The premise of Phantom: Covert Ops
is somewhat silly, you’re an elite covert operative infiltrating a military base in Russia in the early part of the 1990s. Attempting to sneak in to discover just what an ex-Soviet rogue player is up to, you soon discover that a threat is not only credible but imminent -- weapons of horrific consequence about to be unleashed on the world. So, you’ve got no choice but to push in further and put a stop to it all – without being seen. What’s so silly about that, you might be asking?
Well, all the above is carried out on a tactical kayak where the Phantom in question, you, pushes in via paddle to carry out all manner of tactical incursionary objectives without ever standing up. Or leaving a body of water to stretch those covert legs. As the saying goes -- there’s always a canal or an inlet or a fjord
. In the case of Phantom Covert Ops’ water-bound facility, reeds are everywhere offering cover and no room or installation is safe from poorly lit waterways.
With Phantom Covert Ops, developer nDreams
plays it straight, with a tone and setup reminiscent of a Call of Duty
campaign. Cinematic with great performances, including a turn by the voice of Solid Snake himself as the big bad. Though David Hayter's barely recognisable thanks to a thick fog in the form of a gruff Russian accent. What makes it all work so well is this serious approach, never really addressing why Phantom works only “on kayak”, and the fact that it has been built from the ground-up and designed specifically for Oculus Rift and
the PC-free Oculus Quest
-- with Oculus Touch controllers.
“What makes it all work so well is this serious approach, never really addressing why Phantom works only on kayak."
Impressive 1:1 movement and comfort that lets your chair-bound body become fully immersed in the world presented and the task at hand. Using the Touch grips to pick up your paddle and slowly turn and move through water is integral to not only the objective at hand, but to the format and platform Phantom Covert Ops makes its debut on. After a few moments in the world as the Phantom, the kayak begins to make perfect sense as the ultimate covert tool. In the immortal words of Jasper, “that’s a paddlin’
The appeal of VR is well-known, put on some future-goggles and you get to go inside and experience interactive digital worlds first-hand, man. The simple act of looking around and taking in your surroundings, in Virtual Reality, is unlike anything else. Immediate sensory immersion, that now thanks to interfaces like the Oculus Touch controllers, there’s a new dimension. The benefit is almost unquantifiable, being able to pick-up your binocs with one hand to survey any threats whilst picking up a silenced pistol in another to maybe cause a distraction by shooting a nearby boombox is incredible because it all works.
Trying to resist paddling up all slow-like to get the perfect head-shot without being seen is so strong, I replayed the first mission doing nothing but that over and over, just to get it out of my system.
Closing one eye to aim down the scope of a rifle, awesome. Lining up that perfect headshot on a high-value target at a distance, very cool. Grabbing more ammo from your kayak’s handy mini ammo shelf when your pistol runs dry. Throwing a sonic distraction grenade thingy to get that flashlight out of the way for a quick escape. Gadget-riffic. A timed sticky bomb thrown on some key cargo you need to destroy (naturally it’s on a boat) that has you then quickly paddlin' to a safe distance. Boat style.
The kayak stuff is all wonderful and nuanced -- turn faster by leaning, strafe a little by pushing off a nearby wall. And in terms of VR comfort the fact that you're sitting down in and outside of the game works wonders for playing an hour or so without any real discomfort.
One of the unintended, or intended, bits of pure VR gold is the fact that sitting in your kayak puts you at a level lower than most threats – and there’s inherent awe in that. Looking up even at a slight angle to see a nearby patrol guard whistle or gliding under a walkway to then hear and see footsteps above you – these are moments executed brilliantly in Phantom Covert Ops. Thanks to the wonderful positional sound design and the detailed lighting, it all feels like next-level stealth; even though the mechanics are tried and true for the genre.
“Closing one eye to aim down the scope of a rifle, awesome. Lining up that perfect headshot on a high-value target at a distance, very cool."
After the first few campaign missions I was reminded of pure stealth runs in GoldenEye 007
on the Nintendo 64
and taking to rooftops in Thief
powered PC. Of course, Metal Gear Solid
too. In other words that feeling of something old is new again. The structure is classic to a fault, seven campaign missions each averaging about an hour in length with a score given that deducts points for failure, getting spotted, not using the environment, or relying on too many lethal takedowns. Enemy movements are pattern-based and in the traditional sense this is charting a course through a stealth maze -- and one with more than one direction to go.
Plenty of challenge missions and cheats to unlock when you get a B rank or above too, from simple and enjoyable (and tiring) kayak races to target practice to mini stealth puzzles to big head modes and more.
Phantom Covert Ops isn’t a simple VR experiment, proof-of-concept, or a short VR title that’s over before you realise it’s a cool theme park ride - it’s a full, feature-packed game. And a damn good one at that. The missions are varied, the pacing is spot-on and it has all the cinematic tension and thrills of a Mission: Impossible film. Knowing Tom Cruise, he just might decide to film an entire movie as Ethan Hunt on a kayak.
Stealth fans in 2020 have been blessed, locally sourced indie Wildfire
is a systemic blend of stealth goodness presented as an old-school side-scroller, and now Phantom Covert Ops delivers what is without a doubt the definitive VR stealth experience. And that’s not an asterisks bit of marketing fluff, where if you were to separate the source from the presentation the result might be something not all that impressive. The key here is Phantom Covert Ops is pure VR stealth, it couldn’t really exist in any other form. And for that it’s a resounding success.