Phantom: Covert Ops (VR Review)
By: Stephen Machuga
Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) 2019 last year was a fairly predictable event, with multiple announcements of sequels and Chinese-backed mobile games filling up ever-shrinking floor space. However, one thing was impossible to miss among all the professional games journalist podcasts I listen to was “Did you get to play the Oculus stealth kayak Call of Duty game?”
Flash forward a year later and nDreams launches Phantom: Covert Ops on the Oculus ecosystem. Sorry Vive owners, you’ll have to wait on Phantom: Covert Ops until you either crack it across systems or it eventually makes its way over there. And yes, it is a game about you being on a team of Tier One special forces soldier who utilizes single person “stealth kayaks” for the infiltration of riverine or maritime objectives.
The story is fairly simple. You and your kayak are inserted alone into a sunken, waterlogged Russian base that has been taken over by a band of mercenaries led by a rogue Russian general named Zhukov. Fun fact: Zhukov’s voice actor is none other than the master of cardboard box stealth and “finding love on the battlefield”, Mr. Solid Snake himself, David Hayter. Your job is to get in there and figure out what Zhukov is up to and report back. A simple recon, then paddle your happy ass to the other side of the complex and make your extraction time the next morning. As you discover what Zhukov is up to, you end up having to come in and save the day…in your kayak. All the characters are simply voices over your radio for the most part, which obviously makes it hard to really get too invested into the story or characters.
Phantom: Covert Ops takes itself deadly seriously in its storyline, without an inch of a giggle inserted anywhere. Which is a bit of a disconnect with the absolute ridiculousness of the situation; it would be like watching Jerry Bruckheimer’s “The Rock” if all shootouts were instead solved with a quick tug of war or Sudoku battle. There’s just something downright weird about the whole thing. I would have loved to have been a part of the original pitch meeting for Phantom: Covert Ops because I get a feeling that someone on the executive staff of nDreams was a HUGE kayaker and wanted to write a digital love letter to his favorite hobby.
Now, Phantom: Covert Ops is set in the somewhat modern-day, so there isn’t a button on your kayak that turns you invisible; you paddle forward into an area with your array of various silenced weapons and noisemakers, use a magic viewfinder that marks all enemies and points on interest on your screen, and then it’s your job to paddle around the area avoiding raising alarms and moving to different checkpoints. You do have a radar on your boat that shows you threats, their level of alertness, and your level of visibility which is extremely useful. Guards in Phantom: Covert Ops are fairly oblivious: if you are not in their flashlight beam or lit up in some way, you can literally paddle directly under them, splashing around like a maniac with no penalty.
Another bizarre disconnect in Phantom: Covert Ops is when the game opens up, your handler at Phantom HQ tells you specifically not to kill anyone, to come in and leave as quietly as you possibly can, despite having a pistol, MP5, and long-range sniper rifle all with impossibly quiet silencers. Eventually, you get explosive magnetic charges to throw onto high-value targets, but you generally get penalized at the end of each chapter for making noise and racking up an unnecessary kill count.
You end up getting your heart rate going a bit with your general movement being your placing both your hands on the center of a double-headed kayak paddle and proceeding to make wide arm loops in front of you to propel yourself forward. There are definitely times when I gamed the system a bit and I could see my kayak overshoot into a beam of light and I would quickly rotate my hands into extremely small circles to put my kayak in reverse, but generally speaking, you are pantomiming the paddling movement pretty accurately to move. There are buttons on each of the hand controllers that allow for the equivalent of a handbrake turn as well, and by the time I was finished with Phantom: Covert Ops (approximately four hours for the main storyline), I was really nailing movement in the kayak.
Phantom: Covert Ops is by far not perfect. There is a mechanic in place where if you get too close to a wall, you can use the paddle to push off of the obstruction, but I spent half the time clipping the paddle through the thing I was trying to push off from. When you reach for your pistol strapped to your chest and fire off a few rounds, you can literally throw the pistol into the air and it magically finds its way back to your chest rig. Reloading is even simpler; there is no magazine eject button, you simply grab one from your stash and slap it in the magazine well. Again, minor hiccups on an otherwise damn fine time.
By the end of Phantom: Covert Ops, the mechanics, and gameplay get a bit repetitive. nDreams even recycled a great deal of their areas of the base; an area you passed through one direction during an earlier chapter is simply reversed as you’re “escaping” an area. The earlier chapters are simply straight line corridors with a single solution in play: come into an area, sweep it with your magic viewfinder, find a guard who is standing in your way, either shoot him or distract him by shooting a radio or fire extinguisher to get him to turn around, paddle through. While Phantom: Covert Ops does add more “enemies” towards the end of the game and the corridors open up to larger open water areas (complete with 2-3 ways to get through versus the usual one), there are no real headscratchers as far as stealth or getting through to your objective.
For the $30 that Oculus is asking, Phantom: Covert Ops is a fun little jaunt in VR that is definitely worth a pickup. If nothing else, you’ll want to be able to tell everyone that you played that “Oculus stealth kayak Call of Duty game”.