Unlike normal first-person shooters (FPS) which are all action and generally require lightning-fast reactions, when a videogame revolves primarily around stealth there’s a nice added level of intensity. Virtual reality (VR) titles like Espire: VR Operative or Budget Cuts are good examples of this, sneaking around corners and climbing walls to avoid being seen really invests you in the whole experience. Yet what happens when your feet are taken away, quick side steps or ducking behind cover removed because you’re in a kayak? That’s where nDreams’ Phantom: Covert Ops comes in, offering a uniquely engaging experience.
VRFocus has been covering Phantom: Covert Ops for a while now and each step has built genuine excitement for this stealth experience as it is so heavily centred around its locomotion system. You can’t say there are many kayak videogames in VR, let alone ones where you’re armed to the teeth with an assortment of both subtle and bullish weaponry.
Thankfully nDreams has at least decided to add context to this method, and not just plonking you in a camouflaged kayak for the sake of it. Phantom: Covert Ops is a military shooter where you play some elite specialist sent into a secret base by NATO to gather intelligence on a rogue Russian general. This base has fallen into disrepair after it was bombed several years prior, and because it’s located on the coast just so happens to be flooded, hence you have plenty of waterways to traverse.
So there’s the narrative behind the kayak, the other reason is far more practical, VR comfort. Even big AAA titles like Half-Life: Alyx have to include a wealth of comfort controls like teleportation and snap turning to ensure there’s minimal barrier to the gameplay. Phantom: Covert Ops does away with a lot of these issues because it is seated and requires plenty of upper body movement, all of which is very natural – even if you’ve never been kayaking. There is snap rotation if you really need it but hopefully, that shouldn’t be too much of a concern.
Simply get a nice place to sit and settle in. As stealth is the key you don’t generally need fast, hectic paddling motions, gently sweeping at the water to move. There are several actions to learn such as braking and hard turning yet they’re not that overly complicated to learn. Nice little touches include being able to push away from a wall with a paddle if too close. While for the most part the rowing was well executed there were occasional moments where braking just didn’t seem to work, or the kayak tail got stuck and no amount of paddling would dislodge it. Prepare for a good arm/shoulder workout as there’s plenty to do.
When it comes to gameplay nDreams has continually said Phantom: Covert Ops gives you the option to choose either stealth or more direct action. In reality it’s all about being as silent and sneaky as possible if you want to achieve the highest rankings and unlock all the extras. There are 7 core missions which will grade you at the end, with a maximum ‘S’ ranking unlocking different missions in the Challenge Mode. Naturally there are plenty of ways to achieve this, which is another of Phantom: Covert Ops’ strong points.
Most of the time then you’re trying to stay hidden, avoiding spotlights by hiding in reeds – a lot of reed beds – or creating distractions by shooting fire extinguishers. While the approach does mean maximum points it does become somewhat sedate and there are times where there doesn’t seem to be much to do apart from paddle. It can be really, really, tempting to just pop a couple of rounds off at the guards for fun. In that case, the whole level should be played like that, not serious and purely to see what you can do.
And replay you will. In fact nDreams has done a remarkable job on the replay side so that you get maximum bang for your buck even when it’s a single-player experience. Each level takes around 20-30 mins depending on how cautious you are. There are then secret toy crocs to find and ‘number stations’ for those 100%ers. These aren’t purely trinkets, unlocking them all will gain you audio logs, new loadout options and even cheats – yeah remember when games had cheats! There are 14 challenges to complete, from target practice to time trials and the Freeplay mode allows you to tweak your kayak and weapon selection for another run through to get a higher rank. Plus there’s the online scoreboard for those who like gaining first place worldwide.
Phantom: Covert Ops offers a decent slice of immersive VR gaming that will be well suited to most gamers. The main campaign is a little short especially as the levels are repeated and the core gameplay does lack depth for more experienced players. Even so, Phantom: Covert Ops is entertaining and there’s enough to keep you invested for a good few hours. Hopefully, nDreams will build upon this concept rather than letting it sink into the depths.