XCOM-like tactical espionage thriller Phantom Doctrine was my Gamescom highlight

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At first glance, Phantom Doctrine [Steam page] looks an awful lot like a Cold War flavoured XCOM. That’s quite an exciting prospect and the closer I looked, the more exciting it became. There are agents instead of aliens, and some novel infiltration and reconnaissance systems, but everything from the UI to the cover system is immediately familiar. The tactical missions are hiding unexpected twists though, and zooming out to the campaign map shows that the setting informs every aspect of the game.

It’s early days, and there’s a lot of work to be done, but Phantom Doctrine might well be one of 2018’s strategy highlights.

XCOM is the first reference point that comes to mind but many others follow, prime among them Covert Action, an early Sid Meier game that tackled a similar setting. Phantom Doctrine divides your time between a world map, where strategic decisions and team-building take place, and hand-crafted tactical environments where missions play out. Both layers have plenty of qualities and rules that make them more than Cold War reskins of existing games, but rather than digging into every feature, I’m going to focus on the ones that really stand out.

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Let’s start with the strategic map. You’re the head of an agency caught in the middle of a big ol’ conspiracy. You’ll always be outnumbered and outgunned so you’ll need to use intelligence to improve the odds. That’s intelligence in both the espionage sense and the actual brain-thinking sense. You need the latter, in varying degrees, whenever you pick up a strategy game, but the former is rarely used.

In Phantom Doctrine, enemy agents and cells move around the world map and one of your main objectives is to figure out where they’re going and what they’re planning to do when they get there. To this end, you can spend a sort of intelligence currency, gained during missions, to do clever things like planting tracking devices on captured agents.

Let them back out into the wild and you can follow them back to their HQ and from there you can observe that HQ and prepare for an assault. Or maybe you’ll infiltrate by planting one of your agents on the inside as an employee, undercover. Then, when you trigger a mission in the location, you’ll be able to control that insider and either have them silently assassinate their former co-workers and guards, or disable cameras and other security devices.

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Or maybe you’ll use a Manchurian drill on a captured agent. In that case, once they’re released you can push a button at any time to take direct control of them. That degree of brainwashing is a costly affair but comes with obvious benefits; you could sabotage defenses during a mission by bodysnatching an opponent, or could flip the asset (INFO WAR EUPHEMISM AHOY) while it’s on-site at an embassy or agency HQ, using it to gather information and to help plot an infiltration from the inside.

Tucked alongside the campaign map, where all of the mission and agent tracking takes place, there’s a wall that you can pin all of your leads onto. It immediately reminded me of that one scene in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia when Charlie is chasing conspiracies.

You’ll have your own Pepe Silvia before long, and a whole bunch of other names and places. As you interrogate captives or find dossiers during missions, you’ll get more info to pin to the wall, and as codenames and references appear, you can link them together until you have enough connections to discover a new location or person out in the world. That leads to new potential missions and other opportunities.

It’s easy to see a satisfying core loop of intelligence gathering backed up by missions that are either stealth or combat focused, depending on your approach and the reality on the ground. I should make it clear, I haven’t seen the campaign working in all its dynamic glory. All of the individual components are in place, but given the limited time available and the fact I was mainly meeting up to view a demo of a tactical mission, I didn’t see agent movement and interactions.

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But I did see body engineering and chemical enhancements – “think of Ivan Drago’s training regime”- and those conspiracy boards, and agent training and recruitment, as well as the map at the centre of everything. It’s an exciting prospect, a game packed with moving parts all tied beautifully to that cold war espionage theme.

The most solid part of the whole puzzle so far is the tactical combat though, and that’s potentially the least interesting ingredient. At first it looks like an XCOM reskin, with a UI just about similar enough to trick my brain into looking for sectoids in the shadowy corners of the embassy our agency is raiding.

