Turn-based tactical shooters have garnered quite the cult following on PC and consoles in recent years. The XCOM games came out of nowhere to reboot an old franchise, and offer addictive isometric battles and deep levels of customisation. Many have tried to jump on the bandwagon and clone Firaxis’ formula, but few can capture its addictive appeal. Developer CreativeForge Games' previous title was a fantasy-tinged western with XCOM-like mechanics, and now it's swapping cowboys and spells for Cold War espionage in another top-down strategy outing.

Phantom Doctrine is essentially a covert conspiracy simulator. Choosing a starting organisation (CIA or KGB, a timely combination), you're quickly thrown into a labyrinthine plot of spy games. Activating sleeper units, tracking down enemy agents, gathering intel, and keeping your team alive? All in a day's work. Customisation options are available from the outset and you start by creating your very own spook, a Bondian archetype for the other agents to look up to. The initial temptation is to create suave super spy named Sterling Archer, but we chose a dapper CIA veteran complete with pipe and fedora. 

For anyone unfamiliar with this particular breed of strategy title, the main story mode is split into two distinct game types. Combat missions are turn based skirmishes in which you deploy a squad of agents with a mixture of stats and skills. Each team member has a level of ‘Awareness’, a diverse stat that determines ability usage as well as damage both given and taken in battle. Crucially, this replaces the randomly generated numbers that have plagued the XCOM titles.

True to the nature of the subject matter, there is a heavy emphasis on stealth, and unless your squad is experienced and armed to the teeth, you’re not going to want to go in loud for the majority of encounters. 

The second half of your campaign takes place in your base of operations. This is where you further the story, upgrade skills, and recruit agents. Sending spies across the globe to investigate suspicious activity and gather intel, watching the little airplanes traverse the world map, is a compelling experience. Stray too long in one area and their identity becomes compromised for a few in-game hours. Fail to make use of them, and the enemy draws ever closer to finding your hideout. Luckily, several potential base locations can be discovered, and swapping between them keeps the omnipresent danger level at bay. Juggling enemy presence, agent delegation, and keeping your squad in top shape is the real meat of the campaign.

Investigations are the main method of identifying key targets. and the connect the dots logic puzzles on the evidence board are a nice touch. It’s simple enough, but identifying bits of intel from evidenced garnered in missions and piecing them together really adds to the atmosphere of Cold War conspiracy.

Your enjoyment of Phantom Doctrine will ultimately rely on how much you can adhere to its strict mechanics and your tolerance for trial and error. Even on the easy difficulty, the game is punishing if you're not adequately prepared for a mission. Stealth is the way to go for most missions, particularly because enemies have no awareness when they haven't discovered you, making them easy to dispatch. Stalking around a level, picking off goons one by one is painfully slow, but it’s preferable to having your elite agents swarmed by automatic rifles from across the map.

Being thrown into head-on combat can sometimes feel cheap and frustrating, as the AI is ruthless and the damage percentages often feel imbalanced. Luckily the game autosaves each turn, so get used to recycling your save and sitting through loading screens on a regular basis. 

The overall tone of the game is dark and sometimes overly dour. While the narrative is engaging, It’s certainly a far cry from the goofy alt-history sci-fi charm of its key genre peer. That’s not to say the game is too serious, though - the mission banter is often witty and lighthearted, and some of the agent dialogue strays into the bizarrely comic. You may start to worry when one of your agents emits a bloodthirsty giggle whenever you tell them to go and kill someone.

The story unfolds via slick animated vignettes, and despite its generic spy versus spy plotting, is gripping enough to keep your attention for 15 hours of an initial run through. Clearing the main campaign once opens up an extended mode with additional chunks of story and extra objectives. There’s also an iron man mode for masochists, which blocks saving and kicks you back to the start on a game over. Meanwhile, multiplayer wasn’t available at the time of review, but the systems in place here should translate well to online conflict. All in all, Creative Forge seems to be making a living out of admirable attempts to ape the XCOM formula, and for the most part, this time it's succeed. 

Conclusion

A Cold War XCOM clone with enemy spies instead of aliens, Phantom Doctrine is a largely enjoyable strategy title. The awareness system means you have more control over the flow of combat, and the setting is well presented, rife with atmosphere and charm. However, the punishing difficulty and steep learning curve do take the edge off things every now and then.