The pin­na­cle of world power

Games TM - - CONTENTS -

Re­vis­it­ing the Cold War from a Pol­ish per­spec­tive, we find out how Phan­tom Doc­trine unites the world against a higher power

Achange of per­spec­tive is of­ten healthy. We look on oth­ers through our own eyes, not tak­ing into ac­count their ex­pe­ri­ence. We judge those we aren’t fans of by the stan­dards of those we are. We look at his­tory through a pre­de­fined lens – one which doesn’t take into ac­count the ex­pe­ri­ences that mil­lions of oth­ers have had in other parts of the world. Phan­tom Doc­trine isn’t a game aim­ing to change the very no­tion of how the West sees the cold War, but com­ing from a pol­ish devel­oper, it’s al­ways go­ing to have an un­der­ly­ing dif­fer­ence to the end prod­uct.

paweł kroenke, nar­ra­tive de­signer on Phan­tom Doc­trine, makes it clear the turn­based strat­egy ti­tle’s usp isn’t just ‘made from a dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive’. “We didn’t aim for, ‘okay, let’s make the cold War, east­ern­style’,” he says, “this is a game about op­er­at­ing in­de­pen­dently, as the player, so your or­gan­i­sa­tion is not tied to any po­lit­i­cal iden­tity – or to any ide­ol­ogy, in fact. you’re fight­ing a global con­spir­acy, one so big it tran­scends na­tional bor­ders.” Phan­tom Doc­trine doesn’t throw the player into a fight be­tween east and West like might be ex­pected. “it’s a fight about spies, who are not nice guys, against a global con­spir­acy, backed by even less nice guys. it’s re­ally vague, and post-mod­ern maybe.”

at the same time, the sim­ple fact is Phan­tom Doc­trine comes from a pol­ish stu­dio, from a team made up of mostly pol­ish na­tion­als, and it wasn’t too long ago that poland was on the other side of the iron cur­tain. kroenke ad­mits this unique per­spec­tive is sure to have had some im­pact on the game: “Be­cause most of the guys on the team are pol­ish, and most of the guys lived in the com­mu­nist era, they all have old his­tory and sto­ries in the fam­ily – and those sto­ries are about what peo­ple didn’t like,” he ex­plains, “But it still has a tint of this eastern per­spec­tive on the whole thing. it’s maybe not the main fo­cus, but i still think you will see some­thing that we just wouldn’t think about be­cause we haven’t lived in the West. at the same time, i think it will be viewed by the

West­ern player, be­cause it will be ‘weird’, as ‘this is un­usual, this is not how things work here’.” that change in per­spec­tive is sure to get more eyes on Phan­tom Doc­trine than it might oth­er­wise have achieved. While creative­forge games did achieve mod­est suc­cess with its pre­vi­ous turn-based strat­egy game, Hard West, that cer­tainly wasn’t enough to whip play­ers into a frenzy about what was com­ing next from the stu­dio. for­tu­nately, Phan­tom Doc­trine is po­si­tion­ing it­self as some­thing just dif­fer­ent enough to catch play­ers’ at­ten­tion, while at the same time mix­ing in a bunch of fa­mil­iar as­pects – fa­mil­iar to those who played Hard West, and cer­tainly fa­mil­iar to fans of the xcom se­ries. it’s the com­par­i­son with the fi­raxis greats that brings up an­other in­spi­ra­tion from creative­forge’s orig­i­nal idea in the shape of The X-files. “the first page of our de­sign doc on the game in­cludes the words ‘x-files’ as one of the main in­spi­ra­tions, and to be per­fectly hon­est, that wouldn’t be my first choice,” kroenke laughs. “When X-files was on tv, i was nine, maybe, and even then, to me it was com­pletely ridicu­lous. some­times it was cli­mac­tic and spooky and stuff, but a lot of the time it was pretty ab­surd. es­pe­cially the alien-based episodes and stuff. “so when they told me, ‘We’re go­ing to make this X-files game’, i was kind of like, ‘i’m not sure what we’re go­ing to do – aliens?’” he con­tin­ues. “and they’re like, ‘Well, no, no aliens, be­cause we want this to be a se­ri­ous game.’ ‘okay, so what do we do, like the Big­foot and all the le­gends… like telepa­thy, some para­nor­mal stuff?’ ‘no, we ac­tu­ally want it to be re­al­is­tic, so none of this.’ ‘okay, so what are we look­ing at?’ ‘like gov­ern­ment con­spir­acy’. this is what the orig­i­nal ap­peal of the X-files was for most peo­ple.” all of this means Phan­tom Doc­trine is still some­thing that can be com­pared fairly to xcom, deal­ing as it does with global con­spir­acy – and of course turn-based strat­egy – but the well be­ing drawn from went a bit deeper than just em­u­lat­ing the best in the genre. “We went from this, and we looked for other ref­er­ences that were more of a fit for the era that we se­lected for the game: the early eight­ies,” kroenke says. “that was help­ful as it gave us more in­spi­ra­tion, a wider ar­ray of things to pull from. We went into those spy movies and all kinds of spy fic­tion. But be­cause this was sup­posed to be re­al­is­tic and se­ri­ous, we didn’t go for James Bond, who was like big­ger-than-life and over the top.” in­stead, the team veered more in the di­rec­tion of the ‘stale beer’ wing of spy fic­tion

