British developer nDreams have shown that they’ve got a lot of love for virtual reality, with their previous titles The Assembly, Bloody Zombies, and Shooty Fruity making full use of the hardware and winning awards along the way. Whilst these may not have always been wholly unique video games, they’ve always been a whole lot of fun to play and brought something that felt fresh to virtual reality platforms.
However, their latest release Phantom: Covert Ops offers an experience that doesn’t only feel unique to the virtual reality platform, but gaming as a whole. I mean, a stealth adventure that takes place entirely from the comfort of a kayak? It might sound like an outlandish concept, but nDreams really have something special on their hands here and it stands out as one of the most enjoyable single-player titles available on the Oculus store right now.
Phantom: Covert Ops puts you in the role of a nameless soldier that has been tasked with infiltrating a base that’s being operated by a vicious Russian general (who just so happens to be voiced by the brilliant David Hayter). There’s one twist in the tale though: the base itself is flooded, meaning you can’t sneak through it on foot but instead have to use a kayak to navigate your way through each guard-filled area in order to take the evil bastard down. It’s the sort of tale that we’ve seen done time and time again in both video games and movies, but the fact that it all takes place from the comfort of a kayak does add a unique and charming twist to the tried-and-tested formula.
Before playing Phantom: Covert Ops, I was slightly concerned as to how fun it would actually be to constantly be controlling a kayak in-game. Thankfully, this concern was alleviated almost immediately, with the motion controls of literally paddling in your kayak and making physical movements not only feeling authentic but mighty satisfying in-game. Making your way around in the kayak just feels simple, as does slowing yourself down, making sharp turns, or even moving backwards. Manoeuvrability is important in the game, but nDreams have made it feel incredibly accessible and comfortable for both virtual reality veterans and those new to the platform.
It is worth noting that there’s only smooth movement in the game, so those who are a little uncomfortable playing in virtual reality might have a few sketchy moments here and there. It is a sitting experience though, so it’s not as disorientating as some other games in virtual reality – it is worth bearing in mind if you’re not completely comfortable with smooth in-game movement, though.
Stealth is at the forefront in Phantom: Covert Ops, with the player constantly rowing between hidden areas and cover as they look to complete each of their objectives. It’s imperative you keep an eye on patrolling guards and their line of vision, whilst the spotlights that are constantly looking over the waters need to be avoided with some quick and clever manoeuvres. If a guard does get you in his sight you can take him out swiftly with your silenced pistol to avoid detection, though it is advised that you clear missions by leaving very little evidence that you were in the area to begin with. Just don’t worry TOO much if you have to leave a few bodies behind here and there…
The levels themselves are open in design and offer players multiple routes to take, so there’s plenty of flexibility as to how you can approach each area. It encourages players to experiment and do a bit of extra exploration, as do the collectibles that are littered across levels that offer an array of bonuses for the player. You’ll often re-visit some locations later in the campaign too, so having that extra bit of familiarity with an area will certainly help you out – especially since they often come with additional hazards or enemies the second time around. The level of freedom offered in Phantom: Covert Ops just makes it so satisfying to explore the world and it really lends itself well to the stealth-orientated gameplay.
Whilst you will spend most of your time in Phantom: Covert Ops carefully rowing around and picking your moment to sneak past enemies, it does have its share of action-orientated segments too. You can expect to avoid blazes of gunfire, dash your way out of a sniper’s reach and swiftly dodge mines that are littered across the waters throughout the game’s campaign, with each of these moments adding an extra degree of tension since you’re confined to a kayak as you desperately row your way to safety. Stealth games are known for encouraging players to play it safe and steady, but there’s still plenty of room in Phantom: Covert Ops for the sh*t to hit the fan and players to catch themselves in a frantic and deadly situation… I loved it.
That’s not to say that you’re left helpless in the kayak though, with players armed with a few weapons to get themselves out of some sticky situations. Pulling off quick headshots with your silenced pistol is always satisfying, whilst picking off foes from afar with your sniper rifle or taking out multiple enemies at once with a few bursts from your machine gun brought plenty of smiles to my face. Obviously, you’re supposed to try and kill as few foes as possible (and you lose points in-game for killing), but sometimes you just want to blow off some steam and hurt some baddies. Of course, you’ve also got plenty of tools that you can distract them with if you just want to get them off your back, whilst the grenades can cause a pretty destructive (and painful) way to keep enemies away. Put it this way: Phantom: Covert Ops might be stealth-based, but it certainly arms you well enough for those moments where things don’t quite go to plan…
Phantom: Covert Ops is undoubtedly a hell of a lot of fun to play, but it does have a few flaws that can hold it back. For one, the AI is very robotic in design, with enemies following strict patrolling routes that are easy to exploit and rarely noticing you even when you’re in plain sight. Obviously, this is something that’s been common in stealth games for years, but there were moments in the game where it was difficult to suspend the belief that the enemies couldn’t see me in their peripheral as I clearly rowed my way past them.
Phantom: Covert Ops isn’t a very long game either, with the main campaign easily beatable in around three hours. However, the fact you can replay levels to earn higher scores and find all of the collectibles makes up for this, whilst the additional challenges you unlock encourage you to approach the game in a multitude of different ways. You won’t run out of things to do in the game fast, even if the main campaign doesn’t last quite as long as you’d like it to.
Phantom: Covert Ops offers a virtual reality stealth adventure that isn’t only incredibly unique in design, but also a hell of a lot of fun to play. Navigating dangerous areas in a stealthy fashion in your kayak is just an intensely rewarding experience throughout, whilst picking off enemies in frantic showdowns is a blast too (even if it is discouraged in-game). It really ticks all boxes as far as the stealth genre is concerned and it’s easily the best form of it that I’ve experienced in virtual reality.
That’s not to say that it doesn’t have some flaws, with the lacking enemy AI and the short campaign length proving a little disappointing. They don’t tarnish what is otherwise a brilliant virtual reality escapade though, with Phantom: Covert Ops easily standing out as one of the Oculus Quest’s best titles.
Platform(s): Oculus Quest (Reviewed), Oculus Rift