It’s 1983. You play as either a Russian KGB agent, an American CIA agent, or an Israeli Mossad agent. Although things are tense as the Cold War reaches new, frigid peaks, you can’t shake the feeling that something is off. Something seems to be pushing the diplomatic detente in such a forceful direction, where you are starting to believe that a deep, global conspiracy is afoot. And you just might be right.
That’s the basic conceit behind “Phantom Doctrine.” It’s an *intensely* complicated turn-based espionage game that finds you leading a counter conspiracy force to undermine whatever duplicitous plot might be trying to unravel the very nature of international relations for malicious reasons.
Shown in a hands-off demo during E3, “Phantom Doctrine” was shown to me in not-nearly-all of its complex glory. It has systems upon systems, considerations upon considerations, which all underly a combat system that CreativeForge Games lead designer Kacper Szymcsak called distinctly “chess-like.”
“It’s always your fault when you lose,” he said.
Though the basic concept is easy enough, there’s not simple way to describe the levels of play that await you. In the demo, one moment Szymcsak was showing me the random perks that come with leveling, the next he was showing me the chemical compounds that you can create to give to characters, the next he was showing me the bombs you can implant in characters’ heads in the event that they’re kidnapped by the arbitrators of the conspiracy, until we were actually, *seriously* putting together clues on a digital cork board, complete with yarn, to figure out the deep, procedurally generated components of the truth.
And it’s all based around sort of/kind of/almost truth…ish. Szymcsak took great pains in understanding all of the tangled conspiracy theories that grew out of the ’80s Cold War paranoia, and he mined it for details that populated this impressively intricate game.
With a goal of unearthing the truth of the underlying conspiracy, you recruit agents, give them training, develop skills and send them out for covert missions. But that’s just the very beginning of it. You don’t know if the agents that come back have been compromised, whether the data they have procured is false, or whether they were a double agent all along, secretively undermining your entire operation.
“Phantom Doctrine” is a game that thrives off of paranoia. It doesn’t just thrive off the paranoia of the player versus a set narrative, but the player versus the AI controlling the narrative. It seems to be a deceitfully sticky web, but one that those with a close eye and a puzzle-loving mind will adore deciphering.
Szymcsak took me through all of this (and more) before ever entering an actual mission scenario. But once in one, an unexpected new layer of gameplay opened up wide.
Truly showing its turn-based roots, “Phantom Doctrine” asks players to consider every possibility of a mission. Whether it’s to take out a target or extract data, every move you make determines the choices of your adversary. In the scenario Szymcsak showed me, his character squad (heavily embedded and disguised) made sure that a support sniper was located on the Western wall because that’s where the target was most likely to be stationed. All of this because of intel derived by the team through the game’s systems.
The game is a narrative one, for sure, but it also was newly-announced to have a multiplayer component with its combat. It is this that Szymcsak called “chess-like,” and as it would unfold between up to two players, I could see exactly how deft and mindful a player would have to be to get a leg up on their Cold War combatant.
Above all, through my brief time with the game, it appears as if “Phantom Doctrine” is the rare game that tries an enormous number of things, and succeeds at the almost all of them. I very much want to spend hours with it and see if it does not measure up to its multitude of promises in anyway.
“Phantom Doctrine” doesn’t have a definite release date yet, but Szymcsak said it would be out on this summer. So study up on your history and start getting very, very paranoid.