screenshots courtesy of CreativeForge

The Spy Games of 'Phantom Doctrine' Offer More Style Than Substance

It looks and sounds like exactly what you'd want from an spy tactics game, but good ideas don't make for a great game.

Aug 23 2018, 9:34pm

screenshots courtesy of CreativeForge

A friend asked me whether he should get Phantom Doctrine. I didn’t really have an answer, so I asked him, “Do you want a cool game, or a good one?” Phantom Doctrine is frequently the former but, despite a lot of waiting and hoping as I played the campaign, it never quite manages to put the pieces together long enough to become the latter. And the longer I played, across 20 hours and three long chapters, the less cool it began to seem the same beats repeated over and over again, with little evolution or variation.

Phantom Doctrine is a Cold War espionage-themed stealth tactics game, though most of what you’ll be doing is far more Mission: Impossible than Tinker Tailor or Spy Game. An intelligence officer who discovers something rotten in their own government, your character becomes the head of a rogue spy operation doing battle against a global conspiracy called the Beholder Initiative.

It certainly feels like the world of a John le Carré or Frederick Forsyth: Rain forever pours down across seedy alleys and streets around office parks and military bases in some Cold War battleground. An informer awaits execution in a squalid interrogation room while, outside, a deadly group of men and women draw closer, machine pistols tucked under their coats. And when the mission is over, you exfiltrate via an unmarked van driven by a somehow even more unmarked operator.

This look and feel extends to the game's strategic layer, too. The secrets behind the conspiracy are revealed piecemeal across stolen memos and and reconnaissance photos, the connections marked by pieces of twine on maze-lake corkboard collages that give the appearance of order to a largely incoherent plot. A map of the northern hemisphere becomes your chessboard as agents take the dawn flight to Riga or Vienna to engage in plot and counter-plot. Phantom Doctrine’s greatest success is its consistently seductive aesthetic.

That is also its only unqualified success. For all its atmosphere and style, Phantom Doctrine becomes a wearying grind. There is too much repetition in its mission structure and tactics, and too much stinginess with the new upgrades, abilities, and equipment that make the idea of spycraft so alluring. The better I understood Phantom Doctrine and its oddities, the less interesting I found it.

As you wage your shadow war across the globe, the strategic map highlights cities where there has been some kind of suspicious activity, and you’ll dispatch agents to investigate. Sometimes it’s nothing, but sometimes it’s an informer on the run from assassins who holds crucial information about the conspiracy, or it’s a regional headquarters for your rival, the Beholder organization. If you have the time and the agents, you can do some prep work to provide extra benefits and bonuses for the tactical mission: Setting-up snipers and spotters to help from off-map, or slipping disguised agents in among the enemy’s ranks. If not, you have to go in with nothing but what your agents can carry.

Either way, most every tactical mission unfolds in two phases. The first phase is stealth, the second is combat. In the stealth phase, your agents will try and maneuver closer and closer to their objective without getting spotted, while stealing bits of loot scattered around the map in addition to disabling things like security cameras as laser fencing. But they will be exposed if one of the enemy’s own intelligence operatives catches sight of them, or if they are seen in an restricted area. Disguised agents can break this latter rule, which is why having lead-time on operations is so useful. If you can get an undercover agent into place, they can basically disable all the security and recon the entire map before any fighting begins.

But any utility that undercover scouting provides is countered by one of the first major problems with Phantom Doctrine: This stealth phase is kind of boring. The enemy defenses aren’t particularly clever or interesting. Penetrating them basically amounts to hovering around windows and doorways, waiting for the guards to wander off so you can just smash-and-grab whatever it is that you need. There’s no sense of escalating pressure or suspicion like in Invisible Inc., where the longer you spent on a mission meant that corporate pushback from security would get more intense and severe.

There’s a hint of that kind of urgency, like when you knock-out too many guards and get a warning that the enemy is alerted, and will start destroying classified material to keep it from falling into you hands. But their higher alert state seems mostly ineffective. AI patrols don’t seem to get much more aggressive, nor do its guards or agents show much interesting in actually guarding and destroying their loot stashes. Even with the enemy supposedly alerted, I felt like I had all the time in the world to go about my spy business.

Phantom Doctrine starts to crumble from the absence of a in-between state bridging “tactical stealth” and “tactical combat”. I am sympathetic to how difficult it would be to make a game that successfully channels the profound, soul-crushing ambiguity that defines great spy stories. Invisible Inc. doesn’t have anything between stealth and detection, either, it merely has the external pressure of a clock that drastically increases the odds of your detection to the point of inevitable certainty. Phantom Doctrine feels its two halves never really interact with each other, and so there's none of the tension of a near-miss, no chance to kill witnesses before they can sound the alarm.

