Phantom: Covert Ops is an excellent exercise in taking a platform’s limitations and making them work for you rather than against you. It’s out now for the Oculus Rift and Oculus Quest headsets, and we tested out the latter of the two.
When we met with nDreams for a preview of Phantom: Covert Ops almost a year ago, we instantly felt this was something special. It also set the bar very high for the Oculus Quest, as it was our first experience with the (then) new headset. A year later, not many games have come close and Phantom is a must-have showcase title for the platform.
When you think stealth action, you think of sneaking around in the shadows, lurking around corners and delivering justice when no one is expecting it. VR is great at delivering the kind of suspense that you associate with that – as Resident Evil 7 showed us so well. What VR can’t deliver, however, is the sense of quickly (physically) running for cover, or the sensation of pushing against a wall or object to make yourself less visible or harder to hit.
Phantom: Covert Ops has a unique and clever take on the genre that works around exactly those limitations. Rather than tackle missions on foot, the action unfolds with you in a military kayak – immediately taking away the need to walk around and created a seated experience that feels natural and completely immersive.
What helps in this regard is the fact that rowing feels great using the Oculus touch controllers. You grab hold of the paddle with both hands, and a rowing motion does exactly what you’d expect in the game. That’s not all though, because the rowing mechanics also have mechanics to make you do sharp turns, back up, speed up, slow down or even push off from surfaces. Once you get comfortable with the controls (which is fairly quickly), you can even lean your body left and right to help balance your boat and turn.
The game’s story campaign is divided up into seven missions, which should take you about three to four hours to complete on your first run. The story is continuous though, so it plays out like one big action adventure with you as the central figure who is on the scene trying to avert global war. A rogue Russian general who was presumed dead is running a weapons program once thought destroyed, and he’s planning to launch a major attack within a day. It’s typical action movie stuff with a fairly predictable plot, but the gameplay is strong enough to not have to rely on narrative twists and turns.
Although moving your kayak around enemies, floodlights and security cameras is a big part of the experience, you also need to do things like disable electronics, open gates and flip levels – all of which make great use of motion controls to add to the immersion. You also have a number of weapons at your disposal, with a silenced pistol and a sniper rifle being your strongest allies. Sniping is especially fun and immersive, as it requires you to close one eye while looking through the scope (though this can be disabled in the settings menu). You can also throw grenades, but throwing and releasing at the right time takes a little getting used to.
Playing through a level, you’ll quickly spot that there are alternate routes of approach – adding to the game’s replay value. Sometimes this is just a small passage underneath a building, but you’ll also encounter things that can’t be opened because you’re missing a piece of equipment – immediately giving you a sense that you’ll be trying this again some time in the future (and yes, you’ll find that parts of levels get repeated later in the game). With so many ways to approach a level there are a myriad of ways in which you can score points as well, and a look at the leaderboard reveals that I haven’t even scratched the surface yet – with plenty of nDreams employees currently dominating the chart ready for players to take them on.
Once you’re done with the campaign, you can tackle levels at will to improve your score, getting a rating of B or higher resulting in you unlocking additional challenges. You can also find audio logs inside the levels, so there are plenty of reasons to dive back in beyond the core campaign. It adds value to a package that was already worth the price of admission, due to its stellar gameplay. It’s worth cranking up the difficulty level after a while though, because on the easiest setting I had quite a few “I shouldn’t have gotten away with that” moments when I paddled right by an enemy seemingly looking out across the water. I know I’m wearing camouflage, but still….. the AI is a little too forgiving on the easy setting.
This is one of the top Quest games at the moment, but the Quest version also shows us that the hardware is limited, with visuals looking more like Metal Gear Solid 3 than The Phantom Pain. Still, this is easy to ignore in a game that’s so much fun to play and one of the most innovate uses of VR thus far. And if you need a MSG fix, then at least Phantom features the voice talents of David Hayter.
I’m very interested in trying out the Rift version once I’m done with this version, but for now this has been my top Quest experience so far that I can’t wait to have others try – just sit them down on a chair, and within minutes they’ll transform into a stealth operative. Hopefully we’ll also see more “ops” in this franchise down the line, it’s been well worth the wait.