Hands on with Phantom Doctrine

This XCOM-esque tactical shooter swaps aliens for Cold War intrigue.

"What we do... the way conspiracy theories are made, you take some facts and connect them with bullshit,” Phantom Doctrine lead designer Kacper Szymczak explains after our demo. “The story in [Phantom Doctrine], it's not contradictory of actual history, we just fill in the gaps with conspiracy.”

And try to completely fill them, they do. Despite how wide gaps in Cold War knowledge are for most non-history buffs, developer CreativeForge isn’t shying away from filling every possible inch of that unknown space. Phantom Doctrine may bear a striking mechanical resemblance to the studio’s previous turn-based strategy game, 2015’s Hard West (which itself plays similarly to XCOM), but its scope dwarfs that of their two year-old western effort.

Szymczak confirms it’s “four times bigger, at least.” Where Hard West broke up battles with text adventure-esque world exploration and light RPG elements, the meat of Phantom Doctrine seems to be in its pre/post-match Hideout sections. Here, players manage and lead The Cabal, “a secret organization dedicated to fighting a global conspiracy committed to controlling the world by pitting world leaders and nations against one another.”

Exploring the Hideout may have only consumed the first 30 minutes of our 90-minute demo, but it would easily have taken up double had Szymczak not been there to gently guide me toward my main mission. Beholder, the enemy group behind the conflict-driving conspiracy, are planning to shoot down a Korean airliner as soon as it enters Soviet airspace. But before my agents can rescue the passengers, we need to prepare...

One could interrogate a captured enemy agent, installing in them a friendly-turning trigger phrase before releasing them back into enemy hands. Then, if the meter tracking their secret operation’s exposure to the enemy is getting too full, perhaps they could buy new identities for an agent or two (allowing for some great mid-game character customization), giving them a new face or country of origin. The player might also spend time forging money or enhancing their agents’ performance through experimental chemical compounds.

The crown jewel of these preparatory activities is surely the Investigation Board, where players pin enemy intel to a bulletin board, connecting the thumbtacks with a web of string. After discovering common keywords among each piece’s mostly blacked-out text, a string can be drawn from one pin to another until the board becomes a satisfyingly paranoid mess. Szymczak says the team wants the players themselves to feel disordered, watching this conspiracy board expand.

I might’ve felt a little unsettled, but only because it’s difficult to keep track of the Hideout without a proper ramp-up or tutorial. I love the thematic commitment and complexity of what I saw, but it’s difficult to get a sense of how some pieces fit together without the context of preceding gameplay. As soon as I learned only the Investigation Board and World Map are essential the progression of my demo, I rushed through their use as fast as possible to get to the action.

The World Map is yet another hub by which you control the activities of your agents, moving them around the globe to track and combat the conspiracy. One travelling subordinate discovered a “conspiracy cell,” at which point I could command them to either interrupt or simply observe our adversaries, gifting us valuable intel but allowing them to continue harming us in their operations. One of these options later unlocks a tactical mission where I visit their base in person, so I picked whichever avoids that, as I was desperate to start the action at this point.

I put my squad together, assigning one of them a Russian disguise with which to casually walk behind enemy lines once on the base. The mission is to disrupt the communication satellites needed for Beholder to order the destruction of the endangered airplane. With my support units also set in place, their respective sniper rifle and grenade launcher poised to provide cover fire from outside the level, we’re finally ready.

If the Hideout section of Phantom Doctrine is impressively layered and committed to its portrayal of multi-tiered Cold War conspiracies, the combat section I played is equally unremarkable. I should note, before describing my experience further: Szymczak later told me (perhaps only half-jokingly, but still) that I’d only seen about 5% of what the game’s turn-based combat systems have to offer. I saw nothing of most weapons or unique character abilities; I never used or even unlocked a silencer. This is largely because I was able to complete my main and bonus objectives without alerting a single guard. I’d also run into the enemy agent I’d previously brainwashed and flipped her to my side using her trigger phrase. I absolutely love that I could so unconventionally gain another team member, but it made the mission even easier.

Hard West emphasizes a literally guns-blazing, Old West-appropriate approach. In that game, for the most part, six-shooters crack and blood flows. Phantom Doctrine’s espionage-appropriate stealth play lets me skip the action altogether, for better or worse. Facing little fog of war, I carefully wind my way through the level, using my characters’ maximum move distance on most turns. I might have been more aggressive had I silent weapons at my disposal, killing enemies while moving even faster toward my objective. Instead, after largely finishing the job, I go back and fire upon those guards I’d so easily slipped past, just to get a taste of the action.

I’d gone into my demo expecting something like the footage I’d already seen from this year’s Gamescom. I expected more patrolling guards, faster character movement, to breach rooms, instructing my agents to silently take out targets. Szymczak jokes about how meticulously I sneak through the level, which confuses me, because I'm controlling a team of spies. Regardless, I make my way back across the level’s grid to sample in some simple firefights. They ended quickly, without challenge. My characters’ “Awareness” meters (similar to “Luck” in Hard West) is still full from never having fought, so they have no problem dodging bullets. For fun, I call in my sniper support unit, who takes out an isolated guard by way of a quick cutscene. I see how he’d come in handy after I’m discovered and everything goes to shit, but alas, the shit never came.

I call in my evac helicopter, initiating the escape cutscene by walking my closest agent into the evacuation zone. I then learned, by only walking one character to the area, that I’d actually left my other three agents behind in enemy territory. Szymczak says they’d probably be fine… but that I’d have no way of knowing if they’d been secretly brainwashed before making back to the Hideout.

This instantly renewed my interest in the game, reminding me both that I get to revisit the fun of managing my secret operation, and that the two radically different phases of play directly influence each other. Noting my excitement, Szymczak tells me of certain enemy units that, when alerted, scour levels in an effort to destroy any bonus intel I might otherwise find. I nearly ask why said feature isn’t in the demo, but… it might be. There are plenty of features I didn’t experience because I was allowed to unknowingly bypass them all.

My lukewarm experience with Phantom Doctrine should definitely be considered with a massive grain of salt. The game isn’t finished, and a project of this scope is undoubtedly difficult to distill into such a short demo. Just as I was initially overwhelmed (and excited) by being thrown into the Hideout, I was disappointed by my limited options in this likely stripped-down combat scenario. Here’s hoping the intensity of the latter section can match the complexity of the former when the final product launches in 2018.