Oculus has been ramping up production for some time now. After great AAA titles like Asgard's Wrath and Stormland, Oculus Studios is now sending us into a new cold war with Phantom: Covert Ops. This war is not fought out with submarines as you might think, instead you paddle in a kayak through wrecked Russian naval facilities. Yes, this might sound strange, but it's actually a lot of fun because this means of transportation is really well suited to virtual reality.
I gripped my paddle with both hands and use it to move the small watercraft intuitively and in accordance to logical reality. The only strange decision seems to be the fact that you have to press a button to make a tight turn; that could have been done that by tilting your upper body, for example, but I got used to this quirk very quickly. After all, you can even use the paddle as a rudder if you have some speed, and push off on walls and other obstacles.
Our job as agent Zero-Two is to track down a renegade general who is secretly working on weapons of mass destruction. This guy is voiced by David Hayter, known to many players as the voice of the legendary Solid Snake from Konami's Metal Gear Solid series. Developer nDreams leaves us in no doubt about how serious it is with regards to the stealth gameplay and therefore, you carefully paddle past numerous guards who control the routes with their flashlights or searchlights. Ideally, you get through the scenarios completely unnoticed and without having to fire a shot, however, just in case things go south, you're equipped with a most trustworthy silenced pistol.
After marking important objects with your binoculars, you can use the handgun to distract guards. For example, you can destroy power generators or sometimes even raise the alarm with an explosive barrel. Ultimately, it's up to you whether you go loud or sneak by quietly, but if you don't mind playing aggressively, the sniper rifle and submachine gun issued at the start of this perilous mission can also be used to ensure that you reach your ultimate goal. This equipment is attached to the body or the kayak in a realistic manner and can be comfortably gripped and used.
Beyond the nautical locomotion, the developers came up with interesting ideas about how to interact in the virtual world. For example, you're often invited to hold onto handles to do things like pulling yourself up to a fuse box that you take apart so you can deactivate surveillance cameras and the like. You can also open and operate shutters or iron chains, including the locks, realistically with your hands. As a result, the immersion in Phantom: Covert Ops is very good and when it comes to motion sickness, our realistic movement through the game's environments remains reasonably comfortable. However, more sensitive stomachs could possibly struggle to move sideways or backwards. Alternative types of movement, such as teleportation, are understandably not provided in this one but what you can do is check out "snap turn" in the options to more easily handle all those twists and turns.
Thanks to intuitive controls across all aspects of the game, you can sneak and shoot through the three to four-hour campaign without any problems. The game surely could have offered more content here, but there are some additional challenge modes and other difficulty settings which let you go back and hunt for points. Of course, you can also search for collectibles in the form of audio messages, and there are genre-typical, self-defined goals such as getting through the game without killing anyone. Also, after each mission phase, your performance is evaluated, and you unlock the opportunity to tackle these scenarios with whatever equipment you want.
In spite of its somewhat absurd premise, Phantom: Covert Ops offers a nice overall package that convinces from an audio-visual perspective. The only pity is that the game does not address the absurdity of its scenario. Of course, there are countless games out there where you get to play as a one-man killing machine and take out an overpowered army, but this tries so hard that the dust-dry military aspects seem so absurd in contrast. As a clichéd, insane Russian general, David Hayter puts on a real show, but overall I thought it took itself a bit too seriously.
I think it's a shame that the story wasn't a bit more self-aware, although that is a matter of personal taste. Tantalisingly, some of the conversations between the enemy soldiers you paddle past and which you can secretly eavesdrop, are quite entertaining - however, the same cannot be said of the overall story, which is a little one-dimensional. Still, the impressive immersion offered by Phantom: Covert Ops meant I felt like I was getting wet feet all the time, and that more than made up for it.
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