More The Americans than James Bond, Phantom Doctrine takes the turn-based tactical genre and infuses it with Cold War espionage.
“The Cold War isn’t thawing; it is burning with a deadly heat. Communism isn’t sleeping; it is, as always, plotting, scheming, working, fighting.”
This quote by President Nixon summarized a lot of the fear and paranoia that the Cold War brought to the world. It’s the same world tackled in various forms of media throughout history. Movies, books, TV shows and games are all filled with attempts at capturing the seedy underbelly of the Cold War. Phantom Doctrine is the latest attempt at capturing the chaos and danger lurking under the surface.
Phantom Doctrine is developed by Creative Forge Games, who previously brought the X-Com style of tactical, turn-based gameplay and merged it with a supernatural version of the Old West in a game called Hard West. It was a good title, with a great premise that was held back a bit by some of it’s combat design. Despite it’s problems, Hard West was a great foundation for the future and showed a lot of potential. Phantom Doctrine take’s that formula a different direction, trading in the cowboys and ghosts of Hard West with KGB Agents, CIA assassins, big sideburns and washed out jeans. This is clearly the 80’s during the Cold War at it’s most tumultuous.
Phantom Doctrine provides you with two different character story lines to choose from. One is a former KGB spy, the other a CIA operative. Regardless of who you choose you will be in command of the Cabal. The Cabal is a secret organization that is tasked with preventing espionage and conspiracy and is working tirelessly to make the Cold War a reality.
Immediately, the premise and story present a very different setting for this type of game. Games like X-Com, or Invisible, Inc. are usually set in a world outside of our reality. Phantom Doctrine goes in the opposite direction. It’s setting, look, music, and gameplay mechanics are all designed to stay as true to the era as possible.
Everything you’d expect from the genre, including persistent map, real-time progression and research, permadeath and more are all here; however, the presentation is what separates Phantom Doctrine from so many of its contemporaries.
After a brief tutorial, you are thrust into your Cabal headquarters. It’s the place where you will do investigations, make upgrades, level and heal up agents and tackle missions across the globe.
Characters all have code names, spy aliases and passports that allow them to travel across the map in real time. Agents can be sent to different locations to scout for enemy spies, try to discover more suitable hideouts or set up missions.
That is one half of the story – the other half lies in the battle system itself. You and your team arrive on the scene and must use all of your abilities to get the job done. Missions can range from stealing information, assassinating rival spies or sabotage. Stealth is vital in Phantom Doctrine. You can walk in the levels as a regular civilian or in disguise if you wish.
As long as you don’t walk into different forms of security, or trespass, you can use your agents to scout and get a lay of the land. If you’re good and position yourself correctly, entire levels can be completed without taking a shot. Enemy agents can be captured instead of killed, and remaining undetected is the best bet at securing secret intel and stealing equipment to use back in your home base.
Stealth is also important for another major reason. Phantom Doctrine does away with the typical RNG hit chance you get in other turn-based tactical games. You will never stand a foot away from a target and miss with a shotgun. You will instead always hit whenever you fire a weapon. The variables are determined by your characters’ awareness and other factors such as distance, weapon type and armor. This really ratchets up the tension because getting caught and not being prepared for combat can make every scenario go south very quickly.
The game is further helped by its visual and sound design. A great score really sets the tone, and all the tunes from the battle to the menus are all an auditory treat. It provides the exact mood you would expect from top-level covert operations. The visuals are grounded, with weapons, outfits and style that really brings the 80’s to life. Big vans, bigger hair, AK-47’s and aviators keep the setting consistent throughout.
Not all is perfect, however. Investigations can become a tad bit repetitive after while, and although the two story lines are different, they both follow a very similar trajectory and flow once you are knee-deep in a particular campaign. A third campaign does open up once you complete a story, which does allow for more pathways and expands on what both characters experience.
Combat can also break the illusion of reality as well. For a game that is very grounded in reality, that reality is shattered when you are in open combat. Because RNG is gone, enemies can sometimes hit impossible shots. Regular security guards using a pistol can shoot an agent through four thick walls of solid cover and hit for big damage. It’s a decent balance and meant to keep you from blasting your way through levels, but when it happens it can look very silly and can cause some frustrations.
Outside of those minor issues, Phantom Doctrine is an excellent game and a big step forward in the turn-based tactical genre.