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Phantom Doctrine is an XCOM-like tactics game that needs your attention, literally

An ambitious blend of espionage, stealth and decisive gunplay

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CreativeForge Games/Good Shepherd Entertainment
Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

Those who have played Firaxis’ XCOM series will be familiar with those games’ random dice rolls. You can have an alien flanked, completely exposed and out of cover, and still miss the shot. The team at CreativeForge Games clearly hates that, so it built Phantom Doctrine to be different at its most basic level. When you pull the trigger, enemies die. This Cold War thriller is remarkably dense and, for both good and bad, absolutely demanding your attention.

Phantom Doctrine is a turn-based tactics game out now on Steam, GoG and PlayStation 4. Players take the role of either a CIA operative or a KGB spy trying to unravel a fictional global conspiracy on behalf of a secret organization known as the Cabal. Set in the 1980s, the events are loosely based on recent history. The tutorial mission takes place in Germany, while the second scripted mission happens inside a secret Pakistani nuclear testing facility.

Tactical battles are much more about stealth and maneuver than they are about protracted firefights. Each one begins with a lengthy period where players are able to explore the map roughly at will. Enemy patrol routes are visible, as are security measures like cameras and laser tripwires. You’ll have plenty of time to case the joint before you kick in the door and “go loud.”

Once you open fire, every shot you’re able to take will hit. There are no random dice rolls to speak of, which makes your agents feel powerful. The developers have been providing late-game save files to streamers, so folks can get a feel for how the complexity piles up. You can see a decent playthrough from ChristopherOdd below.

Once engaged, battles are fast and decisive, but also complex and time-consuming. Where the XCOM reboot used a simple action bar with just three or four options at first, Phantom Doctrine makes use of an elaborate, multilayered interface from mission one. Each of your agents’ possible actions is fairly nuanced as well. Overwatch works differently for sidearms than it does for long guns, for instance.

My favorite innovation is the breaching mechanic. It allows multiple agents in close proximity to enter a room at the same time, guns blazing. For the first time in a turn-based tactical game, it feels like the developers have embraced the special operators credo of “speed, surprise and violence of action.”

Outside of the tactical play, however, the immersion begins to break down. Phantom Doctrine is badly in need of documentation. There are so many different systems working in the background that I often found myself just hitting some buttons and sitting back to see how they reacted. Sometimes that meant waiting a few in-game days with lots of other things happening in the foreground. If things didn’t go as expected, that meant reverting to a saved game and losing progress.

While I’d love to be able to play the game in ironman mode, where there’s no going back, the lack of information on the front end means that save-scumming is the only sensible way forward.

Phantom Doctrine makes an able attempt at piecing together a narrative. The voiceover work is capable, if spread a bit too thin. Where things get a little awkward is with the game’s intelligence gathering system. At times, you’ll receive classified documents, sometimes collected off-screen by your agents and other times as actual items picked up during tactical missions. Once back at your base, you’ll need to read through them to discover the keywords buried inside. They could be the codenames for an enemy agent, an organization or a location.

I’m not afraid to show you this late-game screenshot, mostly because the keywords here make no sense in-game either so far as I can tell.
CreativeForge Games/Good Shepherd Entertainment

Once those keywords have been unlocked, each piece of intel goes up on a cork board. From there you’ve got to spend time literally connecting the dots, linking the intel with bits of string, in order to draw a line to the center of the web and unlock a mission.

The concept is clever, but ultimately shallow. Many of the documents simply can’t be read or, if they can be read, don’t make a whole lot of sense. Had the developers spent a bit more time writing up some more backstory and translating that into compelling artifacts that I actually cared about, they might have had something really special here.

Ultimately, Phantom Doctrine is a game that’s trying to do new and interesting things with turn-based tactics, but you have to put in a lot of effort to make sense of it all. I was confused enough at times that I’m not sure if I did something wrong, or if there was simply a weird bug.

CreativeForge’s previous title, Hard West, started out with a similar amount of jank but was eventually tightened up — somewhat. I expect the same will be true of Phantom Doctrine. I’ll likely put this game on the back-burner for a month or so and return to it once patches have hit, and after those with more time and patience have written up some good guides to help me get a better idea of what’s going on.