Platforms: PC (reviewed), PS4, and Xbox One
Phantom Doctrine is a game about secrets. There are the secrets held within its narrative, which is a sprawling 40-plus hour campaign with twists and turns and backstabs intriguing enough to challenge any of your favorite spy thrillers. Then there are the secrets that the game keeps from you -- such as what half the things on your screen do even after you finish your first several missions.
And finally, there are the secrets that the game’s developers at CreativeForge kept to themselves regarding why they chose to leave out things like hit chance, interesting characters, and well-balanced abilities.
In Phantom Doctrine you start out by creating an operative that was either an ex-CIA or ex-KGB agent, which basically boils down to choosing which language and accent you want to listen to for most of the game. Character creation is surprisingly deep with dozens of portrait, face, body, and clothing options to pick from at the start. You’ll spend a lot of time clicking on things for your main character to do, so creating a face you don’t hate is a good idea.
The story in Phantom Doctrine is serviceable and does have some intriguing moments if you pay close attention, but it’s hard to be engaged. In terms of presentation it’s mostly a series of still images in place of true “cutscenes” and the actual character animations during gameplay and moving scenes is very low quality. Voice acting sounds like most of the talent was bored while recording, so it’s hard to get excited even if the events themselves would typically elicit an edge-of-your-seat response in other mediums.
Phantom Doctrine’s narrative, as a result, is at its finest when you’re not paying attention to the main storyline at all. Given the Cold War-era setting and spy espionage premise, there are lots of random events that can pop up from one of your agents turning out to be a double agent all along, fallen allies in missions being turned against you or even potentially coming back to your base posing as a mole for the enemy. In some cases, you can even plant sleeper agents and then flip them mid-battle to get the upper hand on enemies.
In a way, the emergent storytelling that happens winds up being not only better but feels closer to what you’d expect from a spy thriller. In every James Bond, Jason Bourne, or Mission Impossible film there is a mission where something goes wrong. It always happens. And those tense moments during a mission where things fall apart, and you have to make a mad dash for the evacuation point or end up outnumbered and outgunned are what I remembered most -- not the loosely tied together cutscenes and “characters” I was fed over several dozen hours.
Strategy Above Combat
Anyone that’s played XCOM or even more recently, Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle are going to have a pretty good idea of what to expect. During combat you go back and forth with the enemy, taking turns by moving around the battlefield, finding cover, shooting, using abilities, gathering intel, and more. There are lots of things here that you’d expect, such as an AP system, guns that need to be reloaded similar to Mutant League Zero, and Overwatch abilities so you can tell characters to wait and shoot enemies that move.
But what makes the combat in Phantom Doctrine stick out the most in comparison to its contemporaries isn’t what it adds to the formula so much as what it removes. In all the other games mentioned you have a certain percentage that’s calculated that determines your chance of hitting an enemy. For example, if they’re far away and behind cover, the chance is very low, but if they’re exposed and nearby, it could be very high. It’s those mid-range percentages and desperation shots that add so much tension to a game of XCOM and it’s become essential to the genre’s enjoyment. Phantom Doctrine misses out on all of that.
Instead of a hit chance, every character has an Awareness resource in addition to their actual health. You spend Awareness to use abilities, such as headshots with revolvers that do big damage, and if you’re low on Awareness you leave yourself open to attack. Since there is no hit chance to worry about, all you need is line of sight on an enemy.
Cover, awareness, armor, and other things can negate damage, but the question you ask yourself mentally in combat is more like “Will I do enough damage with this attack?” rather than “Am I even going to hit them?” which just feels like a significantly lower risk. It robs encounters of the excitement.
Phantom Doctrine isn’t all about combat though. Before missions you can do recon work, you can infiltrate locations with disguises to map things out and grab intel, and even during a mission before combat starts you can explore areas within the confines of the turn-based system as you try to disable cameras and stealthily take out patrols. When the guns come out most of the AI is pretty bad. I saw a lot of dumb pathfinding, getting stuck in objects, or shooting in the wrong direction with bullets magically hitting me anyway.
Interrogating the Potential
Beyond actual missions there is a bit more to Phantom Doctrine going on as well. You’ve got a base of operations that can be upgraded with all sorts of rooms and specialties for upgrading agents or performing specific tasks, like interrogations or even brainwashing if needed.
But my favorite bit, which is the most boring to describe in words, was the corkboard room. Here is where you get to pin photos and intel on a corkboard using thumbtacks and connect strings between pieces of evidence to crack cases and uncover secrets. It reminded me a bit of A Beautiful Mind, which is never a bad thing as far as I’m concerned.
Segments like this, when the personality and ideas that the developers likely had down on a sheet of things they wanted to include to sell the setting, are what really make Phantom Doctrine feel unique. But then when the missions start, and you peel back the layers, it’s just not that engrossing. By the midway point of the game you’ll have unlocked plenty of abilities that will make any mission a cakewalk if you want and the few times stuff blows up in your face it often feels buggy or frustrating rather than like you made a mistake.
The multiplayer offering is basic, essentially letting you hop online for 1v1 quick battles. It’s fine that it’s there and would be a good tool for friends, but the single player is the real main course here. Overall the actual combat gameplay is probably the least exciting bit of the game so throwing two people into it against one another doesn’t make a huge difference.