Oh to be a fly on the wall — or perhaps an agent in a kayak — when someone at nDreams pitched Phantom: Covert Ops. “An entire stealth game set in a kayak? Yeah right, like that’ll wor– wait that could work.”
Such is the thought process of anyone that pays more than a passing minute to Phantom. The concept behind it is undeniably ridiculous; an entire Cold War-era naval facility systematically dismantled over the course of a single night by a lone operative and their trusty paddle. If it were a movie, it would star Gerard Butler and carry the slogan: “They’re going to need a bigger base”. I would gladly devour six buckets of popcorn to get through it.
But this unusual premise feeds a powerfully immersive — if not exactly plausible — experience bolstered by intelligent VR-first design. While it might not fully realize all of that potential, Phantom establishes solid footing for a stealth franchise for VR to call its own.
Trivial as it may seem, Phantom’s mode of movement is one of the most convincing and enjoyable means of getting around in VR we’ve yet seen. Alternating rows, fending off of the sides, dipping your paddle into the water to brake, every element of traversal is intuitive and immersive. Paired with a physical UI that straps weapons and items to dedicated positions on your boat and body, Phantom has surprisingly few of those irritating reminders of your physical presence in the real world. This is not a game to play half-hearted; find a comfy chair, a pair of headphones and space to lean around and reach out in, and you’ll discover an experience to truly get lost in.
This also serves as the foundation for a single-player campaign that delivers the surface slickness of great stealth games with far less of the clumsiness we’ve seen in other recent attempts. When all’s going well, Phantom is a game of lethal professionalism, with last-minute scurries into the shadows and pinpoint assassinations with a silent pistol that aren’t too far removed from Splinter Cell’s secret agent satisfaction. Waiting in the reeds, slowly inching your hand towards your sniper rifle, and then shutting one eye, raising the scope and pulling the trigger before sailing to the safety of a nearby underpass is an efficient showcase of empowering VR role-playing.
Phantom: Covert Ops is a seated experience, but only includes smooth movement. The added comfort and context of sitting down will definitely make the experience more manageable than other titles, and you can use snap turning instead of the standard smooth turn if you want. However, fast movements and quick reverse turns could leave you feeling a little dizzy on one or two occasions.
nDreams hits many of those thrilling beats over the course of its three-ish hour campaign. Dramatic escapes under a hail of bullets, explosive sabotage missions, cat and mouse games with snipers, this has the lot. Much of what makes Phantom work is its rare sense of coherence, propped up with rules and parameters that make sure its players understand when they’re fully hidden and when they risk being spotted. Enemy spotlights skim the water, threatening to catch you like a deer in headlights, and level design features plenty of cover, distractions, and multiple paths to see you through to safety. When enemies do spot you, they shoot back without descending into a flustered confusion that kills immersion. By clearly establishing those boundaries, Phantom finds itself uniquely manageable.
The little things play a big part in the fun, too. If you’re out of noise-making sticky speakers to throw at enemies, for example, you can hurl an ammo clip behind them for a quick distraction. Opening doors and sabotaging machinery, meanwhile, are carried out with authentic physicality, rooting you in the experience that bit more. You can tell nDreams has poured a lot of love into the details here, mostly evident in Solid Snake actor David Hayter’s turn as a crazed Russian general that, while underutilized, feels like an alternate universe Metal Gear baddie.
It’s true, though, that the game’s welcome lack of mishaps stems from its relative simplicity. Boiled down to its core, Phantom isn’t about staying out of sight so much as staying out of the illuminated circle of an enemy flashlight. As long as you don’t accidentally sail too far into one, even on the hardest difficulties, chances are you’ll be able to sneak by without issue. Darkness should provide cover, yes, but in Phantom you’ll often find it’s more like an invisibility cloak.
Overcoming obstacles, too, is usually achieved by one of only a handful of tricks. Either you’re patiently waiting in the reeds for an enemy boat to pass (sometimes running so close you’d be impossible not to spot) or shooting something to cause a distraction. Phantom’s design is both a blessing and a curse, as there’s no verticality to open level design up, but there are missed opportunities under the ocean that I’d love to see explored later on. Phantom is undoubtedly a decent stealth game, but it’s the VR-centric design that really makes it stand out.
The game also adopts a sort of half-hearted Metroidvania structure you get the sense nDreams wanted to expand on. Early levels drop hints about returning to open up new paths with new tools, but the linear structure means you can only do this at the exact time the developer wants you to. Instead of a sprawling naval base, it’s a little like repeatedly circling around a one-way system. There’s a foundation here for a far more open-ended game that allowed players to familiarize themselves with an evolving environment that would become more intricate to navigate as you unlocked new mechanics and enemies became more advanced.
Quest vs Rift
Given that you’re seated for the entire experience, the wireless benefits of the Oculus Quest aren’t as obvious in Phantom as they are in most games (though they do still weight in). The PC version of the game is, obviously, the visually superior of the two with increased foliage and complex lighting. Quest is stripped back, but by no means unsightly. More details are in our comparison article right here.
Fragments of that idea, at least, are evident, like revamping old levels with sniper nests and sea mines, though they don’t radically change up the gameplay so much as give you new obstacles to avoid. Save for a few tight spots, I sailed through on Hard difficulty without too much issue, though self-imposing certain restrictions like no-kill playthroughs will obviously augment the challenge, and you’ll unlock extras for beating missions as skillfully as possible. Those extras are important, too, because they give Phantom a welcome degree of longevity past its snappy campaign. You’ll unlock new challenge modes, items to revisit levels in freeplay and even old-school cheats to put a fun spin on things.
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Phantom’s rock-solid foundations help it keep pace with other great VR stealth games like Budget Cuts 2: Mission Insolvency, and its polished presentation help it overtake Espire 1: VR Operative. If you’re a fan of VR stealth in particular, it’s an easy recommendation.
Phantom: Covert Ops Review Final Impressions
Far-fetched as it may be, Phantom’s fantastically immersive design makes for a VR mission well worth accepting, even if its campaign is shorter and simpler than hoped for. But what it lacks in gameplay complexity, it often makes up for in its giddy role-playing, going a step beyond many other VR games to convince you that you’re really in its (admittedly daft) world. A deeper sequel with more advanced gameplay would elevate the series to essential status, but Phantom already navigates the rough waters of VR stealth better than most.
Phantom: Covert Opts is available from today on the Oculus Rift and Oculus Quest headsets. For more on how we arrived at this verdict, see the UploadVR Review Scale below and check out our review guidelines.
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