Set in 1993, Phantom Doctrine takes us back to the Cold War for spy vs spy tactics. It’s a time before the internet ruled everything, and stealing valuable files required a body on-site. Think XCOM, but with a big focus on story and some original tweaks to gunplay.
Embracing alternate history in a Cold War setting creates the blurriest of lines between reality and fantasy. Some of what is accepted history might be rejected by some as too outrageous to suspend disbelief. So how do you embellish and extrapolate when the truth is already stranger than fiction?
“The limit is the realism of Cold War lore in that things that were actually considered. Things that were rumoured to be true but never proven,” I’m told by Blazej Krakowiak, head of marketing and business at CreativeForge. “We’re still uncovering flies that are being declassified. There have been a couple of very good cold war history books published recently that give you a completely different perspective.
“They don’t have to be James Bond level things. For example, the Russians tried to use the brain of a cat to guide missiles, or how the US trained seals and dolphins to fight… This is the level of ridiculousness that’s actually realistic. We’re not against using that, but we’re trying to be pretty serious about it and stick to the plausible, not sci-fi.”
Krakowiak walks me through a system of doping up your agents with very 1980s chemical cocktails. The idea is to minimise the side effects of different drug combinations while maximising the effectiveness. You’ll want to be careful though. Your agents are your most valuable long-term assets.
“Then you’ve got MK ULtra, of course. The inevitable conspiracy theory brainwashing machine,” says Krakowiak. “This is your own opportunity to play with both enemy agents and your own. Here we have a captured enemy operative. We could kill them, and the enemy would be one agent down for a while. Until they recruit a new agent, their effectiveness is affected.
“But you’ve got more interesting options, like the Manchurian Drill. This plants a control phrase in the enemy’s mind. So you do that, and release them, and the next time you see them on a mission, you say the phrase and you’ve got an extra agent. Or you can place a locator implant inside their head and release them, and hopefully they give away the enemy base of operations.”
These deceptions can flip an encounter on its head. Skillful play in the information war will net you definitive gains. I soon find out this is absolutely necessary, because taking damage in Phantom Doctrine‘s combat is almost a certainty.
New Takes on Tactics
We’re playing through a mission, and our character is strolling through a building among ignorant foes. Thanks to a few researched skills, we’re incognito until something makes the guards suspicious.
“There is a console we can use that disables CCTV cameras, or lasers inside the target building.” says Krakowiak. “If you wanted to just use it right away, in view of the agent, that would probably raise the alarm. But we can use a silent takedown to get rid of the enemy.
“We can carry bodies, we can hide them. The game fully supports stealth, so you can complete entire missions without ever raising an alarm.”
There have been turn-based stealth tactics games before, like Invisible, Inc. But it’s an element that’s always been missing from the big players like XCOM.
Phantom Doctrine is playing with the usual formula for a turn, too. Whereas taking a shot or performing an action will end your turn in many RPGs, here you can make three moves and perform one action every turn — in any order.
“Since we support stealth, people might want to scout ahead carefully.” explains Krakowiak. So if you only had one movement, you’d move and end your turn over and over. That would be tedious.”
Krakowiak opened a door to illustrate how you could peek through it before entering, and it revealed an outer room that would prove quite tough for our one person to shoot through. You’re always outgunned and outnumbered, he tells me, but there are some clever tricks — on cooldowns, of course — that can turn the tide.
“Before the battle here we have placed some snipers in the east,” says Krakowiak. “It actually matters which side of the battlefield we place the snipers. So from the eastern side of the map, you have a sniper who can take down enemies for you quietly. They are outside of the play space, but they have the normal rules of line of sight. So you can shoot through glass, but not the wall.”
Or, as was just illustrated, we could open the door for our far-away sniper to see through. That got the job done.
The stealth element, the battle being larger than the play area, and story aspects are all things that could attract players from other games in a very time-consuming genre. But when it comes to potential poaching, Phantom Doctrine has an even bigger card to play…
Death to Die Rolls (…Almost)
What some fans of the genre will find most interesting is Phantom Doctrine‘s almost complete eschewing of die rolls for its combat solutions.
Characters have both a health bar and a bar for “awareness,” which represents a person’s finite reserves of stoicism during a firefight. This awareness resource is both used to perform special abilities and to dodge incoming attacks. Crucially, every shot is considered a hit that is mitigated to a certain degree.
Krakowiak explained the philosophy to me:
“We’re trying to assume that because they are professionals, they will usually hit. So there is no RNG for whether you hit or not. There are only mechanics that dictate how much damage is applied.”
Whereas in XCOM you’d see a percentage chance to hit, here you’ll see a range of damage. Say, between 80-100. You’re guaranteed at least 80 damage, unless the enemy is in cover, which mitigates it further.
If the target has enough awareness, they’ll automatically undergo a chance-based check against their awareness. If they succeed, some awareness is spent and they mitigate more damage. This can be used to your advantage, though — an enemy with a troublesome special attack will never be able to use it if you constantly drain them of awareness.
The Meta Map
This eschewing of RNG applies to the meta level as well. Just like XCOM, there’s an AI controlling enemy movements and strategy, though this is more complex. It’ll set up ambushes for your operatives, and perform its own missions out in the world.
There’s an intelligence, and governance, behind its orders. But if none of that is visible to the player, it might be as good as random. I asked if it would be possible — given a smart enough player — to predict the AI’s movements.
“I would say it’s more about building up your intel, and the capabilities of your agents, gaining knowledge about your enemy, and that will give you more info about what the AI is up to.
“Upgrading your hideout, investing in your agents, and the better your capabilities are, the better insight you get into the enemy’s actions. You learn certain options. You learn that if this is an enemy base, you can raid it but if you leave it there, the enemy can sabotage your operations in that area more easily. Things like that.”
You’ll be given the option to start as a CIA or KGB operative at the start of the game, and after beating NG+ and seeing both sides of the story, you’ll unlock a playthrough as a Mossad agent.
True to the genre, this is looking like a massive time sink. And Krakowiak is hoping the three different perspectives will be enough to keep players interested for three playthroughs or more.