This is why stealth games are many and spy games are few: Fundamentally, espionage fiction is about the blending of truth and lie, the inevitability of suspicion against the impossibility of certainty. A genre where the story’s actors are pointedly trying to make it seem as if nothing is amiss, its themes are psychological more than practical, no matter how much we might love the heist-movie dramatics of Ethan Hunt breaking into yet another secure facility in Mission Impossible, or the mounting tension as Jason Bourne carries out his strike on a CIA safe house.

But lacking anything between simplistic stealth and infantry combat, Phantom Doctrine slowly loses its suspense and tension. Nobody ever comes to investigate anything, the facility never goes into lockdown, the guards never activate the floodlights an start patrolling the perimeter. Unless somebody literally sees one of your agents hanging out in a secure room, or choking the life out of a guard behind dumpster, you’ll be perfectly safe under a blanket of impenetrable stealth until the moment you decide to go loud.

At first, “going loud” is surprisingly satisfying. Your team of agents are categorically the most badass characters on the map. They have an “awareness” resource that they can use for special attacks or, perhaps more importantly, to avoid attacks by other characters. So unless your characters come under sustained attack, they can probably shrug-off a lot of incoming fire. Meanwhile, they will take out guards right and left. If you’re careful, it feels like your spies are a group of apex predators set loose on a sheepfold.

But you have to be very careful because there are some oddities to Phantom Doctrine’s tactical system. The first and most important is that every attack hits in Phantom Doctrine. There is no to-hit chance, there is only the question of whether it will hit for the weapon’s full damage or half-damage, and whether that damage will be mitigated or increased by cover or other conditions. And exposed, unaware enemy caught in the flank by an agent with an SMG might suffer a lethal 88 points of damage (the lowliest guards have just 35 HP and most agents have between 80 and 100). That same enemy in full cover, with full situational awareness, will suffer a small fraction of that damage.

It’s what makes your team able to be to lethally effective in a firefight, but also allows the enemy guards to pose a credible danger once they get numbers on their side and start closing in on your cornered agents. But it also interacts in some surprising and upsetting ways with the unparseable line-of-sight calculations that govern Phantom Doctrine.

It’s not that the rules themselves are hard to understand once they’re explained to you. It’s that their effects are incredibly hard to predict and apply to what you’re seeing on your screen. I lost count of the times I watched one of my spies get picked-off from an impossible angle by an enemy soldier who doesn’t seem like they should even have eyes on you. Because remember, they can’t miss even the trickiest shots! Whatever the reasons behind the system and why it makes sense—and it’s helpful but revealing that developer CreativeForge posted a detailed breakdown of their LOS rules—it fundamentally never feels readable in the way that two XCOM games have now conditioned us to expect.

Even setting that aside, the enemies don’t pose much of an obstacle once you’ve learned the oddities of this system. They don’t employ effective group tactics, instead fighting as individuals who take the closest advantageous position possible and open fire from there. Sometimes that catches you out, but for the most part it makes even the largest enemy forces into cannon fodder who who will walk into your guns again and again. Enemy agents—the counterparts to your own operatives—are only slightly more formidable, but mainly because of their extra awareness and hitpoints. They do not seem to use the same tools that your own agents employ against them.

It took me a long time to figure out where I stood with Phantom Doctrine. It was a world I liked spending time in, and with its incredibly slow-burning plot, it always felt like something exciting was lurking just around the corner.

But after a series of ostensibly high-stakes missions turned into dull processionals through waves of ineffectual enemies—even an enemy attack helicopter proved to be little more than an annoyance—I realized it had been hours since anything genuinely suspenseful or novel had happened. None of my agents ever turned against me, even though there were clearly systems in place to support that kind of plot twister. I never used my MK ULTRA facility to brainwash enemy agents, and frankly abducting them was way more trouble than it was worth. My team never solved any tricky problems using a combination of their special abilities and off-map support units, instead they mostly just waited until someone's back was turned and then got on with the mission. Simple, effective... and disappointing compared to the way I hoped these missions would feel.

Phantom Doctrine always seemed like it might start getting good, but it never quite found the intensity and drama that it needed. The threads of the central mystery led ever onward through a thicket of procedural and scripted missions, but the path they traced was a disappointing circle.