Review: Phantom Doctrine lacks the fun of XCOM

I want XCOM 2 on the Nintendo Switch. I'm waiting for it. Hoping. It has yet to come, be announced or even rumored by its developers. So, of late, I've found myself looking for other ways to get my turn-based combat fix. I completed Wasteland 2 some time ago. Japanese games seldom hold my attention and, even Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle has lost its charm. A couple of days ago, despite its mediocre reviews, I downloaded Phantom Doctrine, for $20. It's so close to being pretty much what I'm looking for. Sadly, it's held back by a number of issues.

In the game, you're in charge of a cell of cold-war era spies who bop around the world collecting intelligence, killing members of a shadowy opposing faction and trying not to get captured or liquidated in the process. What are they collecting intel on? It's hard to say. Unlike XCOM, which has a solid story that leads you from one plot point to the next, in Phantom Doctrine, it's hard to keep track of what why you're doing what you're doing. The game's story is paper thin and even when it becomes a little more clear, still isn't all that compelling. Mission briefings inform you that you're supposed to collect an informant or, in some cases, kill someone who recognized one of your agents. You base is always under threat of being exposed. Your spies are always run the risk of having their covers blown. It's run-of-the-mill stuff.

As with XCOM 2, your team members gain experience from every encounter they survive. This experience can be used to tweak their build with new perks. New hardware and weapons can be crafted. Extra team members can be hired. Your base, just like in XCOM 2, is broken up into rooms, each offering a different facet of the micromanagement needed to run a successful in-game operation. You can build new facilities, sift through intel and task your team to new missions. In theory, with so much of the game aping Fraxis' superb turn-based gaming formula, I'd like to think that I'd be just as happy playing Phantom Doctrine as I am when I'm beating down an alien invasion.

But I wasn't.

While the Phantom Doctrine's stealth-centric game play kept things tense a lot of the time, the pleasure of playing quickly faded once combat began. I quickly discovered that using the game's cover mechanics made little or no difference to the damage that my team members were taking. I could position a gunner behind a brick wall and he'd still be hit by what ever lead was thrown his way, without fail. It made the game feel a lot less like a tactical challenge and more like a matter of attrition. Whoever shoots first tends to win. Worse still were the load times between turns. My Switch chugged along as the game's villains plotted their next move (which usually involved shooting me through solid cover), often taking as long as half a minute. What should have been a tense, action-packed pleasure turned out to be something of a drag.

I mean, for $20, it's not bad. However, at least on the Switch, it's not very good, either.