Phantom: Covert Ops is a rather unique take on a stealth action game, and one that’s clearly been designed with virtual reality in mind. With paddle in hand, you’ll find yourself sleuthing through sluices in a tactical kayak. But are the waterways a welcoming venue for fun stealth action? Read on to find out.

Phantom: Covert Ops Details:

Publisher: Oculus Studios
Developer:
 nDreams
Available On: Oculus Store (RiftQuest)
Reviewed On: Rift S, Quest
Release Date: June 25th, 2020
Price: $30 (supports cross-buy)

Gameplay

Phantom: Covert Ops is built entirely around being in a tactical kayak—which is just like a normal kayak, except that it’s camouflaged and has some deadly guns and gadgets attached. Throughout the game’s campaign you’ll find yourself paddling through shadowy spillways, distracting guards, and destroying key objectives. The story is nothing you haven’t heard before: a bad guy (who’s just evil because… why not) wants to hurt some good guys, and it’s your job to stop him.

The core gameplay involves following objective markers along a quite linear path which will sometimes be blocked by guards at the water’s edge. Stealth tends to be the best option because when the bullets start flying you’re mostly a sitting duck in the kayak. Luckily you can slip under docks and into reeds to stay concealed, and occasionally you’ll need to dodge a flashlight or security camera as you slide from one hiding spot to the next.

As you paddle around, you can pull out your night vision goggles; with the click of a trigger they’ll ‘mark’ any guards and interactive objects in the area. Unfortunately there isn’t a particularly large variety of objects. There’s things that distract guards (like an air canister or … a box-shaped air canister), generators which can be disabled to turn off lights, and explosive barrels.

Image courtesy nDreams

These are your tools for dealing with guards, boats, and security cameras that watch the water’s edge. If you do get spotted, you have a brief moment to take down the guard that spotted you, otherwise they’ll alert the other guards too.

As for tackling objectives, you’ll be regularly asked to slip underneath structures like satellite dishes to disable them, and occasionally you’ll use explosive charges to blow up other objectives.

SEE ALSO
'Phantom: Covert Ops' Taps 'Metal Gear Solid' Snake Voice Actor for Main Antagonist

While Phantom: Covert Ops starts out strong with solid mechanics and interactions, the mechanics and the ensuing scenarios plateau pretty quickly.

It didn’t take long before the gameplay felt formulaic; I would enter a new area, mark everything in the vicinity with my night vision goggles, and then either slip past the guards undetected or create some small distraction and then go along my way. If I was feeling lazy I’d just drop a lone guard with my silenced pistol or sniper rifle. There was little sense of planning & executing, resource management, or overall strategy.

I was happy to see when the game finally introduced mines and security cameras—the sort of things that pushed the challenge and intrigue up a notch by requiring me to make more deliberate moves—but unfortunately that’s pretty much where the gameplay arc plateaued. About half way through the game I bumped up the difficulty from its medium setting to its highest setting which made things a little bit more interesting.

While Phantom: Covert Ops has some strong gameplay ideas, it doesn’t manage to get them to synergize particularly well; the gameplay sandbox isn’t quite dynamic enough to support the kind of thrilling scenarios that you’d expected from a great stealth action game.

Beyond the campaign mode, which took me around four hours to complete, there’s also Free Play mode and Challenges.

Free Play allows you to replay any level to try to improve your score (which is determined by factors like how many times you’ve been spotted) and you get to select your own loadout from equipment that you unlock throughout the campaign. You can also enable any of a few dozen cheats (like big head mode, super difficulty, unlimited ammo, low gravity, etc) in Free Play. Earning a high score on levels in Free Play (or the campaign mode) will unlock one of 14 challenges.

Challenges are mini-games that grade you based on time or score, and they’re actually worth a spin. Though they only take a minute or two each, they’re fun little extras like racing through a series of gates to score the best time, a range of pop-up targets to test your marksmanship, or a challenge to kill all guards along a path. Each challenge has leaderboards, so you can see just how well you match up against everyone else.

The challenges typically push the game’s mechanics to more interesting extremes, but unfortunately they smack of gameplay beats which couldn’t be effectively integrated with the main campaign.

Immersion

The core interaction and locomotion design of Phantom: Covert Ops is inherently quite immersive. Being in the kayak and paddling your way along the water feels really good. The way that weapons and gadgets are attached to your kayak around you and right within arms reach makes for a perfectly intuitive inventory system that’s always right where you expect it to be.

If there’s a lever or latch to pull, it almost always feels satisfying, and nDreams thoughtfully placed extra hand-holds near key switches and levers which makes it easy to grab hold of and pull yourself in closer for the interaction.

Weapon handling also feels quite good. The weapon models are reasonably high quality and the game applies a smoothing effect to the movement of your hands depending upon how heavy the weapon is. That prevents weapons from wiggling unrealistically, and provides a sense of virtual weight. You can also two-hand pistols right along with the explicitly two-handed weapons like the SMG and sniper rifle.

