Since the start of 2016, XCOM2 has held the title of the King of turn based strategy games. Phantom Doctrine is by no means an “XCOM killer” but it does add some new features into the mix and a slightly different take on RNG combat. Here is Tom’s take on the turn based strategy game from CreativeForge Games and Good Shepherd Entertainment.
Phantom Doctrine is a turn based strategy game set in 1983 during the cold war. You play as a spy for the CIA or KGB and are a leader of a secret organization of which you manage. You’ll be sending spies all across the world to collect intel, trail suspects and sabotage rival operations. While you’re doing this, the enemy will be doing the same to you. It’s your job to ensure your team stays safe and not have their cover blown.
When the proverbial turd does hit the fan (and it will) you’ll be thrusted into your classic turn based strategy gameplay, where you’ll take a number of agents into a mission to do a varied number of thing. Saving an informant, eliminate a hitman/enemy agent, sabotage some tech, steal some documents. You know standard spy movie stuff.
Each character you control also has a couple of stats you need to manage each turn. 2 movement points, used for moving; 1 action point, used for (you guessed it) taking actions; and an interesting third one, awareness.
Awareness is part second health bar, part points to be spent on abilities. Each turn your agents can spend their action point and some amount of awareness to take a special action. This could be to deploy a heart beat sensor to detect nearby foes, “take care” of a body that’s out in the open or a whole slew of other abilities agents will unlock as the game progresses. If your agent doesn’t spend any of their awareness, then it is used as a dodge meter.
Unlike in XCOM, where everyone only has a chance to hit each other (cue horrible flashbacks where my team misses all of their 90% chance shots), characters are guaranteed to hit each other as long as they have line of sight (are able to see each other). The key here is to reduce the damage you take down to 0. The more awareness your agent has, the more likely they are to dodge the incoming hail of bullets. There are other ways to reduce damage, taking cover and equipping agents with armour. I’ll admit, I did not like this mechanic to start. I’m used to rolling the dice on each shot and praying to the RNG Gods that it will hit. It takes some getting used to but it eventually grew on me.
One of my favourite gameplay abilities is the “breach” skills. You can have your agents surround a room and burst into it SWAT style, shooting at any enemies within the room. Great for when you need to rescue someone that is surrounded by guards.
Once you’ve completed a mission, you and your agents are taken back to your spy HQ which is broken down into crew quarters, infirmary, workshop, analytics, the world map and my favourite, the investigations board. Let’s get the simple ones out the way first. The crew quarters are for levelling up/up skilling agents, infirmary to heal them. The workshop is for making cool gadgets, analytics to decrypt intel you’ve collected and the world map is effectively the mission select (similar to the map in XCOM). The investigations board is where you truly feel like you’re part of the CIA. You have your stereotypical cork board with an unknown person’s code name slapped in the middle. You then have to go through the intel you’ve collected, picking out names, locations and other clues hidden among them. You then get to link all the documents with matching code names or locations with some red cotton (classic detective style) and you’ll eventually get to the bottom of the mystery. It might be the identity of an enemy agent, which you can then go and hunt down, or the location of an enemy operation which you can attempt to sabotage. The investigation board really adds to the immersion of you being a spy.
Gameplay aside, the story, graphics and audio are nothing to get too excited about. Story wise, it’s your classic spy thriller plot. Trust no one, uncover a government conspiracy and save the world without the public knowing. As far as sound goes, guns sound like guns, explosions sound like explosions and the agent’s voice actors all sound like they are bored out of their minds. At least the game’s soundtrack makes it sound like some espionage is afoot.
Visually everything looks like it’s meant to. Cold, dreary and drab. Building walls and floors will phase out when you rotate the camera to look into them (assuming one of your agents can see in) so you can plan each of your moves carefully. The way that everything looks and feels is scarily similar to XCOM2, even your spy HQ has the same rooms as XCOM’s Avenger (bar the investigation board). At the end of the day, imitation is the greatest form of flattery and I don’t blame CreativeForge Games, XCOM is one of the best turn based strategy games on the market, but like I’ve mentioned earlier they have put their own twists on this classic genre to make it their own.
Phantom Doctrine certainly has its moments and when it does, the game shines but I did find myself having a lot of “down time” while playing which quickly put me off playing the games. Waiting for each enemy and civilian to take their actions one after another is a slog to go through, especially if you’re going for a stealth approach on a mission. The God-like aim of the enemies when they are alerted to your position can be a bit frustrating. Having said all of this, CreativeForge Games are listening to their fans. They have a Discord which they are actively a part of and are updating the game based on fan feedback. Just last week they announced that Phantom Doctrine will support mods soon which means fans can quickly fix, change and add things they want to see in the game without having to wait for the developers to catch up.
If you’re new to the turn-based genre I would recommend starting with XCOM2. However if you’re a veteran and are looking for something a little bit different than what you’re used to, give this game a chance.