– your trench­coats and re­al­is­tic cases, John le carré and Tinker Tai­lor Soldier Spy, any­thing that errs more on the side of gritty, som­bre re­al­ity. “We felt that this fits the game very well,” kroenke says. “and this is an en­vi­ron­ment where we can build the con­spir­acy, and just see how far it takes us.” all these words count for noth­ing, of course, if the game it­self doesn’t live up to the plans. for­tu­nately, the team at creative­forge, which has ”ba­si­cally dou­bled“in size since Hard West, has nailed the at­mos­phere. play­ers are met with dis­tinct, dif­fer­ing me­chan­ics in and out­side of mis­sions, with the pre-mis­sion time spent piec­ing to­gether clues in or­der to pick up new leads, send­ing agents around the world to gather in­tel­li­gence and, rather bril­liantly, en­gag­ing in a ro­bust psy-ops cam­paign if your base cur­rently holds any cap­tured enemy agents. this lat­ter ele­ment al­lows a num­ber of dif­fer­ent ap­proaches, with the one we em­ployed be­ing a straight­for­ward brain­wash­ing at­tempt. if suc­cess­ful, the enemy agent is re­pro­grammed to re­spond to a trig­ger from your agents in the field be­fore be­ing re­leased back into the wel­com­ing arms of their orig­i­nal agency. en­counter this agent again in a mis­sion and you can use them as an ad­di­tional unit on the ground; an agent be­gin­ning be­hind enemy lines, quite lit­er­ally with back door ac­cess to ob­jec­tives. of course, this sort of re­pro­gram­ming can back­fire and be used against your own agents – it’s not just a cheat but­ton in dis­guise – but it’s a de­vi­ous de­light to turn an enemy against their own peo­ple with ab­so­lutely no warn­ing. the afore­men­tioned gath­er­ing of leads is an­other area in which Phan­tom Doc­trine nails its stale beer in­flu­ences – you’re lit­er­ally plopped in front of a cork­board and are left to pin up and rear­range code­words, pho­tos, in­for­ma­tion and more, string­ing them to­gether to form co­he­sive links and ac­tion­able in­tel. on the one hand, it can be a bit per­nick­ety, de­mand­ing that ev­ery pre­cise link be­tween spe­cific clues is found be­fore in­for­ma­tion is un­locked. how­ever, all of that star­ing at a screen, mov­ing pic­tures and string and pins around… it’s just spot on. at least to what we think be­ing a cold War spy would be like. not that we’d know. ahem.

Mov­ing into mis­sions, any player of Hard

West or xcom will be right at home from the start. play­ers are dropped into the fray not with guns blaz­ing or com­bat gear shim­mer­ing in the rain, but qui­etly, and donned in ca­sual slacks – this is in­fil­tra­tion; cloak and dag­ger de­cep­tion, not com­part­men­talised war. ar­eas are marked as freely ac­ces­si­ble or re­stricted, and it’s up to the player to ap­proach sit­u­a­tions how­ever they see fit with their team of (se­cretly) kit­ted out agents. as a quick ex­am­ple, we opted to use our off-site sniper – si­lenced and with a multi-turn cooldown be­tween shots – to elim­i­nate one prob­lem­atic guard, be­fore suc­cess­fully dis­arm­ing alarm sys­tems, ac­ti­vat­ing a brain­washed enemy agent, in­fil­trat­ing the enemy in­stal­la­tion in dis­guise and ex­fil­trat­ing with­out ever be­ing seen or hav­ing to harm an­other per­son. other ap­proaches are avail­able, of course, and it’s equally valid to go into things weapons hot, tack­ling your op­po­si­tion in a hail of bul­lets and neck-snaps from the shad­ows. tech­ni­cally you can go in all guns blaz­ing too, if you want, but Phan­tom Doc­trine isn’t a game that takes it easy on you. any at­tempt to over­whelm the much more well-equipped enemy force, mainly com­pris­ing sol­diers, didn’t go down too well. Ba­si­cally, there’s choice in the game, but it’s all framed from the per­spec­tive that you’re strik­ing from the shad­ows. you’re a team of spies, not the world’s great­est su­per­sol­diers. un­less you en­gage in some hard­core body en­gi­neer­ing, of course, which re­sults in faster, smarter, stronger agents – but gen­er­ally speak­ing, they’re just nor­mal peo­ple with honed skills. if it all feels a bit sim­i­lar to the di­rec­tion the stu­dio was tak­ing with Hard West, you’d be bang on – this is a learn­ing process for the grow­ing pol­ish team, and its War­saw base of op­er­a­tions is grow­ing both in staff and con­fi­dence with each pass­ing week. “this is sort of a con­tin­u­a­tion of

