It seems like we are in the middle of a revival for the tactical gaming genre at the moment, with Space Hulk Tactics, Achtung! Cthulu Tactics and this game, Phantom Doctrine all arriving within weeks of one another. Coming from CreativeForge Games, Phantom Doctrine revisits the Cold War era to relive some of the paranoia and tension that was around in the 1980s, as relationships between the East and the West seemed to be worsening.
The story follows a shadowy rogue cell codenamed Cabal, and their mission to stop people trying to make things worse between the squabbling superpowers, in order to profit from the tensions. In true Cold War spy thriller fashion, the story unravels slowly, each mission uncovering more of the various plots that are underway. Phantom Doctrine puts me in mind most of XCOM, with a similar feel to the story, and a similar feeling of great forces moving against you behind the scenes. It is a testament to the quality of the writing on display here that even without the hook of alien lifeforms, the story is very compelling and really sucks you in, seeing you caring about the fate of your agents.
The gameplay here is very much in the vein of other tactical games, with the now familiar isometric viewpoint and variety of actions that can be performed at the cost of Action Points (AP) in the mission screen, with the addition of managing your team on a global map. After the tutorial and first mission, your headquarters becomes available, where you can recruit and train new operatives and add them to your roster. You can dispatch operatives to various locations around the world, to try and gather information pertinent to the mission. This runs the risk of their cover being blown, which then increases the risk to the agent if you still keep sending them out into the murky world of undercover operations. As information is gathered, the available missions begin to narrow down to a point, with fewer and fewer options being available to your team until they are forced to deploy into a more traditional type of mission where you have direct control of the team and their actions.
Deploying into a mission with your chosen team is where Phantom Doctrine comes alive. With the best will in the world, looking at a map of the world and sending people off, then waiting for them to come back does not an exciting mini-game make. Getting into the real world, getting your hands dirty and so on is where things begin to come alive, with real risks and strategy needed to prevail. You will begin in a staging area, with a set of objectives to fulfil, and how you go about that is entirely down to you. Do you wander in like a ninja, staying out of sight and exfiltrating as silently as you came? Or do you march in like Death incarnate, all guns blazing and lay waste to your enemies? Top tip: try the first one!
The enemies are reinforced at regular intervals if you trigger an alarm, and I’ve never managed to be in a position to kill all the enemies and be able to stroll around the map with abandon. And you really do need eyes in the back of your head if you are to stay covert, as civilian NPCs can blow your cover, there are cameras to take into account, and if you don’t have line of sight to a part of the map, you will have no idea what is in that section. This is a risk when you come to closed doors; will it open onto an empty hallway or a room full of bad guys? Usually there is only one way to find out!
Planning plays a huge part in your ultimate success and failure in Phantom Doctrine, as it does in all strategy games. Take the security cameras, for instance – you can either avoid them by staying out of their view, shoot them if you don’t mind the mission going loud, or find the box that controls the system and disable them. Each way has its unique advantages and disadvantages. Shooting the camera, while seemingly the simplest way of dealing with them, runs the risk of the shot being heard and the entire base placed on alert. And this is one facet of the security on the levels. Enemies, civilians, locked doors… they all need to be dealt with for the mission to be achieved.
The difficulty here is on the realistic side of hard. Getting shot does seriously impact your agents, and within seconds one false move can ruin your entire day. Slow, methodical gameplay is rewarded here, covering your angles, making sure that no-one is left exposed to being seen. Luckily, as there are none of the bells and alien whistles of XCOM to worry about, the actual game is much simpler. In fact, as long as you take care, it is possible to breeze through the levels like a silent ghost, picking up the many optional collectables in the levels.
These collectible documents add to the back story, fleshing out the characters and putting meat on the bone of the narrative. If there is a problem with the gameplay though, and it’s a minor one, it’s that because the Phantom Doctrine is so hard, forcing you to constantly take care, it suffers in comparison with faster paced games, like Space Hulk Tactics. I’ve never managed to shoot my way out of a level after having my cover blown, so there’s really only way to approach the game as whole. For some people, I fear that as a whole may come across as a touch po-faced, and a bit too serious for its own good.
In conclusion though, if you are in the market for a super detailed, super hard strategy game, look no further. With a gripping cold war storyline up there with classic spy novels, Phantom Doctrine is a worthy game. If you’re not quite that hardcore, then possibly one of the faster paced games may be more to your liking.