Hands-on Preview: Phantom Doctrine

It's a cold world out there, but you're the one to fight for it in this very fine looking espionage thriller based on the XCOM formula.

Hands-on Preview: Phantom Doctrine

Developer: CreativeForge Games
Publisher: Good Shepherd Entertainment
Release Date: 2018

I really do like the XCOM formula, but there comes a point in a lot of games where it all starts to get samey. Recent iterations have started to introduce more variety into mission structure, but ultimately, it’s all about the combat. Phantom Doctrine, on the other hand, is built around the same basic turn-based structure, where it’s all about line of sight, clever positioning, and careful, methodical exploration of each map, but has structured it around a 1980s Cold War setting, with all the stealthy, sneaky, spying that entails.

And no high-tech internet or comms!

In Phantom Doctrine you’re not so much a faceless ‘commander’, but instead the senior agent amongst a pool of similar spooks, and your task is to not only train and gear-up your people and send them against the badguys – which are not who you might think, despite the Cold War setting – but also to unravel where to go, how to hit them, all while stopping them from hitting you.

For instance, you uncover clues and intelligence from most missions, and you can apply these to pinboards. Uncover more links between clues, link them with red string – which is as satisfying as it sounds – and you can unlock more clues, or even whole new missions. Work out where an enemy agent may be, and you can go surveil or even kidnap them, unlocking more information, for more pinboards, and so on. This aspect of the game is almost as satisfying as the tactical element, and though it can be a little simplistic, it really sets the game apart from other XCOM-alikes. I felt a sense of investment in my team’s activities quite unlike anything I'd played before, because it was my intelligence work that put them into harm's way.

And when you do finally get boots on the ground in exotic, flavourful locations, you can approach your missions in a number of ways, though basically it all comes down to going in on the prowl, or going loud and facing the consequences. There’s a certain inevitability to combat in a lot of these games, but I get the sense that if you really wanted to, you could play through most of Phantom Doctrine without raising a single alarm, and killing as few people as possible.

We played a handful of missions, and while the tutorial does force you to go loud just to show you how it works, on the other two I was able to achieve success without firing a shot or killing a soul. Avoiding cameras, dodging guards, grabbing the intel (or the human intelligence) and then getting out on the sly is super rewarding. The turn-based play has little in the way of surprises, and will be familiar to any XCOM fan. You get two actions per character, and can move and do something else, or take a double move; you can also set up your team to execute a series of attacks in one go – so if you want to shoot down a bunch of guards from hidden points, before any of them can raise an alarm, that’s possible. Disguises, cool gadgets, and effective use of the right weapons for each job all come into play, making for some remarkably deep tactical play.

Without risking a fight, you also keep your agents alive, and you’ll need them for various counter-intelligence operations around the globe. These may not play out in the same detail, but there’s this constant sense of needing to balance your team so the right people are in the right place, but also so that you have a pool available for when you need to run an operation yourself. 

There are three campaigns for each of the CIA, KGB, and Mossad, though you have to unlock the latter, and the campaign adds up top around 40 hours of gameplay, we've been told. I only got to play an hour of the game, but I can see myself losing much more time in Phantom Doctrine when it releases later this year.

Hopefully by then the character generator will let me recreate a perfect clone of Lorraine Broughton from Atomic Blonde…

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