what the com­pany was do­ing with Hard West,” kroenke says. “it was also a turn-based tech­ni­cal game, and it was very small, but it was very re­strained. When we fin­ished Hard West, we felt that we had so much more to add to the genre, and we had many more ideas that we wanted to try out. We also felt like we need to make an­other step up in terms of qual­ity and pol­ish, so Phan­tom Doc­trine has a big­ger bud­get, and we used all the ex­pe­ri­ence we got mak­ing Hard West in this game in or­der to make it the best we can do, ba­si­cally.” that ex­pe­ri­ence go­ing into the game means a deeper, more ro­bust set of rpg-like sys­tems and a smarter, more com­plex over­all sys­tem be­hind ev­ery­thing. it also means no more west­erns for the time be­ing, as most of those in the stu­dio haven’t been able to even watch a movie fea­tur­ing cow­boys since com­plet­ing work on Hard West. at the same time, though, the set­ting of Phan­tom Doc­trine wasn’t taken lightly. “We had a bunch of pro­pos­als in terms of what we could do with set­ting,” kroenke ex­plains. “set­ting is ac­tu­ally a big thing for a com­pany, be­cause we be­lieve that if we make an orig­i­nal set­ting with a cool twist and some­thing that we haven’t seen much be­fore, it’s go­ing to add value to the prod­uct.

“This proved to be true with Hard West, where peo­ple said the whole at­mos­phere of the game was prob­a­bly one of the big­gest as­sets. We def­i­nitely wanted to cap­i­talise on that with Phan­tom Doc­trine.” the de­ci­sion to turn to the cold War came about be­cause of its seem­ingly ob­vi­ous mar­riage with a turn-based strate­gic set­ting – and the chance to send a group of agents on mis­sions around the world was one creative­forge couldn’t pass up on. oh, plus the whole ‘real life’ thing to link it to, of course. “there are so many cool sto­ries told in movies and books and in real life about the cold War,” kroenke says, “that we could ex­ploit to cre­ate an ex­pe­ri­ence that hasn’t been done be­fore.” the in­crease in scope and am­bi­tion isn’t some­thing kroenke or the rest of the team is down­play­ing, ei­ther – this is a team that’s very proud of how it is grow­ing and in­creas­ing and im­prov­ing. “ev­ery­where you look, it has more stuff than Hard West had,” kroenke says. “this feels like a le­git­i­mate pro­duc­tion. the other ti­tle was an in­die ti­tle, and we ba­si­cally had to scrounge ev­ery penny on Hard West just to re­lease the game. here we could al­low some ex­per­i­men­ta­tion and some it­er­a­tion.“of course, it’s not all plain sail­ing, and early ver­sions of Phan­tom Doc­trine were scrapped for be­ing ”dis­as­trous“, re­quir­ing play­ers to jug­gle way too many el­e­ments at the same time. But it’s all a learn­ing process.

“We made a pro­to­type,” kroenke says.

“and then we had to again and again, just make it us­able. Maybe it was fine, but to just make it work, to get a bit of so­phis­ti­ca­tion and stream­lin­ing.” pre­vi­ously, the team would have just cut a fea­ture rather than spend­ing time – and money – on try­ing to per­fect it. this time around there are far fewer lim­its im­posed, thanks to an im­proved fi­nan­cial sit­u­a­tion and a bit more

time to get ev­ery­thing right. “for Phan­tom

Doc­trine we’ve had sev­eral ver­sions, and have just make them more pol­ished and bet­ter-de­signed over­all, be­cause we had these com­pletely com­fort­able con­di­tions of hav­ing more peo­ple on board and more time and more money just to try out new things.” this ex­per­i­men­tal, it­er­a­tive ap­proach to de­vel­op­ment shows, with Phan­tom

