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.