My paddle dips quietly into dark waters under the cover of night. At a nearby dock, a guard waves his flashlight over me, but nothing happens. I freeze, staying as still as the reeds surrounding me.
As the guard turns away, I breathe a sigh of relief and holster my weapon. I paddle into the underbelly of a huge satellite, pulling a small switch to disable the enemy base's communications. But the act of sabotage quickly catches onto the guard I spared, who is about to alert his friends. Time slows down, but my pistol sends a few silent rounds into the guard to keep him quiet. I calmly paddle back into the dark, away from a mess of patrol boats and confused soldiers who lost a friend and their duties.
What Phantom does especially well is to remind players this isn't Call of Duty. nDreams has crafted its own formula in VR to make the ideal soldier slow, steady and silent in order to win. You're continually punished by making yourself known to enemies and never have enough bullets for everyone. Its plot effectively justifies this by making your entire mission one detection away from an international incident. This effectively makes VR players responsible for being slow and steady, making the idea of a one-kayak-army believable.
Surprisingly, the game's stealth works incredibly great from its own twist. What the game lacks in traditional movement is made up with a new one using a paddle. Players are confined to a kayak for the entirety of Phantom Covert Ops, with movement being restricted to the upper body. Developer nDreams have went through lengths to make the kayaking feel as real as it does on a summer cottage trip. Arguably, Phantom's kayaking is intricate enough to be tool for learning how to paddle while the same controls apply outdoors.
You will also be graded on every aspect of stealth, from number of detections to use of cover. Phantom encourages players to make themselves unknown as much as possible. This includes major point deductions for killing enemies, tripping alarms and dying. Players have to make critical choices on sparing an enemy or taking them out for convenience. All of these can add up to big penalties which reduce your grade at the end of each level. nDreams does a considerably great job at reinforcing stealth and interacting with enemies as less as possible.
In comfort for VR users, it's worth noting that Phantom Covert Ops might be a bit too realistic for better or worse.
Visually, the game looks massive and textures are refined over the Oculus Quest. The cross-buyable Rift version blooms with vivid lighting, sharp objects and incredible water physics. Reflections are also unsurprisingly wonderful to look at as your paddle makes ripples.
Physically, you can get seasick. By being stationary in a moving vessel, motion sickness can turn you off from Phantom Covert Ops if one hasn't gained their "VR Legs" (motion sickness tolerance). Subjectively, one could play Phantom for levels at a time while others like me would struggle to keep up after 30 minutes. The game does offer a few settings to alleviate it, but ultimately forces players to get used to moving/turning on the spot. Pro tip: keep your eyes on the direction you're turning, instead of keeping them straight.
Over the Oculus Quest, its wireless VR controls are satisfying as players hold their paddle horizontally. The kayak itself feels incredibly heavy during maneuvers, requiring players to really work to paddle forwards, backwards and make turns. Players can even use the paddle itself to push away from walls if they get too close to edges. The game cheats a bit, letting players hold buttons for sharp turns and save arm strength.
The paddle can also be held down on one side for drifts when going full speed. For sneaking around enemies, the kayak's fine-tuning lets players move as slow and quiet as they want. Phantom Covert Ops nails the feeling of creeping past snipers and gliding through patrol boats like a ghost.
Inspired by real-life military uses, kayaks are actually stealth tools for naval operations. Foldable kayaks were used extensively by the US Army Special Operations Command, NAVY Seals and troops in WW2 to conduct recon along rivers. Like most stealth operations of that nature, Phantom Covert Ops takes place across an entire night as you silently paddle through enemy lines.
Your vehicle creatively serves as a storage space for all weapons and equipment. A large pair of high-powered NVG binoculars rest on top of a shelf with ammo. A radar tracker shows an enemy's line of sight, marks their location and keeps you posted for being hidden, exposed or detected. A sniper rifle rests in a bag on the kayak's side while an assault rifle and pistol are strapped to your body.
Phantom Covert Ops does a great job of putting its kayak to good use as a weapon for warfare as much as it's a hobby for vacations. It's also worth noting the kayak serves as the HUD, adding to the immersion for a secret operation.
You'll also get more hands-on with a few mini games that are fun in rare appearances. Gates can be opened by pulling down a chain. Locks, control panels and cables can be sliced with a blowtorch.
Making Phantom Covert Ops special is your ability to take out enemies and complete objectives with no close-quarters. The game follows a long list of VR shooters with its controls. Guns are full-sized and work by aiming and pulling the trigger (something that never gets old). The aiming stays precise, making every shot on-target from a distance. This adds to the satisfaction of picking off an enemy from afar, while its cherry on top comes from quick and successful headshots. But its limited weapon selection holds the game back from open-ended loadouts, even when they are a feature.
Players get very little options for variety, which might make trigger-happy ones feel underwhelmed.
But all of the adjustments to make Phantom Covert Ops a seated-only experience don't rob players of infiltrating a base. The kayak actually makes stealth easier to execute on a boat and removes any missteps that come from other VR stealth games like Budget Cuts and Espire 1: VR Operative. It also feels like a roller-coaster ride gone wrong, with you needing to roam off the rails to survive.
Players get multiple ways to sneak through enemies, while having two separate paths breaks the game's linear structure up a bit. This encourages players to experiment, with ways to destroy cameras, searchlights and patrol boats (tip: use the mines).
The game excels in leaving the stealth options up to you, adding giggles and satisfaction when you paddle away from a disaster of your own making.
Phantom Covert Ops boasts some of the most ingenious level designs in any VR stealth game. nDreams meticulously crafted the setting as an abandoned Soviet nuclear facility sitting on top of a lake. For your role as Phantom 0-2, this puts your military kayak in the element to zip across enemy territory.
Your settings can also change seamlessly from a boat checkpoint to the inside of a missile factory. These on-rail scenes also show building exteriors. Its rare scripted cutscenes also play out inside these windows as players paddle along. It's a creative way to deepen the plot and enemy operations, backed by more dialogue from your forgettable team over the radio.
Phantom Covert Ops boasts some of the most ingenious level designs in any VR stealth game.CGMagazine
But the game's relatively short campaign only lasts up to 6 to 7 hours depending on your pace. This cuts Phantom Covert Ops' value down a bit, holding it back from a fully realized experience. The rushed narrative can be seen with a talented but wasted cast, including Metal Gear Solid's own David Hayter who voices lead villain General Nikolai Zhurov and doesn't appear enough to be memorable.
But his role does adds to the Snake Eater vibes in the game (next to Soviet forces, radio support, a Sniper Wolf-type boss battle and jungle stealth). I would have felt more compelled with a flashback sequence or captured out-of-kayak sequences.
Sadly, Phantom Covert Ops plays its story-driven game too safe for any significant curveballs to happen across seven levels - save for one unarmed stealth sequence.
Despite its shortcomings, the game does somewhat make up with replayable missions. It's worth revisiting each level with a different loadout and higher difficulty settings (which heightens the guard's senses and adds insta-death on detection). An extra challenge mode can also be unlocked with achievements and rewards you with cheats to use in the campaign. Adding to the missions are high-value targets found across each level and mysterious intercoms with coded audio logs.
These are enough to make Phantom Covert Ops worth an investment, which would only get better with future DLC.
It's hard not to love Phantom Covert Ops for pioneering a VR stealth mechanic by kayaking. nDreams has outdone itself in turning what could have been a ridiculous simulator into a fully-blown Metal Gear Solid side story taking place in a boat. Their work in tandem with Oculus Studios has backed its experience with a high production value that adds a worthy exclusive for Rifters and Questers.