First Look: CreativeForge Make their play for the turn-based tactics crown with Phantom Doctrine

With Firaxis rumored to be putting the X-COM franchise on the back-burner, there’s sure to be a hole left in the hearts of turn-based tactics fan everywhere. Fortunately, this might end up being a major opportunity for CreativeForge Games’ newest title Phantom Doctrine.Now due for release in a world where the world's biggest turn-based tactics franchise looks to be facing fresh retirement, the game looks ambitious enough that it could almost constitute a full-blown play for the crown.

We sat down with one of the game’s developers for a first-hand look at what Phantom Doctrine will be bringing to the genre with their espionage-laced take on the formula.

CreativeForge Games’ previous effort, Hard West, was generally well-received despite its flaws. It was a game with a lot of style and great turn-based combat. Unfortunately, structurally, it was a all-over-the-place. The studios’ choice to segment the game’s single player into several discrete chapters made for an experience that was fun in the moment but constantly stifling its own narrative and strategic momentum. Thankfully, Phantom Doctrine looks to learn from those mistakes.

Set in an alternate version of (whilst also being deeply inspired by) the Cold War, players take on the role of managing a renegade spy agency known called the Cabal. They’ll dispatch agents across the globe in missions in order to fight off a sinister global conspiracy. Much like Hard West, it’s big on theme and the trappings of its particular genre. However, on the whole, things look and feel a lot more polished this time around. Or, at least, the slice of the game we experienced was.

The smart, but oft-subtle, evolution here draw some easy parallels to the refinements that Firaxis recently made to the X-COM formula with War of the Chosen. Like those sequels, Phantom Doctrine leans into the stealth part of the equation, encouraging you to try and infiltrate or quietly eliminate guards wherever possible. That said, you do have a lot of options should you choose to instead go loud. For one, CreativeForge have implemented a nifty ‘breach’ mechanic, which allows you to burst into a room from multiple angles and engage those within in a single action.

Like Hard West, Phantom Doctrine also leans away from the unrealistic and sometimes frustrating RNG in combat. In their words: these are highly trained agents, they know how to hit a target. As a result, shots fired will always do at least some damage - and the exact extent of that damage is what will vary. There’s also a new stat called ‘composure’ (replacing the ‘Luck’ system of Hard West) in the mix here, which acts a buffer for damage and creates a satisfying ebb-and-flow to the firefights.

Our demo for the game also touched on the larger, big-picture, strategy of the game. Like X-COM, The Cabal have a headquarters that can be customized and upgraded with new facilities and amenities over time. The net effect here is that you’re both able to enhance your agents directly and also support them in the field using a variety of assets - from supply drops to sleeper agents.

There’s no shortage of systems and fascinating features in the mix here. Agents have mental and physical health to keep track of and captive enemy agents can eventually be brainwashed be turned against their former masters. What’s more, this approach - while valuable - doesn’t come without risk. CreativeForge indicated that these double and triple-agents are a very real possibility in Phantom Doctrine. If too many of your own agents are captured in the field, the location of your HQ might be compromised and you’ll have to abandon it and find a new home - setting back some of your progress.

Refreshingly, there’s a big focus here not just on winning missions and gathering intelligence. You’re also asked to make sense of that intelligence. Consulting your very own conspiracy wall, you’ll be able to read through the intel you’ve gathered, find patterns and discern what the various code names and pseudonyms represent. It’s a neat bit of puzzle solving that often doesn’t make the cut in even the most die-hard of espionage games.

It’d be easy to write-off this as something that simply transplants the combat system of Hard West into a fresh setting. However, CreativeForge look to be reaching more than a few steps further than that with Phantom Doctrine. Wherever possible, they’re drawing out new mechanics and systems from both the genre of espionage and its real-life, historical counterpart. While this approach might make for a game with a lot to keep track of - that’s exactly what the target audience for it are after.

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Fergus Halliday

Fergus Halliday

PC World
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