooting you from within a building as you’re behind cover and still picks you off. This is frustratingly present here as well. I can’t count the times that I had been on the square next to an enemy, only to graze or miss completely. Yes, there is an awareness stat that helps with this and avoidance, but it’s ridiculous in situations like this.

The AI is very challenging and is able to snipe you with a pistol from an unreal distance, even if objects and walls are in the way. One mission had me lose an agent because I was in cover on a staircase heading up to the extraction zone, yet the enemy below me, with zero line of sight, was able to headshot me without any issue. Overwatch is an option to guard your position while waiting for an enemy turn to play out, but with limited movement and action moves per turn, it’s going to take a lot of getting used to through trial and error to see what works and doesn’t. Also, pro tip, reloading your gun takes an action. Something I too found out the hard way; R.I.P. Agent Cortana. Luckily there is an auto save after every move, so you’re able to reload any save if you messed up badly with a wrong decision and want a re-do.

I simply found the assault portion of combat very unbalanced and incredibly challenging when you have an attack chopper shooting a mini-gun at you for every turn you’re in sight. The new Breach ability was a cool addition to the traditional gameplay, allowing for a more assault orientated run should you choose. Additionally, some missions also have side objectives you can complete for bonuses should you want to challenge yourself. There is a multiplayer option if you and a friend wants to challenge each other head on with some 1v1 , but even after a week of playing the game, and trying to find a match each time, I was unable to find a single game to join. I even hosted games, hoping someone would join, yet not a single person did. So don’t expect much of an online community to be playing this. From my experience, expect to bring your own friend if you really want to play online.

Phantom Doctrine has a lot of potential. While the combat didn’t really jive with me personally, the whole CIA cloak and dagger theme suits the gameplay and genre quite well. Oddly enough, I quite enjoyed the other aspects to the gameplay much more, particularly the base management and connecting clues together on an old school pinup board. Frustration will surely kick in at the beginning, as you’re barely taught any of the non-combat mechanics, but once you figure it out on your own, it can be quite strategic, even if it’ll be in the shadows when compared to certain other mega hits in the genre.

Overall: 7.0 / 10
Gameplay: 7.0 / 10
Visuals: 7.5 / 10
Sound: 6.5 / 10


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