All Aboard the Death Boat in Phantom: Covert Ops, a Stealth-Action Kayaking Game in VR
I spoke with Lewis Brundish, director of Phantom: Covert Ops, at Oculus's booth at E3 2019, with no idea what I was in for. The game is set in 1991, he explained to me, in a flooded outpost on the coast of the Black Sea. A militia group has gone rogue, unwilling to admit the Cold War has actually ended, and you're a lone stealth operative who must go in to deal with them by any means necessary before they figure out a way to drive the world back towards the brink of war.
Up to this point, I'll admit I was a little cynical, because it sounded like he was basically describing Metal Gear Solid.
"And you're seated in a kayak the entire time," Brundish said.
Okay, so it's not like Metal Gear Solid.
Phantom: Covert Ops is an exclusive game for Oculus platforms by nDreams, the UK-based studio behind Shooty Fruity and The Assembly. It's been in development for about 18 months, and in part, is an experiment by the studio regarding movement in virtual reality.
The idea that led to Phantom, as Brundish told me, is to try to figure out new ways of allowing for exploration and movement-based gameplay in VR without breaking immersion. A lot of other games use teleport systems, where you hop around a few feet at a time, or locomotion, where you walk around using your thumbsticks. Both have their pluses and minuses, but both unavoidably remind you that you're playing a game.
Hence Phantoms: a stealth action game where you do not move at all unless you do so by rowing your boat.
Phantoms is played from a seated position, mirroring your character's position inside the kayak. In-game, you have a silenced pistol holstered on your character's chest, an unsilenced SMG slung across your back, a silenced rifle kept on the right side of the boat, and your kayak paddle hooked onto the left side. Your spare ammunition is kept in a satchel in front of you, with each gun's magazines stacked neatly in rows, along with a small supply of plastic explosives.
To move, you have to pick up the paddle, take hold of it with both hands, and actually drag it through the virtual water. Turning requires you to paddle harder on one side or the other, with sharper turns made possible by holding down a button on the right controller.
It takes some getting used to. The water physics in Phantoms are accurate enough that I found the kayak reacted about as I expected it to, which was both good and bad.
When you're moving along at a brisk pace and have to hang a hairpin turn to avoid a helicopter's searchlight, you rapidly have to confront the fact that you can't actually do that in a boat. I spent a lot of time frantically paddling, trying to get the kayak to spin in the direction I wanted before somebody saw me and picked me off.
Notably, Phantoms sticks to the ammo economy and general tactical approach of a stealth game. Your guns are reasonably powerful, but they are also realistically accurate, and resupplying on the go is a dicey proposition. There will be resupply drops in the final version, but no such option existed in the E3 build. You can shoot out enemy spotlights to give yourself room to slip by or snipe a couple of stragglers to leave yourself an opening, but actually trying to run and gun through the game was almost guaranteed to result in disaster. If nothing else, there just isn't enough ammo for it.
That leaves you with stealth, which is a unique experience when you're trying to do it in a kayak. You can use tall reeds to conceal yourself, which gives you a handy way to hide if you get into a jam, but there's nothing on the market today quite like trying to get back into concealment in a hurry in Phantoms. You have to row like a crazy person in just the right way, to manage sharp turns or throw yourself into reverse. You can also deliberately gather enough speed on a straightaway to let the boat move on its own for a while, which lets you drop the paddle and pull out a weapon for a good solid drive-by shooting. In a kayak.
Phantoms is a weird one. It's got the feel down pat of a solid VR shooter, with a decent feel to its weapons, and I got used to stealth kayak action faster than I expected to. It is a little weird to go through an entire game from a riverside perspective, floating through checkpoints and underneath flooded buildings; it's like an entire gimmick level from a non-VR game blown up to a full-length experience.
At the same time, though, if there's ever another game that can describe itself as "stealth kayak action," I'll be surprised. Phantoms: Covert Ops is, if nothing else, a memorably weird entry into the crowded field of realistic military VR shooters, and it deserves attention just because it's doing something legitimately new.