But there’s a few misses too. While the weapons look good, their actual use and mechanics are quite arcade-y. If you release any object like a gun or your paddle, it instantly snaps back into its holster. While this is of course convenient, it means you don’t need to focus too much attention on managing the items around you. You can, for instance, aim your sniper rifle and then simply release it to then reach for the SMG on your back (knowing that the sniper rifle will just pop back into its holster).

Reloading weapons also feels awkward (and even unnecessary). Throughout the whole campaign I think I might have reloaded each weapon a single time (there’s just not much need to shoot). You do so by grabbing a magazine from the pouch in front of you, and then moving it toward the magazine on the gun. Then you’ll watch as the old mag magically ejects and the new one pops into its place.

This is made more awkward by the poor hand-posing on the magazines; the way the hand clasps most magazines means that you’ll probably bump your controllers together when you try to put the new mag in—it’s as if the developers were exclusively building the game on the original Rift CV1 (which had controllers with rings facing down instead of up like on Rift S and Quest controllers).

SEE ALSO
'Phantom: Covert Ops' Preview – A Compelling Take on VR Stealth, but Comfort Challenges Could Muddy the Waters

A greater emphasis on those near-field interactions with weapons and gadgets could have been a great way to diversify the gameplay and move the player’s attention between more than just looking out for guards and the next hiding spot.

Unfortunately the game’s trite story doesn’t help on the immersion front. After playing the game’s four hours of campaign, I recall the names of two characters—neither of which were interesting in the slightest due to a complete lack of character development. In fact, I found some of the throw-away guard dialogue more interesting than whatever the main characters (AKA voices on the radio) were up to.

The game’s sound and visual design are passable, but left me wanting. I found the game’s lighting to be often confusing, both visually and mechanically. In many cases, light seems to emanate from no source in particular, leaving the environment often looking light a patchwork of oddly lit and unlit spaces. And then there were places that seemed perfectly bright but I could easily go undetected right in front of a guard while waving at them in jest. P.S. Do yourself a favor and disable anti-aliasing; the reduction in aliasing isn’t worth how much sharpness the game sacrifices.

On Quest specifically, the headset’s OLED black-smear issues are truly exacerbated by the game. Dark areas of the scenes get smeared around a good bit during head movement, largely defeating the benefit of having the OLED display in the first place. The game is still playable, but I’m hoping this could get patched in the future to prevent the game from using true-black so often (thereby hopefully reducing smearing).

Sound in Covert Ops is a mixed bag too. At the start of the game you’ll see a big pop-up that says “Headphones recommended.” And you should absolutely follow that advice for an instant boost to immersion (though that’s more on the sub-par speakers of Rift S and Quest than anything else). Even with headphones, sounds in the game don’t seem particularly well polished—like the very uneventful sound effects for when you’ve been detected or the sound of incoming gunfire when you’re being shot at.

Comfort

Image courtesy nDreams

I was quite worried about the comfort of Phantom: Covert Ops in my most recent preview because the game’s smoothly turning ‘sharp turn’ mechanic clearly grated on my brain. Too much of that smooth turning and it would be a trip to nausea town.

I’m very happy that the studio has added an ‘incremental turn’ option which causes the kayak to snap-turn when you employ the ‘sharp turn’ button. Although the motion doesn’t feel as natural as smooth turn, I found that it was a hell of a lot more comfortable and that it had almost no impact on gameplay. Thanks to the incremental turn option, I could play Covert Ops indefinitely without the risk of nausea slowly building.

Thanks to the addition of incremental turn, I found the game very comfortable throughout.

Those who are highly sensitive to motion might take issue with ‘strafe’ paddling (which can slide the kayak sideways) or when using the paddle to push against the shore to move the kayak, though both can be avoided easily with almost no impact to gameplay.

I also didn’t notice a single instance where tracking was an issue—either when reaching for objects in my inventory or using the two-handed sniper rifle—which means that nDreams designed around the inside-out tracking limitations of Rift S and Quest very well.

As a seated game, Phantom: Covert Ops can be played easily in a fairly compact playspace. While I started out sitting on the floor, eventually my back got a bit sore due to no support. I stuck an arm-less chair in the middle of my playspace for the second half of the game and much preferred the back support.

REVIEW OVERVIEW
Overall
7

This article may contain affiliate links. If you click an affiliate link and buy a product we may receive a small commission which helps support the publication. See here for more information.


  • benz145

    Thanks for reading our Phantom: Covert Ops review! Please note the following before commenting so that we can have a thoughtful discussion:

    • We scored this game 7/10 – ‘Good’ by our linear scale.

    • Even if the text of the review focuses more on critique than praise, or vice versa, the score aims to boil down the reviewer’s overall opinion of the experience.