As the mission unfolds, unique elements become clear though and, again, they fit the theme perfectly. You can have agents off-map, for instance, working as snipers or spotters. That gives you better visibility or the ability to pick off enemies from afar. And maybe you do have somebody on the inside, standing by a photocopier and trying to look innocent. As your team sneak through the building, you can have Mr Xerox slip away from his colleagues to turn off all the security cameras.

The embassy guards won’t see you coming, or leaving if everything goes to plan.

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Or you can bring some hardware and shoot your way through. There’s no RNG for firefights – you shoot, you generally wound or kill. Characters do have a composure rating that allows them to dodge shots provided there’s enough distance between them and the target. They’re not doing a Neo and literally bending their body between bullets – it’s more a case of ducking behind cover for a moment – but the composure acts like an armour stat, draining as agents are targeted. Once it’s gone, damage goes straight to the body and it doesn’t take many bullets to drop a person for good. We are not made to absorb bullets like some sort of bullet sponge.

Worse than the terrifying mortality and fragility of your recruits is the fact that the enemy will almost certainly bring bigger guns to the fight than you can. A helicopter started launching rockets at our embassy crew, though they did manage to call in an escape vehicle and get out of harm’s way.

I could write so much more about why Phantom Doctrine nestled into my brain so comfortably. It’s from the team that made Hard West and it’s a far more ambitious game, building on the tactical framework of its predecessor. The setting is less imaginative, but more appealing to me, and the game looks like an exquisite marriage of setting, mechanics and theme.

Three Days of the Condor and The Manchurian Candidate reimagined as components in a complex strrategy game. I didn’t realise how much I wanted to play it until I saw that it existed and now, I’ll be following its development as closely as anything else out there.

25 Comments

  1. Drib says:

    Well damn. This looks like something that could be excellent.

    Here’s hoping the writing works out, and the conspiracy isn’t too stupid or too complex.

    Certainly worth keeping an eye on. Looks like a lot of fun.

  2. Archangel says:

    Excellent! I love the idea of XCOM, but can’t stand the setting. This looks to be a much more exciting prospect, and a much, MUCH more sensible theme for the overworld/tactical gameplay. Best of luck to the developers.

    • Canadave says:

      I want to like XCOM, but it always bothers me that the world’s last line of defence consists of a dozen soldiers, two fighter jets and a satellite. You’d think someone out there could spring for at least a few more resources, wouldn’t you?

      Anyway, I agree that this sounds like a much better justification for having a small and limited team, similar to Invisible Inc, but with more combat options.

  3. Metalfish says:

    Ooo, it’s a brave little game that slips into the waters prowled by Invisible Inc and XCOM. Sounds promising. Seriously, do go and play invisible inc: it’s veeeeeeery good.

    • Rituro says:

      Invisible, Inc. is a great shout. Phantom Doctrine comes across as a “srs bsns” version of II, maybe the Xenonauts to II’s XCOM? Consider me intrigued.

    • Wormerine says:

      Ha! I was about to mention Inv. Inc. (the best stealth game since Thief2!) It looks to me like an Inv. Inc. Grand Strategy game which… is very very good. Between this and Phoenix Point I hope something really really good will come out. I do enjoy Firaxis’ XCOM but it is a bit to binary and constrained for my taste.

  4. cpt_freakout says:

    Hard West was a very interesting game, even if it sometimes felt barebones and the map part was super basic. These guys have some very good ideas that would probably be golden with a bigger budget, which Phantom Doctrine looks like it has.

  5. TheDandyGiraffe says:

    Hard West always felt to me like an indie project from 10 years ago – the ideas were brilliant, but it was simply buggy as hell, and I’m pretty sure they didn’t do any real playtests or anything. It was basically a whole stockpile of interesting concepts left in a completely unfinished shape; but at the same time, the writing, the atmosphere, and the core combat mechanics werejust all so satisfying. It just felt good. These guys know how to make the games that are *fun* in this old-school sense of playing something unique and genuinely interesting, so yeah – give them a budget, buff up the production values and we might just have a gem here.

