When Xcom: Enemy Unknown launched back in 2012 it was a true watershed moment for the industry. Granted, it appeared to be very similar to turn-based action/strategy titles which existed well before, but the game was a revitalisation, a welcome return to the front of the store shelves which appealed broadly enough not just to remind the nostalgic crowd how satisfying this design formula can be, but also introduce a whole new audience to that same formula.
When that's said though, Xcom: Enemy Unknown and its sequel, Xcom 2, aren't for everyone. Not at all. And so, where those who follow the business intensely suspected that the floodgates had been opened and that copycats would rush through to emulate Firaxis' success, not a lot have sprung up since then. Sure, every now and then we get a semi-high-profile project that sees the light of day, but a revolution it is not.
And here comes Phantom Doctrine then, a game which bravely uses a near identical structural setup to Xcom, but walks down a different path narratively and aesthetically. It's a bold move, to say the least, especially as there isn't a whole lot of precedence, yet. However, as this review will hopefully reflect, CreativeForge's espionage interpretation of Firaxis' model is exactly the sort of development we were hoping to see.
Even though CreativeForge has added a lot to the Xcom structure, every single mechanical aspect will almost immediately be recognisable to most. You have a base from which you upgrade and create weapons, armour, and gadgets, adapt your agents, garner an overview over your enemies' movements, as well as hire new talent. Through a world map you send your agents to missions around the globe, where some are completed automatically while others require you to instance into combat. Everything from the advancement of time as the primary catalysing factor to the base being divided into rooms is lifted directly from Firaxis in near shameless fashion. Again, on the other hand, it's brave to want your inspirations to be this transparent, so Firaxis can't be all that angry. Flattered is more likely.
The similarities don't end there though. In a combat scenario you move your agents around one by one, while a blue light indicates how far a certain character can reach, either half or whole shields indicate the quality of the cover, and after moving each character you can use an action point to shoot, use gadgets, throw grenades, go into close combat and everything in between. It cannot be overstated - this is Xcom, it just is.
But at the same time, Phantom Doctrine is an espionage thriller akin to Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, where nations keep tabs on one another, learn dark secrets, discover threatening world-spanning organizations, and perform missions in the shadows. Your side explores a far-reaching group called Beholder, and slowly but surely you uncover a deeply realistic yet intensely entertaining plot, which not only incorporates real-world history, but creates true tension on its own. The cutscenes are static, hand-drawn images combined with quality voice work, and even though you're constantly drawn towards other issues on your world map, there's always a red thread, a next step in this thick coat of political intrigue. If you love Mission Impossible, James Bond, and especially John Le Carré novels, you'll find a delicate yet serious campaign to complete here - one that'll take you many hours to go through. It should also be pointed out here that there's a total of three campaigns available to you, as you can choose to either play as CIA or KGB in the beginning, which the option of choosing a third, secret organisation once you've completed the game. The differences between them are small, but if you know already that you want to play through the game several times, it's nice with added incentive to do so.
But that's not all CreativeForge has added to Phantom Doctrine in order to make it stand out. Because where the Xcom formula may offer stealth as a possible way of completing your objective, the game is ultimately about tactical warfare, whereas Phantom Doctrine is about tactical espionage. When your agents are deployed on a mission the area is almost always filled with civilians. In other words, all is safe and well here, and while some structures may considered off-limits unless you are wearing a disguise, you can generally move your characters around unopposed. After all, they are just pedestrians in the eyes of the enemy. Actually, the entirety of Phantom Doctrine is designed around avoiding exposure and the ensuing combat. As mentioned, you may disguise some of your agents, and this gives them the ability to pass around unnoticed, gathering crucial intel and taking down enemies without raising the alarm. While Xcom is like a board game, Phantom Doctrine is a puzzle, where you perform a dance with the devil to avoid being spotted and taking down enemies one after one.