    • If you haven’t played the game, understand the limits of your knowledge.

    • If you have played part of the game, your experience may differ from those who have completed it in its entirety.

    • Road to VR does not ever accept payment for reviews or any editorial content.

  • geronimo

    They’re really just leaving money on the table at this point. They will always have a closed system for Quest, so if they opened pcvr games to other headsets, the sale of any cross-buy and/or cross-save game is essentially making the Quest more appealing. It’s a win-win imo.

  • I think this would be a must buy pre Alyx. But now the bar is raised and it might be harder for small developers to keep up. (They might have to price accordingly)

  • From your preview that you published weeks ago I expected a higher mark… so the game is original but not THAT amazing, what a pity!

  • Greyl

    I thought Lone Echo works fine on Revive? Sure it wasn’t just a problem on your end?

    • Here’s the problem. It’s worked in the past, but its not working now. It’s a gamble spending money in the Oculus store to rely on a 3rd party tool that is maintained by a single Dev, on a part time basis.

      • Greyl

        I agree with you that closed platforms are bad and Oculus should just open themselves up to all headsets on PC, including Quest games/ features on Rift (and vice versa).

        But I also want to see PSVR and PlaySatation games on PC. And I don’t understand why you’re giving PSVR a free pass when it comes to exclusivity, while taking umbrage with how Oculus operates. At the end of the day, a “platform” is a platform, regardless of whether it’s tied to hardware, like a console, or tied to a software platform, like Steam, Epic, Uplay, etc.

        If your logic is, ‘Sony are trying to sell hardware’, well so are Oculus with their Rift headsets. As were EA trying to reap 100% of profits when they made their games exclusive to Origin in the past. That’s how platforms generally work.

        • PSVR and Quest are consoles, PC isn’t and never has been. Creating a console model within PC isn’t cool.

          PCVR should reflect the open nature of the PC, free to build to meet your needs, modify, adapt. Headset as monitor, not gatekeeper to ecosystem?

          • Greyl

            And I agree with that 2nd paragraph about PC’s being an open platform, 100%, but I also think that same logic applies to consoles and PC.

            Consoles are x86 devices, ostensibly similar to PC’s, and multiplatform game engine development has made porting between consoles and PC much easier in the past 7 years. Quest is ARM based and I can see the argument, to some extent, that code might not be easily portable between PC.

            To me, Sony are leaving money on the table when they don’t port their games to PC. Microsoft are now putting their games on PC, so it’s not out of the realm of normality anymore.

            But regardless, and Sony aside, I see your point, and would like to see Oculus open their storefront to all PCVR headsets. But at the same time, the logic is that they’re trying to sell hardware or sell their software platform with platform exclusives. I don’t agree with that, either, but it’s the same mentality and practise of Sony and other paltform holders.

            Also, Oculus typically funds these exclusive games, so technically it makes sense for them be exclusive to their platform. Fortnite, for example, is the one Epic exclusive people say makes sense to be an EGS exclusive, because it’s 1st party.

          • Thanks for your reply.

            I understand Oculus (Facebook) position it’s a proven strategy to build userbase, but certainly at odds with traditional PC ecosystem.

            Nothing wrong with exclusives, but these should be open to all, the quality of the content will create loyal customers; rather than DRM lockdown to specific hardware peripheral?

          • Greyl

            It could be a number of reasons; perhaps officially supporting other headsets requires extra work, cost, troubleshooting and commitment. Perhaps they’re simply focused on selling their own hardware right now; perhaps VR is too much of a niche for software sales to be very profitable, so having a locked down headset and locked software platform makes the most sense to them right now. But with the recent emergence of multiplatform API’s, like OpenXR, I think it’s only a matter of time before they open their platform to other PCVR headsets.

  • PJ

    7 seems very generous

    I refunded after clocking in 1h 45m, I had a sense I was getting bored after an hour, and had feeling that I had seen and done everything there was on offer, it started to feel like rinse and repeat gameplay.

    As another commenter also said, I blame Half Life Alyx, the bar has been risen dramatically, nothing at all compares to it, to the point if it wasn’t for Contractors I wouldn’t be playing VR at all right now

    • benz145

      I don’t think HLA is to blame. If I had never played that game, I still think I would have critiqued this one in the same ways, which is fundamentally about lacking a synthesis of mechanics atop an otherwise good idea.

  • PJ

    I agree, I hate this walled garden crap, but to be honest since Lone Echo Oculus funded games have been disappointing, and that’s being kind

    • Really impressed with Robo Recall, Lone Echo and many of their VR exclusive experiences (Coco VR, Wolves in the Walls, etc. )were really good.

      But on PCVR it should be open, totally understand the Quest’s console business model like PSVR (Sony)

      Would like to help fund VR development by giving money to developers for legally accessible content which ever storefront it’s on.