Phantom Doctrine: The Cold Noir is Hot
REVIEW//ROLE PLAYING GAME
To: All Stations This Net
(R//RPG) Individual codenamed Red Thomas was joined by four other members of the intelligence community as early as 10AUG18 per his request to play and give thoughts on a game titled Phantom Doctrine. At least three members of the group are known for their association with the E-4 Mafia and all have prior experience with the Company.
(R//RPG) Assets IVO designation REDCAVE are advised to immediately implement FPCON DELTA and to initiate random counter-surveillance measures IAW relevant SOPs. COM CINCSA has set condition BLUEFALCON. Exfiltrate via LIMA SIX FOXTROT and rally at LZ CHARLIE.
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(R) Analysts Notes:
(R//RPG) In order to understand the adversary, multiple analysts engaged in an assessment of the game in question. Below is the unofficial INTSUM of their experience.
(R//RPG) We found the gameplay to be surprisingly fun. The expectation was that it would play more like an XCOM game, the style of Phantom Doctrine being so clearly like that title, and selected analysts were concerned that it was a style that wouldn’t lend itself well to a “spy game.” Turns out, everyone was pleasantly pleased.
(R//RPG) Real life operations tend to be conducted off a clock, with various components of the plan holding position until specific go-codes are called or on occasion according to pre-defined execution times. The turn-based approach of Phantom Doctrine actually felt a lot like executing operational objectives in series, which all analysts agreed felt far more enjoyable than expected.
Intel reports get a little extra something when your Hispanic buddy who’s worked nothing but Columbian counter-narco missions his entire career keeps trying to read reports in a Spanish-infused Russian accent…
(R//RPG) The truly innovative and enjoyable parts of the game come between active missions, though. That’s the running of the base, managing the stable, and all the various conflicts that arise from training, missions, intelligence gathering, recruiting, and all the other tasks that go into maintaining an autonomous cell.
(R//RPG) Specifically, the intel corkboard was a ton of fun and got a lot of laughs. Once intelligence has been collected, some of it needs to be scanned for significant terms. You could just keep clicking until you find them all, but the point is to try to pick out the significant cover terms and names of people and places. The only complaint on this front is that there should be some sort of penalty for picking the wrong term or missing a term. All analysts present thought this portion of the game would be a lot more fun if it were a lot harder, but with the option of putting agents on the task in order to make it easier.
(R//RPG) There’s also a cool Doomsday mechanic to keep the pace of the game moving. It creates a sense of urgency without beating you in the head with it, and that means you can’t just power everything up and attack when you’re ready. The choice to engage before you’re ready is a hard one, and it’s cool that the game creates those situations for you.
(R//RPG) The major complaint was that most intelligence real-life operations actually take place during the day. It would have been nice to have more daylight missions that involved tailing a subject, making a drop, or planting evidence or collection gear someplace. It seems like such missions might have made the missions a bit more diverse and offered some extra opportunities to the devs.
(R//RPG) The graphics of the game weren’t anything to write home about. They fit the mood, and the blue and gray color pallets definitely helped create the suspicious atmosphere the developers were going for. It’s not really the sort of game where graphics are going to get top billing, so there wasn’t much expectation on this front.
(R//RPG) That said, the scene designs were all well done and interesting. Buildings came in a lot of interesting shapes and layouts, though they all seemed to make sense from a functionality standpoint, and that was pretty cool. The buildings were also visually interesting with lots of texture and subtle details that gave a sense of being used.
(R//RPG) Details are important in Phantom Doctrine because one of the mechanics is to spot briefcases, safes, and papers containing gear or intelligence. Collectable items highlight when moused over, but the typical player isn’t going to sit there swinging his mouse wildly around the screen. They especially won’t bother when paying a little extra attention to what’s around them on the screen can accomplish the same thing.
(R//RPG) Scene design was just cluttered enough to make finding side objectives interesting without making it stupidly difficult. It was also an interesting mechanic for encouraging the player to pay more attention to the smaller details of each room they went into, which was particularly cool and appreciated.
(R//RPG) Sound was another mixed bag. On one hand, the jazz noir throughout the game gives it a really cool investigative air. Muted brass and a plucked bass leave you feeling like you’re in one of those old 1940’s detective movies. Along with the very noir visual atmosphere, it fits comfortably and allows the player to slide into the sense of paranoia the developers wanted them to fill. From that standpoint, it was very well executed.
(R//RPG) That said, there was a definite itch for something more “spy-like.” We’ve all grown up in the age of 007, and while I think the jazz is ideal for the slower moments of the game, I think something more energetic would have been appropriate for the tenser situations.
(R//RPG) The environmental sound design, like the score, is in the middle. It’s raining on pretty much every operation, so the background is always filled with the sound of a wet night. That sound is really well done, as is the general ambiance, but it feels a little one-note. It would have been nice to have windy or stormy missions, maybe even just a clear night.
(R//RPG) Besides the weather, there’s no such thing as a quiet night in the city. The game would be well served by more random city noises. Alarms and sirens in the distance, along with vehicles. Anything to create a sense of motion in the city around where the operations are taking place would be a nice add to the game.
(R//RPG) The story is where Phantom Doctrine is going to pull away from the crowd, but how much is likely going to depend on whether the player enjoys the genre or not. In general, Phantom Doctrine is going to be a fun game with several hours of play for anyone, and those who’ve had a little experience playing the game of grays for their various nations will likely enjoy it even more for the fun take on a rather more serious occupation.
(R//RPG) Most of the complaints about the game center around easily solved things like the lack of mission types. Nothing stands out as bad enough to be detrimental to the enjoyment of the game, but rather just a missed opportunity. It’s hard to hit on them too hard about it, though. There are a lot of smart dev choices that I didn’t even have time to get to in this review.
(R//RPG) If you like the XCOM style of combat, you’ll likely enjoy this game. If you’re a fan of spy novels, cold war era thrillers, or are just looking for something conspiratorial and just lightly dark enough to create suspense without being off-putting, you’ll really enjoy Phantom Doctrine. If you have a buddy with a terrible Russian accent to read the intelligence reports to you, then I can’t remember the game (and the buddy) enough.
Note: Review copy provided by publisher, but Red does plan to purchase a copy on release.
Final Score 8.0
- Very cool investigation mechanic
- Doomsday mechanic
- Really interesting theme/setting
- Jazz noir gets old after a while
- Missions can feel a little repetitive
- Intelligence analysis a little too simple/easy