Doc­trine of­fer­ing lay­ers on lay­ers to pick through as a player and help cus­tomise their ex­pe­ri­ence. there’s even the prom­ise of three dis­tinct cam­paigns, with the third only un­lock­ing af­ter one of the first two have been com­pleted. that third cam­paign will be more than just an op­tional, hid­den ex­tra, in­stead of­fer­ing a con­crete, defin­ing nar­ra­tive to get stuck into. and, of course, it’s not just the sto­ry­line as a whole that the devs want play­ers to come back to; the in-game events are ro­bust enough to see some deep changes as you play, and the strat­egy aims to be deep enough that even ex­perts will be kept on their toes. We def­i­nitely felt a pang of the clas­sic Po­lice Quest: SWAT 2 while play­ing. one area you might not con­sider when it comes to a grow­ing stu­dio is just how to man­age a project of a size you’ve not han­dled be­fore. as kroenke points out, it’s not all been plain sail­ing so far. “one of the tenets of the com­pany is that the three ma­jor de­part­ments: art, de­sign and cod­ing work not ex­actly sep­a­rately, but they’re man­aged sep­a­rately,” he says. “it’s not like a de­signer can tell an artist what to do. the task has to come from the art man­age­ment. this kind of pre­vents great syn­ergy and a very close co-op­er­a­tion, be­cause that would re­quire us to in­crease re­spon­si­bil­i­ties, and gets kind of messy in a big­ger pic­ture.”

While the stu­dio might be grow­ing be­yond its ‘a few peo­ple in a room’ in­die roots, there is still plenty of co-op­er­a­tion through­out the sin­gle­floor of­fice on the out­skirts of the city. “the story and the game de­sign are very close,” kroenke says. “When i was tack­ling the story al­most on my own, i also did a lot of game de­sign for the pro­duc­tion. We have a very close con­nec­tion be­tween game me­chan­ics and the story. a lot of the story pro­gressed through reg­u­lar game me­chan­ics, and some of it is scripted, but it uses a lot of reg­u­lar sys­tems.” and there was one area in which ev­ery­one was on the same page al­most from day one: Phan­tom Doc­trine is a dark game, both in set­ting and mood. “it’s not cheer­ful at all,” kroenke laughs.

“it has some jokes, but it’s not like it’s the most light­hearted set of char­ac­ters,” he ex­plains. “the stuff you do is se­ri­ous, and the prob­lems you face are se­ri­ous, and the ex­tent of these 12 con­spir­a­cies you’re up against… it’s kind of numb­ing, in a way. When you’re faced with an enemy who is de­cen­tralised. they don’t have a big leader; they don’t have a sin­gle base of op­er­a­tions; they’re ev­ery­where, ba­si­cally. you kind of dis­cover their end game, their main plot, and you can dis­man­tle this whole plot, you can stop it… but you’re far from de­feat­ing the whole con­spir­acy.” to know it’s still there, that the con­spir­a­to­rial group will try again – this is the world you’re a part of in Phan­tom Doc­trine. it’s dark, it’s tough and it’s not ex­actly rid­dled with hope. in short, it seems very much a prod­uct of the world be­yond the iron cur­tain. it’s not a game about the cold War, but Phan­tom Doc­trine stands out both as one set dur­ing the tu­mul­tuous time and as one made by a stu­dio lo­cated in what was once a hot­bed of in­trigue be­yond the West’s reach. it’s not go­ing to di­rectly chal­lenge the es­tab­lished nor­mal in gam­ing, which tends to­wards a us-cen­tric world­view and un­der­stand­ing of events, but Phan­tom Doc­trine will do a good job of show­ing us a dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive on world his­tory. More than that, it will show us the growth of a promis­ing stu­dio and an ad­di­tion to the strat­egy genre that brings with it some fine ideas. We guar­an­tee we’re not try­ing to brain­wash you on that.

"PHAN­TOM DOC­TRINE WILL DO A GOOD JOB OF SHOW­ING US A DIF­FER­ENT PER­SPEC­TIVE ON WORLD HIS­TORY"

agents are fully cus­tomis­able, with all up names, gen­der, race and back­story cre­ate for a re­work­ing – mean­ing you can your per­fect, be­spoke team of su­per­spies. En­vi­ron­ments are very much recog­nis­able, lead­ing to a bizarre sit­u­a­tion like this where...

What would an in­ter­na­tional spy or­gan­i­sa­tion be with­out the abil­ity to brain­wash enemy agents? noth­ing, that’s what. For­tu­nately, Phan­tom Doc­trine lets you do that and more.

Dark­ness is a key theme in Phan­tom Doc­trine, with your agents op­er­at­ing in the shad­ows as they do. It lit­er­ally never gets light. There’s a lot of im­pe­tus put on in­fil­tra­tion through­out Phan­tom Doc­trine, and you’ll want to sharpen your stealth skills...

If you want to run in, guns blaz­ing, you can do just that and the game will cater to you. un­less you’re well equipped, though, it’ll prob­a­bly all go wrong.

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