Phantom Doctrine Review. Cold War Mission Impossible
We don’t get many cold war spy themed games and even less in the strategy genre. Phantom Doctrine presents the intriguing prospect of managing an intelligence organisation around the familiar XCOM-like tactical gameplay. Read on for my review of Phantom Doctrine.
What is Phantom Doctrine
Phantom Doctrine is a tactical strategy game ala modern XCOM, set during the Cold War of the 80s. Similar to XCOM, it has a real time strategic layer where you manage your base of operation, and turn-based tactical engagements when you go on missions.
While on the surface, it may seem similar to XCOM, when seen in its entirety, it is in the details where it differentiates itself from the venerable strategy game classic. It is wildly different!
Its single-player campaign features 2 campaigns. One for the CIA and the other for KGB. Both these campaigns have their very own story arc.
This is where you’ll be managing new recruits and sending the out on missions. Some of the different rooms in your base will be familiar if you’ve played XCOM.
You have you crew quarters, where you hire new agents and upgrade them with new skills. The infirmary is where your agents go when they are injured.
The body engineering room allows you to enhance your agents using highly classified latest bio tech compounds. These compounds can have significant impact on their stats and lets you specialise your agents further.
There are some other rooms that a more unique to Phantom Doctrine which I’ve listed below:
Whatever dossiers and documents you collect on mission, this is where you analyse them and piece them together. You can assign an agent to analytics duty. And when new documents become available you can link the information up by finding keywords and open up new mission and progress the story.
Essentially, it’s a mini game of ‘find the words and match them together’. But it’s done with such 80’s spy thriller flair, it’s easily one of the best bits of the game.
There are no scientists or engineers to hire in Phantom Doctrine. Your assign your agents to do these tasks. In the Workshop, your agents will be crafting useful equipment such as smoke grenades, flashbangs and more.
The workshop is also where you’ll research new tech that will allow you to assign more agents to tasks, unlock new mission types, unlock new facilities and increase agent hiring limits to name a few.
Assign agents to make them better. Highly classified latest bio tech compounds can enhance your agent’s performance on the field.
This is where most of the action happens in your hideout. You’ll send agents out around the world to do surveillance and investigate suspicious activities. The more activity, the threat of the enemy discovering your hideout rises. There are techs that reduces danger when you do missions, but you can never completely reset it.
The ‘Danger’ mechanic represents the threat your hidden base will be discovered by enemy agents. The more missions you send your agents to, failed missions, and some other actions will increase the ‘Danger’ meter.
Once this meter goes beyond a set threshold, there is a threat of an enemy raid on your hideout. If you get raided, you will lose some money as well as some agent may go missing. You can spend money to move your hideout to another part of the world to avoid being raided. This is costly though.
Considering you’re running an intelligence agency, this makes complete sense. You are never rooted in a location and will have to move if things get hot.
If you don’t move soon enough, you might be facing an enemy raid. This is simply an event that just happens which you have no influence over. There are however some missions in the narrative that will have you going back to your old hideout to destroy evidence.
That puts you in the tactical battle part of the game, which is the main focus of the game as well as the most problematic part of it. I’ll get to it in the next section.
There are a few different mission types. From escort, tail the subject, recon, to assault, the different mission types start off in different states.
In some missions you start off outside the prohibited zone in infiltration mode. Enemies ignore you as long as they don’t see you entering the prohibited zone or do some suspicious stuff… like knocking down a civilian.
Essentially the tactical layer of the game can be broken down to two different experiences; stealth and all out assault.
In the stealth phase, or the game calls it, infiltration phase, your agents start outside the prohibited zone and can walk freely even in front of enemy guards.
Once you move your agents within the prohibited zone, you will still be in infiltration mode as long as no one sees you breaking an entry.
Phantom Doctrine when played as purely a stealth game in the infiltration mode feels more like a puzzle game. And I suppose, a lot of stealth games are essentially puzzle games of sorts.
You’ll be observing patrol patterns, cautiously moving forward to peek around rooms and planning your move towards the objective.
If your agent ends his or her turn in the zone of view of the enemy the game changes to active engagement. This is not too dissimilar to what Firaxis did in XCOM 2.
In some missions, some agents of yours have the ability to put on a disguise. A disguised agent essentially can walk around the enemy building with no worries, allowing you to disable security measures and to even complete the mission without ever firing a shot.
Phantom Doctrine is at its best, when played this way… purely as a stealth game. While it may lack visual cues to give players more feedback about their environment, the challenge of getting your agents in, and sneakily completing objectives is thrilling.
You’ll probably need to reload the mission a couple of times (you’ll be save scumming a lot if you want a perfect stealth run), but it’s immensely satisfying to pull it off.
Bring out the Big Guns
When it comes time to pull out the guns and get into firefights, Phantom Doctrine seems to be interested in differentiating itself from other tactical games (read… XCOM).
It starts out rather intriguing with its unique systems, but sputters forward when you begin to realise the systems and the tactical gameplay is simply a dull affair that lands flat on its face.
It’s almost trying to overcompensate by adding in many mechanics such as focus (which is points used for special abilities), awareness, movement points and action points.
At its heart, Phantom Doctrine ditches the randomness of hit chances for one that depends on the target’s armour and cover. You can’t miss in Phantom Doctrine… well most of the time.
Depending on an agent’s awareness, they can even dodge a shot completely. Which sounds absolutely ridiculous.
Because Phantom Doctrine shelves hit chances for a system that calculates how much damage you make, your agents feel like they are bullet sponges and will very often get injured.
Your agents aren’t fragile like in XCOM. They will most likely not die in a single shot. This is exacerbated by the insane difficulty the game throws at you.
During an engagement, the enemy often calls in reinforcements that would make a tricky situation, even more difficult.
There is very little tactics involved here and firefights can easily devolve into a pop and shoot circus. Your most helpful tactical option is using equipment such as smoke grenades of flashbangs to give you cover or disorient the enemy.
If you think that the game uses this punishing difficulty to force players into taking the stealth option, that’s incorrect. There are missions where your only option is to go loud.
Phantom Doctrine is a tactical strategy game with neat ideas and an interesting premise. It does the whole investigating conspiracies brilliantly with the investigation board. It’s obvious to me that a lot of effort and love was put into realising the 80’s spy thriller theme.
The tactical portion of the game is lacklustre at best. At least half of the tactical portion is boring and unsatisfying (the action half).
If played purely as a stealth game, it becomes a much more enjoyable experience. But since the game forces you to play offensively many times, the weaker bits of the tactical game are unavoidable and cannot be ignored.
Phantom Doctrine is at best, an average strategy game marred by poor design decisions in the tactical portion of the game. It’s difficult to get excited at the prospect of playing its tactical battles with its overly convoluted systems… die over and over again trying to get past missions.
Unfortunately, it is destined to be a bargain bin game with a very small player base. You won’t find anyone to play it in multiplayer if you thought playing the tactical battles with human players would be better.
Phantom Doctrine is a missed opportunity. Look elsewhere for great tactical battles. Give this one a miss.
OS: Windows 7
Processor: Intel i5 Series
Memory: 8 GB RAM
Graphics: NVIDIA GTX
Disk Space: 20 GB available space
Additional Notes: Requires a 64-bit processor and operating system
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