Phantom: Covert Ops

Platform(s): PC
Genre: Action/Adventure
Developer: nDreams
Release Date: June 25, 2020

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PC VR Review - 'Phantom: Covert Ops'

by Chris Barnes on July 30, 2020 @ 12:00 a.m. PDT

Phantom: Covert Ops is a the stealth action VR title that immerses you in the role of an elite and deadly covert operative dispatched into remote, hostile wetlands in a military kayak.

Every now and again, a game comes along with such a bonkers concept that you just have to say, "Yes." In this case, Phantom: Covert Ops did just that. Its description as "a stealth-action kayak game" caught my attention. I just couldn't turn it down. While my attention fizzled as I explored the depths of a Russian base's water canals, nDreams is on to something, and I'm willing to give the sequel a shot if and when it ever comes around.

Phantom: Covert Ops throws you into the deep end and wastes no time. I appreciate the quick start-up, but it's also reflective of the game's cursory narrative. After playing through the campaign's seven brief missions, I found little satisfaction from the story. As a covert operative, you are tasked with uncovering a biological weapon that's being researched by a militant faction within a fortress that's conveniently located among sprawling waterways. Between a silenced pistol, a blowtorch, and a handful of other goodies that are stashed in your elusive kayak, you are a one-man, terrorist-stopping rowing machine.

As you uncover more about the faction, you learn that they're not only researching the biological weapon, but they have also unlocked the potential to launch the weapon internationally. I am fine with stealth-action military games having a clichéd story with exhausted tropes, but I want it divulged in an exhilarating fashion. Unfortunately, Phantom suffers from the lackluster approach that plagues many military-based games: radio-chatter interaction. Almost all of the story is delivered from distant lieutenants and overhead choppers issuing orders and marking your next objective. Beyond one or two characters (and I even struggle to recollect those), I wasn't aware of any of the characters' names until the credits rolled. The story is forgettable, lackluster and predictable.

Of course, it's the gameplay and not the story that typically draws a player to an action title. In this regard, I found Phantom to be enjoyable enough to see through to the end. From the get-go, you're in your trusty kayak, which can miraculously avoid enemy detection so long as you remain within thickets or outside of an enemy's view cone. These are basic stealth game concepts within the genre. The problem is that Phantom doesn't set itself apart or go beyond these basic design principles. Most encounters offer two potential scenarios: temporarily waiting in tall grass (to hide from enemy detection) until the patrol passes by or shooting a nearby object to distract the guards.

The enemy AI wavers between passable and downright laughable. You can easily scoot past enemies who are inches away so long as the flashlight is on. Most enemies are stationary and often don't even face in your direction. You can paddle by without worrying about the enemy, making you wonder about their purpose.

The simple stealth design and lack of difficulty holds true for most of the campaign, but the last two missions upped the ante and left me more satisfied. The final hour or so of the game includes tense escape sequences, frantic moments of using a blowtorch to unlock a door before a patrolling enemy heads my way, and deadly enemy fire. These final moments were satisfying and exciting to play, but just when nDreams starts to flex the potential of the concept, the game abruptly ends. It's truly perplexing, but it did leave me hungry for more. In a way, the last two missions are mildly depressing to play through because they reveal what Phantom could have been had it reached even half of its potential.

Additional modes let players take on the various missions with new objectives. Instead of taking the all-stealth approach that's prevalent in the campaign, players can play through a level with the objective to eliminate all high-value targets or finish within a certain time. These challenges add some longevity to the game, but the mechanics and physics were clearly built with the stealth approach in mind. I frequently found my paddles getting stuck in gates, struggled with pushing my kayak away from nearby walls, and floated past tall grass, desperately waving my controls in the air in the hopes of getting my kayak to stop its forward momentum. My comfort level with the controls did improve after five hours with the game, but that's far too long for a game that has a three-hour-long campaign.

Beyond some awkward physics, Phantom controls fine and should offer comfort to both VR veterans and newcomers. Unlike a lot of games released for Oculus, Vive, and Index, Phantom is played entirely in a seated position (don't try to stand in a kayak!). This was actually a welcome change. Those who want the immersion of VR without worrying about breaking a sweat now have a decent game to add to their library. Beyond this, nDreams has also done an admirable job of mitigating motion sickness. I prefer playing games like Half-Life: Alyx, Onward, and Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners with free locomotion settings, so I may have more of a tolerance than others. With a kayak in your periphery and enough comfort settings in the options menu, folks should be able to enjoy this game with little to no nausea.

The game also performs well. It's by no means a gorgeous-looking title, but that's not necessarily bad when it comes to VR. Comfort level and immersion are two of the most important factors in my enjoyment of a VR game, so any frame drops or hiccups kill it for me. With that in mind, Phantom gave me no performance problems outside of one hard crash. I'd expect the game to perform well on an RTX 2070 Super, but I suspect players who fall closer to the minimum recommended specifications should have few issues running the game. nDreams has clearly opted for strong performance and smooth frame rate over pretty-looking water and shadows — a decision I wholeheartedly support when it comes to VR titles.

In a medium that so desperately craves additional content, Phantom: Covert Ops isn't a bad purchase for VR owners who are hungry for more games, but it's by no means a banner release for 2020. With games like Boneworks, Half-Life: Alyx, and The Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners this year, the bar for VR games has risen exponentially. There's an exhilarating VR experience struggling to break the surface of this title. Phantom is holding itself back from breaking loose and taking the excitement to the next level. Hopefully nDreams has enough success with this game to carry its vision into a sequel.

Score: 5.5/10

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