XCOM is hands-down one of the best strategy franchises I’ve ever played, revolutionising real time tactics with amazing production values and an emotional high-stakes story that really upped the bar for everyone else. It’s success inspired dozens of other studios and resulted in a number of similar titles of varying quality, which is a great thing for fans of the genre.
Luckily for us, the folks behind Hard West are back at it again, this time with a Cold War-inspired title set in the 1980’s. Named Phantom Doctrine, the latest title from CreativeForge Games revolves around espionage and international deceit, taking an eventful yet decidedly less bombastic approach to tactical combat than Firaxis’ “save the world from aliens” franchise.
In charge of an independent covert organisation called “The Cabel”, the player works to uncover plots and defend civilization from a global conspiracy that threatens to plunge the world in chaos. According to Narrative Lead Pawel Kroenke, all of it has a tangential relation to real life events, giving Phantom Doctrine a slight amount of authenticity.
As an independent group, you do not work for either of the Cold War’s major powers, instead undertaking missions that may run against either American or Soviet interests. Those missions take place in locations across the world, from towns to military bases, and require your operatives to perform a myriad of tasks, including sabotage, assassination, and theft, among many others.
Those operatives can be recruited from all across the world and sent to infiltrate enemy cells or acquire intel, among others activities besides the classic tactical missions. Due to the greater focus on single characters and less reliance on squad interplay, Phantom Doctrine’s individual agents are a veritable wealth of abilities. Each of them has several classes, skills, and abilities that affect their performance, and even classic spy things like fluent languages play a role. Sending someone who speaks Chinese to China allows them to investigate leads and even chat with guards, offering a less aggressive way to finish a mission.
That’s not to say combat is in any way downplayed, or that squads are not important. There is strength in numbers, and Phantom Doctrine is very much a Tactical Squad game - you can control up to six agents in a single mission, and the careful management of their abilities and moves is the literal difference between success and failure.
The game chances staples of the genre by further deepening their execution; overwatch is no longer a general ability, and must have it’s line of sight specified – while you can keep an eye on your immediate surroundings, restricting your agent’s attention over a single cone of fire gives you a much longer range.
Unlike XCOM, Phantom Doctrine fully embraces stealth. Whole missions can be accomplished during concealment. To help with the procedures when things go boom, you can set up support agents like snipers and spotters on cardinal points of the map, which can be of tremendous help. During my hands-on session, I managed to successfully infiltrate a military base and call in extraction before my operatives were discovered, and the clear vision provided by the spotter allowed me to use the sniper from off the map to great effect.
Outside the battlefield, you get standard things like base and equipment upgrade alongside agent customisation, but Phantom Doctrine has a huge amount of interaction options. You can train soldiers on the HQ or change their identities - complete with new passports and even faces - if they are discovered. Similarly, you can relocate the HQ itself if you are compromised, granting a huge amount of freedom and emergent narrative to a playthrough.
Aside from Cabal activities, you can also mess with the enemy agents and operations. Capturing a rival spy allows you to interrogate them, switch them over to your side, send them back as a double agent, or straight-up brainwash them as a sleeper agent, waking them up with a passphrase on the field and having them turn against their comrades. The same can of course be done with your agents if they are ever captured, and moles can steadily feed the enemy info that allows them to pinpoint the Cabal’s base of operations.
All in all, Phantom Doctrine is an incredibly promising game, featuring a huge array of player mechanics that seem equally inspired by spy tropes and good game design alike. As a fan of XCOM, I believe we can never have enough good tactical games, and this Cold War title seems well poised to be the next one.