The truth is out there
It’s nearly impossible to succinctly sum up Phantom Doctrine. “Turn-based tactical strategy game centered around Cold War-era conspiracy theories” is the closest I’ve gotten. That’s still six (six?) adjectives and adverbs, and it doesn’t get close to telling the whole story.
Pulling all the way back reveals Phantom Doctrine‘s most alluring promise. Developer CreativeForge is taking real events from the Cold War and repurposing them in an alternate history. In the game, you run a counter-intelligence agency called The Cabal who’s out to expose the secrets of the world’s most powerful agencies.
Here’s a fine example: In 1983, a Korean airliner carrying 246 civilian passengers and 23 crewmembers was shot down by the Soviets. This is the lengthy Wikipedia page that details the whole incident. It was tragic, but it was also easily avoidable. At the time, only military forces had access to GPS technology. This event sparked the public outrage that resulted in GPS reaching the private sector and, eventually, everyday life.
Phantom Doctrine (releasing in 2018 on PC, PS4, and Xbox One) suggests that this and other important incidents are all connected in some way. As lead designer Kacper Szymczak puts it, “We take a lot of events from the era and we say that they’re connected. They probably aren’t but some things might be. We know these facts [independently] and when you tie them together with a string and say ‘okay, this happened because of that,’ it kind of makes it believable. That’s basically how bullshit works. You mix facts with lies.”
It isn’t a metaphorical string connecting everything, it’s literal. Szymczak says the system in Phantom Doctrine that he’s most proud of is a bulletin board where the player is tasked with taking all the evidence they’ve collected and figuring out how it fits together. Pore over the clues, find whatever might connect them, and draw a line between everything to arrive at a grand conclusion. There’s a classic scene from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia where Charlie goes insane trying to solve the mystery of Pepe Silvia. It’s just like that. (My favorite theory is that Charlie, illiterate as he is, can’t read the word Pennsylvania that’s written on all the mail.)
Running intelligence is critical, as it plays into the more traditionally tactical side of Phantom Doctrine. As the enemy forces maneuver across the globe, it’s in The Cabal’s best interest to be right behind or even one step ahead. Knowing more about their operations gives an advantage. It seems as if it’ll usually be in the form of pre-combat enhancements. For example, maybe one of your agents will be afforded the opportunity to go undercover which allows access to restricted areas. Or, maybe you can assign a sniper to sit in the distance and bail you out of any particularly tricky predicaments.
Missions have an immediate familiarity about them for veterans of these type of games. There’s definitely a feel of XCOM about the whole thing, which is the de facto standard of turn-based tactical strategy. Anyone who’s cunning enough can stick to the shadows, and use the environment and their abilities to sneak through the whole thing.
But, and this is the more likely option, anyone who’s brash enough can pull guns at anytime. It takes a certain confidence (or stupidity) to get into firefights though, as the enemy AI isn’t shy about calling in reinforcements. In the demo I played, a helicopter liberally lobbed missiles at my crew.
Although the abilities and gunplay might ring of XCOM, Szymczak explains a combat feature that’s strikingly different. There’s no RNG in Phantom Doctrine, at least not as XCOM players know it. There isn’t a projection that says you have a 97 percent chance to hit (right before you miss). Instead, Phantom Doctrine has a composure meter for each agent that guarantees they’ll avoid an attack. The more they’re shot at, the lower that meter goes. Once it’s gone, they’re going to start absorbing bullets and leaking blood. (A focus ability helps regain some composure at the cost of using up a turn.)
That’s just some of what CreativeForge has to offer in its third game. Other features that we didn’t dive as deep into are: identity changes for agents that includes altering their appearances, names, and issuing them new passports; extracting information from captured enemies and then deciding what to do with them when they’re of no more use (we paid a little extra in resources to turn them into Manchurian Candidate-esque sleeper cells); training our agents as they gain experience; surviving an attack on The Cabal’s hideout which forces us to establish a new base of operations.
It’s a lot. Like, a lot a lot. To elaborate on my lede, it feels nearly impossible to even eventually describe everything that’s happening in Phantom Doctrine, nevermind give an elevator pitch. It’s designed that way. Szymczak says CreativeForge made 60 playable tactical mission environments and that an average playthrough will take around 40 hours. He also hinted that there’s sufficient plot-related reasons to go back through a second time. This game was meant to be big.
Those who know the studio’s works might pause when they hear that CreativeForge is aiming for this kind of scope. Hard West, the developer’s last turn-based tactical strategy title, was similarly ambitious and that was part of its downfall. Szymczak readily admits the team bit off more than it could chew.
“[Hard West] was way too big for our company at the time. About 25ish people made Hard West, half of what we have now,” he said. “The game wasn’t that much smaller than Phantom Doctrine. A lot of the problems were that it was too big, we didn’t have enough time, and our team was too small. The actual production time was like 14 months. Crazy. Fixing the obvious production problems was the biggest change to the process.”
In a genre that isn’t exactly overflowing with interesting entries outside of XCOM and a few others, Phantom Doctrine feels like a supremely interesting prospect. It’s Cold War-era espionage truther stuff from a Polish studio whose employees grew up feeling the aftermath of communist rule. The combat/stealth seems great so far, but who the hell knows if any they can pull off that narrative? It’ll take 40 hours of gameplay to find out. It could end up just as loony and flimsy as most real-life conspiracy theories. But, like the most feasible conspiracy theories, my interest is piqued and I just wanna believe.