If you’re a fan of Hitman or Metal Gear Solid, then Phantom: Covert Ops scratches that itch and ticks all the boxes as an excellent VR stealth shooter.
Phantom: Covert Ops has been greatly anticipated for some time, thanks to a handful of previews by the online press over the past year and that it had been sitting in the Coming Soon section on the Oculus Store for a number of months. This highly anticipated stealth shooter has finally been released, and if you can stomach its controls, it’s a great, immersive stealth action game for the Quest.
You only have to take a look at the games’ store cover art to understand that this VR title isn’t your typical stealth game. You won’t be sprinting between cover points, ducking behind weapon crates and hiding behind missile silos. Instead, you’ll be seated throughout the whole experience in a military-spec kayak, fit with an easy to reach arsenal of silenced weapons and the kind of toys that James Bond would be familiar with, each at an arm’s reach around you.
At the start of the game, you get to learn through a very Metal Gear Solid inspired briefing, about who you are and your overarching mission goal. As part of the Phantom covert unit, you have to infiltrate a newly formed militia who are operating out of a previously used cold war naval facility. As a single recon operative, you’re tasked to infiltrate the now derelict and flooded chemical weapons facility and assess any possible threat, all from the confines of your military-spec kayak. It’s a good job where you need to be and what you need to destroy is within reach of water, otherwise, your mission would be made a lot more difficult.
Unlike in some popular stealth games, such as Hitman, where you are whisked off to exotic locations, Phantom’s location doesn’t stretch any further than the naval facility. Each single-player mission location continues where the previous one ended. Taking place throughout an entire night, the military compound is fairly dark and dimly lit. From the first drop out of a Chinook helicopter, paddling through a research facility and breaking into dockyards, each mission has you continuing along a linear journey under the cover of night, at times you revisit previously explored locations.
Controlling your Kayak is done by grabbing a single kayak paddle from the left side of your kayak and holding it with both your Touch controllers elevated in front of you. To move around, you simply mimic a paddle motion to move your kayak through the virtual world around you. For anyone who has paddled in a canoe or kayak before, you’ll take to this like a duck to water. It’s developers, nDeams, have nailed the paddling controls all the way down to being able to push your kayak away from walls and banks with the paddle, whenever you find yourself in a tight spot. For anyone paddling for the first time though, it can feel like rubbing your head and patting your stomach at the same time, but with the little time you have at the beginning of the game, you soon get into the swing of things and controlling your kayak never got too frustrating.
To interact with the world outside of your kayak, you have a bunch of weapons and tools around your seated position. Each of them are all located in fixed positions around you, so you soon learn where to reach out in order to equip the tool or weapon you need. Reach for your chest to pull out your silenced pistol, reach over your back for the submachine gun, and reach down to your right side to pick up your silenced sniper rifle. Down on your lap, there are a pair of night vision binoculars that you can pull out to mark up patrolling soldiers, things you can shoot at to distract them with and locate key mission waypoints. Ahead of your lap there are also compartments to store ammo clips and explosives that you collect along the way.
The key to earning the highest score at the end of each mission is to avoid pulling the trigger on any of your weapons. But with security cameras, patrolling soldiers and floodlights in your way, you have to find other means to get to your mission waypoints. Luckily, there are some well-placed objects nearby to cause a distraction for each of these obstacles that you can shoot with your silenced pistol to explode or trigger them, once the person nearby is distracted this gives you the time to paddle like hell to get past their patrolling spots.
There are also water reeds to hide in along your route. By moving your kayak into these reeds, it allows you to hide from plain sight, should any patrol boats float past or the wandering torches of soldiers cover your path to the next waypoint. In later points in the game, these hiding points can become crucial to locate and go in between, yet I sometimes wish there weren’t as many of them in order to make some levels a little more challenging in easier difficulty modes.
Speaking of difficulty, these are three modes in the game you can choose from. In its easiest ‘New Recruit’ difficulty, the game doesn’t tax you too much and you can consume the main storyline and its surroundings without worrying too much about being spotted or killed outright. Dial-up the difficulty and enemies begin to listen out to the noises you make and you can’t take as many hits if any enemy fire comes your way.
Throughout the game’s seven missions, I had a blast. I didn’t think a seated experience for a stealth shooter would work out that well, but it felt comfortable, fresh and almost calming for a VR based shooter genre. Because you don’t have to pull the trigger to kill any of the threats you encounter, the game is mostly down to paddling between waypoints and avoiding contact, but you can so easily dive in and take out every loan soldier along the way.
It’s developers have done a decent job for anyone without a level of VR legs. With a faded tunnel vision effect when you rotate the kayak quickly, to the generally seated position of the gameplay, it was only during long and intense sessions with quick movement did I start to feel any nausea. Taking on the game at a slightly slower pace did reduce this nausea, as did taking breaks between each of 20 to 30-minute mission length.
Once the main story is complete, you can take to upping the game difficulty, playing in free play mode with a number of cheats and load-outs, or having a go at competing in the game’s Challenge mode. Each single-player mission you complete unlocks the same mission location in free play and challenge modes, which you can dive back into and compete against a set of challenges with scores being added to an online leaderboard. Each challenge consists of either Elimination, Assassination, Time Trial or Shooting Range challenges. It’s a nice and easy way to bring added depth and value to the game’s existing locations, objects and enemies.
So if you’re into your Hitman or Metal Gear Solid, then Phantom: Covert Ops scratches that itch and ticks all the boxes as an excellent VR stealth shooter. I hope the franchise does well enough for its developers to fly our operative to new, and hopefully sunnier and brighter, conditions. This would usher more variety in gameplay and add more locations and memorable set pieces. Phantom: Covert Ops is certainly a great start to a new franchise that I hope continues to flourish and allow us to jump back into the kayak once again.