After days of radio silence, one of my best agents has returned to base – a glorified car park under Vladivostok. Don’t get me wrong, I’m delighted. The last time I saw Indigo she was bleeding out onto Soviet concrete as I hopped into the back of a waiting RAF-2203 Latvija. The question is whether that turn of events damaged the employer-employee trust at all. Has she shown up with a single hit point as a result of a dramatic escape from her captors, or because said captors have roughed her up to reduce suspicion around their new double agent?
There’s already enough unease in the smoky corridors of The Cabal – our independent spy operation. Only last week, agent Empire tracked down the torturer responsible for holding her in a Turkish military prison for a decade. I couldn’t afford to hire a hitman, so let her head off to exact a more personal form of revenge. Days later, the Turkish media ran a story about the massacre of a jailer and his family. When Empire returned, the game informed me she was now ‘loyal’. I suppose this should be reassuring – but if she’s loyal now, what was she before?
These are Phantom Doctrine’s standout moments: the times when it feels like a proper ‘80s espionage thriller. At others, it feels like XCOM 2 on a counterfeit passport.
A typical tactical mission in Phantom Doctrine begins with a handful of agents infiltrating a tiled map. In among this network of multi-level buildings and patrolling guards is something they intend to take: a classified document on a desk, an informer in a cramped cell, or the life of an enemy agent. Over the course of a number of turns, you guide them to this goal, disabling security cameras and bopping bobbies on the head as you go. Often the act of fulfilling your objective will alert your opponents, and combat initiates as you steer your team to the evac point. The longer you stay hidden behind cover to take potshots at your enemies, the greater the risk of reinforcements will turn up – that, or the rumbling engine of the evac van will compromise the anonymity of your base.
It’s a tightly-designed structure that grants every mission a challenging shape and consistent tension. And it would be a radical rework of the XCOM formula that deserves celebration if not for the fact that Firaxis had already brought about this reinvention two years earlier.
There is a lot about Phantom Doctrine that deserves to be celebrated. CreativeForge Games, the developer behind the similarly XCOM-adjacent Hard West, has absolutely nailed the atmosphere of Cold War genre fiction. The main menu is a work of art, depicting a poorly-lit basement office where redacted documents sit under the glow of desk lamps. Soviet propaganda posters cling to exposed brickwork, and the emergency broadcast message of a tiny television is partially obscured by the smoulder of a recently used ashtray. That distinctive cigarette smell of analogue-era spydom seeps directly into the design of your home base, and the game as whole – which is set to a discordant jazz soundtrack, because what else?
In character creation I created my own Georgina Smiley, an old-fashioned spy with an air of anti-charisma as thick as her rimmed glasses. I could have chosen to make her a member of the CIA, but instead plumped for a highly-decorated KGB officer, granting me a strategic map view over the USSR and a campaign story to match.
It’s on this map that you manage your espionage network, sending individual agents to monitor suspicious activity across the country. Whenever you press play, you’re dealing with the uncomfortable knowledge that, somewhere under your nose, enemy agents are working to undermine you. Your aim is to uncover their operations and counter-spy on them. The sooner you cotton on, the more options you have for surveillance and planning before launching into a tactical mission. These sequences might be analogous to XCOM 2’s Guerilla Ops, but also provide some of Phantom Doctrine’s best touches: the off-map spotter who lifts the fog of war on one side of the map, for instance, or the single agent you can field in disguise.
There’s a unique thrill to kitting out a trained killer in office wear and having them potter between the guards, slipping into forbidden areas to disable the cameras. In fact, while XCOM 2 built a full-fledged stealth system but eventually expected you to leave it via discovery or ambush, Phantom Doctrine deserves credit for letting you lean on those systems indefinitely. The most satisfying missions are those where you get in and out without raising any alarms at all, and the game rewards you appropriately.
Phantom Doctrine is full of pleasant touches, if not enough fundamental change. There’s the simple takedown mechanic that lets you put anybody to sleep instantly, so long as you’re stealthed and have higher HP. The breach orders for when you need to drop the occupants of a room simultaneously. And enemy air strikes in the moments when stealth is but a distant memory, forcing you to keep away from the windows.
CreativeForge’s take on aiming is less successful, ditching the famous percentage chance that’s the source of so much of XCOM’s tension. Instead, damage is reduced to survivable levels by cover, armour, or dodging. That takes away the frustration of a miss, but means you spend the closing moments of many missions watching your heroes getting chipped away at from all sides, like Greek statues in the making.
I’m not sold on damage’s relationship to a stat called awareness, either. Dramatic acts like takedowns use up an agent’s awareness, which is restored gradually over time or in larger doses by special abilities. When it’s low, you’ll take far more damage – which in practice means you’re punished for bold moves with an agent full of holes in the subsequent enemy turn.
That’s especially frustrating when occasional bugs can change the course of a mission – like the policeman who shot directly through a wide staircase to incapacitate Ms Smiley. At least comic relief came a turn later, when the agent carrying Smiley’s body walked slowly through a plate glass window, smashing it to pieces. Using the door next to it would have lost us a tile of movement, I suppose.
Most disappointing is the mechanic that promised to be Phantom Doctrine’s one wholly unique element: the cork board. For a contemporary reference point, think the Always Sunny in Philadelphia meme – a series of implausible connections tied together by string. This is where the intel nabbed during missions, obtained through informers, or revealed by investigation back at base, ends up. Once the action dies down it’s up to you to dig through the files, scan documents for names that scream ‘codeword’, and then link those words up with other places they appear on the board.
While thematically fun, these puzzles are so unchallenging as to feel like busywork – so long as you can recognise a noun, you’re an expert analyst capable of bringing down Jason Bourne. The contents of those documents are a missed opportunity for storytelling, too – instead filled for the most part with spy-like gobbledegook, mere background noise to the nouns.
It’s concerning that Phantom Doctrine’s main plotline, the one you’re often working to progress, is sometimes indistinguishable from that gobbledegook. One story sequence, the result of much spent string and many lives risked, ended in my being promoted to the head of an independent, above-top-secret espionage agency. Which, well, hadn’t I been that for the previous ten hours? Like so many of the Hollywood spy thrillers it emulates, the story of Phantom Doctrine comes off as convoluted nonsense. The problem is that it asks you to work so hard for it.
As the rain beats down on Soviet streets and the van speeds in for yet another evac, it’s hard not to enjoy Phantom Doctrine. It’s an often impressive example of the reborn turn-based tactics genre, built with an intimate understanding of how the layers of its inspiration interplay and an eye for areas where the formula can be tweaked.
Phantom Doctrine review
You might well find the evocative, smoke-damaged backdrop of ‘80s espionage fresh enough to carry you through a satisfying playthrough. But even with the plates changed and the serial number filed off, there’s no mistaking XCOM 2.