With Phantom Doctrine You’ve Got XCOM in the Cold-War Era
Post by KostaAndreadis @ 05:05pm 04/07/18 | Comments
Set in the 1980s, during the later stages of the Cold War - Phantom Doctrine brings the art of espionage to the world of turn-based tactics.
There’s a board-game charm to turn-based tactics, where given enough time to think and plan before each move there’s a sense of being one-step ahead of your opponent. Which makes each mistake feel costlier than say, missing a shot in a high-octane real-time action shooter. When it comes to controlling a small group of people and using the terrain to your advantage, the name that is forever associated with the genre is XCOM. The futuristic sci-fi alien invasion thriller where turn-based tactics meets cinematic storytelling in a complete and critically acclaimed package.
Phantom Doctrine from indie studio CreativeForge Games and publisher Good Shepherd could be summarised as XCOM meets the Cold War. Lazy sure, and kind of the focus of the headline too. Taking it one step further you could probably add a dose of No One Lives Forever to the comparison with its spy thriller storyline and sometimes campy and fun presentation. Although from a relatively small studio compared to XCOM developer Firaxis Games, the size and scope of Phantom Doctrine – in the demo we got to play – was quite overwhelming. In a good way.
With the final game promising a rich, multi-layered campaign with dozens of hours of missions. Outside of the solid and fun stealth and tactical-driven missions everything comes together with a focus on spy-craft. Sifting through intel to find connections, sending operatives all over the world, watching missions and briefings come together through an intuitive investigation system. Letting wounds heal, selecting the right person for the job, decking out for a stealth approach, and so on. With the Cold War setting and a focus on re-interpreting real-word events involving the CIA and KGB, it doesn’t take long for Phantom Doctrine to move well beyond simple comparisons to both look and feel like its own thing.
By taking control of individual spies working in the shadows, for and against government agencies, and outside of the laws that govern everyday civility, the Cold War might just be the perfect setting for a tactical game of this nature. At its core, spy-craft and espionage are intricate and often convoluted games played by government agencies outside of the scope and visibility of a country’s politicians. Getting to run your own spy headquarters and pick and choose how to decipher intel and how best to approach a mission feels authentic, even though the story being told feels like a blend of classic and purely fictional spy thrillers from the world of movies that focused on shady organisations with a dash of realistic geopolitical events.
Developer CreativeForge Games, made up of newcomers and industry veterans from studios like Techland and Flying Wild Hogs, clearly knows its history. Which can be felt in all the little details peppered throughout each location – from the era accurate weapons to the fashion, furniture, and even codename-heavy dialogue. Hailing from Poland, Phantom Doctrine also adds fuel to the fitting conspiracy theory, one that we just thought up, that involves someone or some agency putting something in the water over there. A formula of super-secret chemicals that forces Polish development studios to create exceptional looking games across a wide range of genres.
Whilst playing through a mission and using sound to distract a guard and then a nearby window to make a quick getaway, came the revelation that in the final game - even with side-missions – maps will be different for each player and playthrough. And that the team is aiming to ensure that locations will never show up twice over the lengthy campaign. Names and places will change, guard locations, and more. The sense of being a global spy, which is to be forever on your toes peering into the unknown, extends to little details like variety that comes from multiple playthroughs. Which is another commendable little detail in and of itself.
One aspect though that clearly adds weight to Phantom Doctrine’s ambitions and clever design is the ability to play as either the CIA or the KGB, where political lines aren’t so much drawn but service a story written to highlight the clandestine nature of the Cold War and the messy business of double agents, trust, and working in the shadows without a cowl.
Set in the 1980s, during the later stages of the Cold War, history buffs know the era well for just how messy things got. Which will be reflected in mechanical aspects like skill acquisition through torture, and PSYOP abilities like brainwashing. Although mostly serious in tone, Phantom Doctrine is by no means a simulation in its approach. Again, there’s a cinematic side that keeps it all entertaining. And if the final product lives up to the small slice of espionage we got to see, then this is one to look out for when it launches sometime later this winter for PC, PS4, and Xbox One.