If earlier this year you had me write a list of games that excited me, Phantom Doctrine would have been close to the top. A Cold War espionage strategy title with an X-Com flavor is so much my fuss that it feels as if it had been conceived in a focus group completely thought out for me. So, what could be better?
Unfortunately, the disappointing execution and some really strange design choices prevent this game from being a classic and, perhaps appropriate for something so important in the spy culture of the 70s, the whole process feels as boring and bureaucratic as the espionage work novel by Le Carré.
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The main one of these aspects is the decision to remove the random element to the attacks. Each shot fired in Ghost Doctrine is true, in any range. The damage is mitigated instead by the "consciousness" of the characters, a secondary resource that regenerates over time, or with special abilities, and is used for a variety of things.
Here's the problem: this means that a badly trained enemy with a gun can shoot from the other side of the map and do damage, even if it forces your agent to dodge, use his conscience, or graze or hit. This happens regardless of distance, coverage or any other consideration. And as their knowledge quickly erodes under repeated firing, there is a snowball effect, since with each targeted attack, an agent has less chance of defending itself.
Detailed descriptions of the specific mechanics are often awkward in written form, but it is absolutely crucial to understand that the decision to make the hit system so has changed the overall feel of the game.
It is almost impossible for a player to survive prolonged combat, but it also means that coverage and positioning are almost irrelevant and the game feels terribly unfair as soon as the bullets begin to fly.
Even the wide collection of spyware does not go far enough to minimize the frustrations of combat, because no matter what you do, many of the first battles become deaths by thousands of cuts while enemies attack you small pistols .
The game has a lot to offer: it creates the spy's aesthetic, which informs several of the mechanics, making it a unique experience.
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At the tactical level, the highlight is the disguise system, where its operatives can be inserted in the mission ahead of time and will start in situ in the mission, free to walk without suspicion . If there is a problem with the disguise system, it is that it is actually too powerful. Only enemy agents can detect agents in disguise, and with the correct levels, your disguised units are immune even to that, only breaking the cover if they kill someone in full view of witnesses or cameras.
When you reach this point, the two agents that you are allowed to disguise will run and carry out the mission, while the other agents will be left outside with large arms, hoping to have the opportunity to do something.
Disguised operators can not wear body armor or grab any weapon larger than a machine gun and a gun, but I really did not feel the limitation of this. In fact, the use of a heavy armor immediately marks the agents as hostile, even in areas where they would not normally enter illegally. So, there is a risk reward here, if you want to bring the equipment so you can rock.
Spoiler: the decision that "you can never miss" means that it is never worth risking to bring large weapons. Combat is a bet that can never be won.
Teams in the field can receive off-map assistance that includes cleaners who come to pack bodies and keep the heat low, observers with telescopes and even snipers on nearby roofs. These add many additional options, but they also evoke the feeling that you have an espionage organization behind the scenes.
On the global map, the strategy layer is a complex beast, with its spies circulating around the world acting as a liaison with informants, eliminating enemy agents and engaging in other missions designed to promote your objectives and hinder your enemies. Agents who maintain maintenance around the world to ensure that they receive the necessary training and are in the right place at the right time, can be arduous.
However, look at your base and many things are happening. This is where the game shines: agents can forge money as a primary source of income, or generate new papers and passports for agents who burn for catching too much heat. Other agents can create art, or research information packages that you find in the field. You can train your agents to give them new skills and abilities in weapons, and even give them advantages that will serve them well during tactical missions.
A personal favorite is the installation of MKUltra, which allows you to subject captured agents (and even your own) to interrogations, brainwashing and other forms of unpleasant torture. Sometimes, this means that you can activate an enemy agent in the field to fight for you or have them sabotage your cell when they return to the base of operations. This can also happen to you, which is a particularly unpleasant experience that will make you look hard at your scanned agents every time they leave your sight for more than 15 seconds.
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There is a problem, however. All this work: the detailed systems and interlocking mechanics that underpin Phantom Doctrine feel very busy. Micromanating your spy agency rarely feels funny, and considering that success in the game is so incredibly hard to obtain, it's empty.
This does not help much with the stories of the game. There are three stories that reflect the background of your agent. I chose the background of the CIA and worked with my American friends to try to decipher a conspiracy. The story was very spied on by the numbers and it was difficult to gather the will to follow it, when I was more involved in trying to build my espionage agency.
The story is intertwined with some sections of research evidence, using a virtual cork board to connect different tagged keywords. Despite being one of the strongest elements in the game, he was disappointed by the mediocre product wrapped around him.
Phantom Doctrine is a disappointment. However, he has lots of ambitions, many intelligent ideas and a clear and real love for the genre of espionage that he imitates. I have no doubt that you will find cult followers, but for people who expect a turn-based tactical game similar to that of the titans like XCOM 2 and Jagged Alliance 2, this is not all.
But that does not mean I'm going to stop playing it. It is deeply flawed, but as a proud and wrong father, I still want the best for the game and I can not leave it alone.
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