Stealth is more important than action in this new turn-based strategy that puts the outcome of the Cold War in your hands.
Turn-based strategy games are so rare nowadays that to have a new example of any kind seems like a blessing. But while the XCOM reboot never triggered the genre renaissance we were hoping for there has at least been a minor resurgence, from the surprisingly good Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle to the upcoming Advance Wars clone WarGroove and the promise of a new Fire Emblem next year. Even the lesser known Jagged Alliance announced a new sequel just this week. But the one thing Phantom Doctrine has over all these is that it takes the genre in a genuinely new direction.
Theres no doubt what a huge influence XCOM has been on Phantom Doctrine – the mix of turn-based tactical combat and higher-level strategy is almost identical – but by switching the setting, from sci-fi action to Cold War era spying, Phantom Doctrine manages to look and feel completely different. Its a trick many copycat games from other genres never seem to learn but, despite some rough edges, its one Phantom Doctrine leverages perfectly.
Surprisingly though, one of the weakest elements is the plot. Youd think decades of spy stories, not to mention the reality of the Cold War, wouldve provided plenty of inspiration but the story behind the missions is surprisingly vague and unengaging. You can choose to play as an ex-CIA or KGB agent (or a third option unlocked once you beat the game) but whichever you pick youre still working for the same secret spy agency facing off against its villainous counterpart.
Well be generous and put the story problems down to the procedurally-generated content which, just like XCOM, means that most levels and missions are created fresh each time you play them. You get some pre-mission hints as to what youll be up against, and which agents would be best to take, but once youre on the ground you have to think on your feet and decide whether youre going to play it like Rambo or James Bond.
In theory you can shoot your way out of most situations but the rewards, in terms of both gameplay and progression, are much greater if you play like an actual spy. After all, you wont be tailing any enemy agents back to their base if you gun them down the second you see them.
In many missions you can move around freely as long as you dont do anything suspicious or enter into a restricted area, although youre always limited by the fact that you can only move a certain distance and perform a limited number of actions per term.
Although it does have genre standards like overwatch (where if you do nothing on your turn you can take action on the enemys) Phantom Doctrine does deviate from them in a number of important ways, most obviously in the fact that theres no random element when aiming. Instead, each character (and enemy) uses a resource called Awareness that is consumed whenever you perform an action and which also determines whether youre able to dodge or minimise damage from enemy attacks.
The Awareness meter is a neat idea (especially as many characters have an ability that refills it when they take some time out) and the fact that it means prolonged combat is almost impossible to survive is clearly purposeful. And yet the fact that even cannon fodder nobodies can hit your agents from the other side of the map with 100% accuracy, at seemingly impossible angles, is as implausible as it is frustrating.
There are other, less contentious, new ideas though, such as the option to recon a map before you start and insert agents in full disguise or unseen support staff that can spot or snipe for you. Bodies can be hidden away if you take the time and disguises can last an entire level if youre careful about it, ensuring you get away without a shot fired.
The base-building element between missions is one of the more surprising steals from XCOM and initially bewildering even to a veteran of the genre. It doesnt explain itself well but once you get the hang of it researching new equipment, rewarding agents with new abilities, and expanding your facilities all become second nature. As does some of the more advanced options, such as brainwashing your own sleeper agents and then getting super paranoid that the enemy has done the same to your team…
Your base can even be attacked by enemies, again just like XCOM, but one unique aspect is trying to piece together clues on a corkboard. Everything is procedurally-generated though, which means matching up codenames discovered from recovered documents doesnt require any real brain power and the novelty of the exercise quickly turns into unwanted busywork.
Like XCOM its entirely possible to play Phantom Doctrine for hours and still lose at the end of it all, since youre not playing linear missions but picking them manually from a world map and allowing their outcome – good or bad – to influence the rest of the story and your own resources. You can also never take on every possible mission and have to constantly make hard decisions that cannot be undone.
But while the game does maintain a heady Cold War atmosphere through its gameplay its not aided terribly well by the graphics. Although inanimate objects are acceptable from a distance human characters are barely PlayStation 2 quality – while the semi-animated cut scenes look like something from a SNES game. Thatd be fine if this was a no-budget indie game but Phantom Doctrine is surprisingly expensive and the low-fi visuals spoil the fun of dressing your characters up in terrible 80s fashion.
Phantom Doctrine is a mixed bag then, and exactly how much you enjoy it will depend greatly on how well you accept the unusual rules of combat. Which in turn is related to how willing you are to play the game as an actual spy and not a trigger-happy XCOM soldier. Either way its great to see a turn-based game expanding the range of the genre, even if it doesnt master all its elements.
In Short: An inspired XCOM clone, whose spy movie atmosphere inspires an emphasis on stealth rather than action – which is a good job given the somewhat flawed combat.
Pros: The spy theme permeates every element of the gameplay and presentation with an intriguing top-level strategy element and tense turn-based missions. Huge range of tactical options.
Cons: Removing the random element in combat can lead to some infuriating encounters. Detective work requires no real skill. Weak graphics for what is almost a full price game.
Formats: PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Xbox One, and PC
Publisher: Good Shepard Entertainment
Developer: CreativeForge Games
Release Date: 14th August 2018 (Xbox: 24/8)
Age Rating: 18