    • Spider Jerusalem says:

      Was thinking the same. Hard West had some of the best moment-to-moment tactical combat in recent memory, but it just all didn’t quite hold together. Looking forward to this one, though.

      • Premium User Badge

        teije says:

        Yes good points on it both – I enjoyed Hard West quite a bit despite its many rough edges. I like a developer that isn’t afraid to try something ambitious, looking forward to see what they do on this one.

  6. Flopper says:

    I want a Jagged Alliance reboot that’s actually good. Jagged Alliance 2 is still one of my favorite games to this day.

  7. Vilos Cohaagen says:

    Oooooooh yes. Yes, I like the sound of this very much. Totally my kind of thing.

  8. nottorp says:

    Do they have a fetish for arbitrary turn timers, like XCom 2, or do they let you actually play the game at your own pace?

      • nottorp says:

        Why? Since XCom 2 is unplayable for me (and I’ve tried it during the free weekend), I need something else to get my tactics fix. This is a genuine question to see if i should follow the game or not.

        If you like XC2, good for you. I can’t. I tried.

        • atticus says:

          I dislike the timed missions as well, but the new expansion “War of the Chosen” gives you the option to double all mission timers (and slow the progress of the Avatar-project too, if you’d like a less stressful campaign).

          • lordcooper says:

            Also you can mod the timers out entirely if you’re the kind of person who needs 200 turns a mission.

          • Josh W says:

            Yeah, I’ve found it most satisfying to use the mod that means timers don’t kick in until concealment is blown, which means you firstly get a few more rounds of fighting post dropping concealment, (the two or so turns they were expecting you to use during that concealment) which loosens the screws just enough to play more intelligently, but also, you get a whole initial section to scout, if you can move carefully enough and mind your sightlines and civilians to get information without being caught out of position.

            You still feel you have to rush, especially when something goes wrong, but not so much that the game is completely drained of potential for experimentation.

  9. Shadow says:

    Phantom Doctrine divides your time between a world map, where strategic decisions and team-building take place, and hand-crafted tactical environments where missions play out.

    Can’t help but take that for what it means: a limited set of fixed maps. Are we talking the first XCOM, with a fixed map pool yet a dynamic campaign, or Hard West, an entirely fixed string of missions with only very light non-linear elements (squad management)? Two degrees of replayability impairment compared to the full dynamism of, say, XCOM 2 and Invisible Inc.

  10. Premium User Badge

    Herring says:

    This looks great.

    I know it’s not described as such, but if someone pitched “XCOM crossed with Alpha Protocol” to me I’d probably give them MONEY.

    Not a bit of money, or a lot of money.

    MONEY.

  11. beleester says:

    Oh my goodness, I’ve wanted a new Covert Action for ages.

    At least, I hope this is a Covert Action. Something with procedurally-generated capers and crooks for you to chase, something that has the same feeling where you’re like “I know the Haitian Junta is involved, and I know they’re active in Rio, but where the hell is their safehouse?“. A game where you’re not just trying to kick in the door and shoot bad guys, you’re trying to plant bugs and gather evidence so you know which doors need kicking.

    • ElCubanator says:

      Same here. I started reading this article when I read XCOM in the title but I got REALLY excited when I read it compares at all to Covert Action!

  12. upupup says:

    It’ll also be coming out on GoG.

    Looks good! There’s always room for more X-Com-ish strategy games.

  13. NickM says:

    I love the idea of these games and played lots of the more recent XCOM (1 not 2) but I am shit at them and find them a bit frustrating – I bounced of Inv. Inc pretty hard, same with XCOM2 and finding the same now with Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun. I’m just not very good and find the learning curve pretty tough… Is this just me? If so, any help appreciated!

  14. Josh W says:

    I was just thinking about how nice it would be to play a game that uses depleting luck rather than accuracy the other day, so I’ll be very interested in playing this. Assuming it’s good. I hope they can put out some kind of demo.

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