Space marine dating sim XCOM: Enemy Unknown took a classic formula that was almost impenetrable to all but the most dedicated strategy fans, cut the fat, and made it accessible and exciting to a new generation of players. Unfortunately for some, a fair amount of depth was also axed in the process.
The stealthy, systemic, and sometimes utterly, unintentionally silly Phantom Doctrine builds on XCOM’s neat, approachable blueprint, expanding and reworking its systems, and adding a good few of its own. It’s rough around the edges, and frequently goes out of its way to sabotage the atmosphere of Cold War intrigue a moody soundtrack and brooding art style establish. But it also strikes such a successful balance between old school PC gaming depth and scope and modern polish it’s hard not to wholeheartedly recommend to fans of the genre.
At its emergent best, a combination of choices justified by statistical certainties, serendipity, and preparation coming together for unscripted, cheesy blockbuster-esque high drama. Dislikers of RNG will be pleased to discover that there’s no hit percentage in Phantom Doctrine. Every bullet is guaranteed to find its mark — effectiveness is determined by a value called awareness. A character with full awareness will likely dodge an attack completely, or take a glancing shot for a meager sliver of damage. If they’re running low — by using it up on special actions, say, or by being suppressed by enemy fire — a single shot could easily be the end. This all results in gun fights feeling a lot more involved, more about positioning and knowing your limits than pairing together combinations of overpowered abilities and hoping the dice are on your side.
Not that you can’t avoid gunfights completely. If you’re careful and prepared, taking the time to infiltrate the map with disguised double agents, you can clear a mission without ever firing a shot. Silent takedowns, hiding bodies, and disabling security cameras are all options. This isn’t always foolproof, though. When guards don’t report back in, enemy agents who can turn back on security cameras and clock your disguised agents in a second will come patrolling.
Between tactical missions, you’ll navigate a strategy layer. A value called ‘danger’ tracks your more conspicuous activities on missions, as well as any important side missions you choose to ignore, and if it gets too high, you’ll have to move hideouts quickly or risk losing progress. It’s a little underdeveloped — and, like a lot of Phantom Doctrine, woefully underexplained — but there’s enough going on to keep the tension up between operations.
I realize this is all sounding overwhelmingly positive so far, but it does come with a disclaimer. For the first eight hours or so with the game, I wasn’t having any fun at all. You’ll come to appreciate the depth of Phantom Doctrine, but at first, it doesn’t explain itself well. Weird line of sight rules and game breaking bugs frequently resulted in reloading earlier saves. Wooden character models, ridiculous combat barks and a dime-store thriller conspiracy plot bring down the tone frequently. If you’re prepared to stick it out though, you’ll realize the baked-in plot isn’t the point. Through a wealth of systems and tactical options, Phantom Doctrine achieves the thing that made me fall in love with XCOM in the first place. It creates stories worth telling.
Yes if you like XCOM and don’t mind steep early game learning curves; Probably Not if you aren’t the patient sort.
Main takeaway: XCOM fans will come to appreciate the depth of Phantom Doctrine, but the first few hours will feel like a slog.