If you ultimately do get spotted, then all hell breaks loose, and it's instantly clear that CreativeForge considers you to have failed if this happens. One of the more curious additions, or lack thereof, is that Phantom Doctrine has no percentage-based chance of damaging an enemy. Here, there's only a slight chance to miss completely, otherwise, you and your foe always hit your target, even from across the entire level. The question is ultimately how much damage you do, which then depend on a number of factors such as the character perks and stats, the weapon and its proficiency, and the quality of cover. It makes everyone extremely vulnerable and eliminates the chance that - even though you're being strategic - your agents will be harmed in combat. It's a strange design choice to put it mildly, and once you enter combat you quickly realise how uneven this system truly is. You place an agent in full cover over a hundred yards away, and an enemy still strikes you - which leads to wasted time in the infirmary afterward and can jeopardise your entire playthrough. In addition, reinforcements will constantly swarm you once you've been spotted, and add air strikes to that. The percentage-based system in Xcom has its flaws, but it feels fairer than this. There is no doubt then, that Phantom Doctrine is at its best when you, the player, have the power to control the pacing, and that's when you're in so-called Infiltration Mode.
At the same time, Phantom Doctrine nails the aesthetic aspect, which wasn't always the case with Xcom. There's a very delicate and precise visual identity which runs through the experience as a red thread. Everything from the clothes the agents wear to the music; it's all John le Carré all the way through. Trenchcoats, cigarettes, dark dresses, noir-inspired saxophone. It's all here, and it's all self-aware.
Sadly, this exquisite aesthetic experience and the strategically-balanced mechanics are heavily dampened by a host of technical errors, which demanded restarts every now and then during our time with the game. Whether you'll experience the same with day one patches is unknown, but in our case civilians would often get stuck to parts of the landscape, making the game unable to end the opponent's turn. There's no way around it other than to reboot the level or restart the entire game. The game, however, automatically remembers your last turn, so it wasn't a major sticking point.
Still, we found ourselves heavily engaged in the majority of levels, where the balance was pretty solid, especially in the Infiltration mode as previously mentioned. If you make the mistake of placing your agents incorrectly, disabling security cameras while within a bystander's periphery, you instantly know you've made a mistake, and also how you can fix it or avoid it. As in Xcom, exfiltrating while under enemy fire makes for some intense experiences, and more often than not you're carrying wounded comrades on your shoulders too.
It should be said, however, that the array of miscellaneous missions is too small. Sure, the main mission thread is filled with unique assignments making for a more varied and entertaining experience, but you also need to clear the map of enemy strongholds and prevent them from targeting your informants, and here the amount of tasks vary little to not at all. You either have to assassinate a particular target, take out a specific number of enemies or disarm bombs, and there's not much more to it than that. Of course, the levels vary depending on which part of the world the mission takes place, but it's hardly a substitute for proper mission design, and you quickly run out of patience.
Luckily, taking care of your base is a joy, and as time passes you research additions that offer up new functions for you to look at. You can brainwash captured enemy agents and turn them into sleeper agents, launder money to increase your income, use experimental biochemical research to enhance your agents, and so much more. This creates great diversity and variation when you're off-mission, and it's a crucial element to the combined enjoyment of the experience. At the same time, you gather confidential documents which combine into case files. Here you have to pull red threads between people, locations, and events to complete each file, and these give you new agent candidates and other rewards.
There's also a multiplayer mode pitting you against an enemy player in a stealth combat scenario. This is just a multiplayer version of the same systems, but it's incredibly intense to say the least. The opportunity is there, but unfortunately, the lobby was empty during the vast majority of our time with the game.
All of this is combined into one incredible copy of the formula that Firaxis popularised and revitalised back in 2012. CreativeForge has respectfully lifted the structures they needed and used their own creativity to add espionage elements and a rounded aesthetic identity. The result is not flawless, far from it, and if you're used to the firefights of Xcom you won't find them here. But what you will find is a spy game unlike anything else.