Want to turn a green lane into a brown lane, tow a Gulaschkanone across a snowy field, or roam the Western Desert trashing Axis airfields? Get a 4×4. Want quick introductions to games of interest to wargamers and simmers? Read a 3×3. Prior to penning one of these articles I’ll play three tempting titles for at least three hours each. While it would be cavalier to call the reports that result from such brief auditions ‘reviews’, it’s conceivable they might lead to more prolonged playtests, and prompt or prevent the odd purchase.

The GOG Spring Sale runs until April 3. Amongst 4000 discounted delights are a number of old friends and a few titles I’ve been meaning to try for a while.

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Phantom Doctrine

Don’t ask me to explain the plot of this price-slashed 2018 XCOM-like. After three hours of play I still feel like I’ve turned on the TV halfway through a tangled, globetrotting spy thriller. Who do we (‘The Cabal’) work for? Why are we investigating Pakistan’s secret nuclear programme? Who are the people out to kill our operatives in Berlin, Bhopal, and Baku?

What I can tell you is that the game’s turn-based, grid-utilising, AP-funded gunfights are a blast. Initially, avid Silent Stormers may miss mutilatable masonry, unfettered weapon scavenging, and RNG*, but fast-moving, fairly intuitive clashes in which smart use of overwatch can turn tables, and a character’s Awareness** level is almost as important as their health, weapon, and location, should quickly sideline any concerns.

* I think I’m right in saying chance plays no part whatsoever in the combat maths.
** A regenerating stat that funds some special actions and determines whether combatants are able to dodge incoming fire.

The four locales my agents have visited thus far have oozed ambience and provided plenty of room for tactical cat swinging. Hmm. I think I’ll put Durand, my light machinegunner, on that flat roof. While Deadpan covers the back alley with his SMG, Canasta can enter through that side window. With luck she’ll reach the second-storey room where our informer is being held, without raising the alarm.

The fact that all of my outings thus far have turned into bloodbaths, says more about my inexperience than PD’s capabilities. In theory, using disguises, distraction, suppressed weapons, corpse concealment, and carefully timed movement, it should be possible to complete most objectives without alerting adversaries. As hullabaloo triggers endless waves of enemy reinforcements, causes agents to accrue ‘Heat’, and can lead to friendlies spending lengthy periods in hospital, there are big incentives to keep things covert.

* ‘Hot’ agents are at greater risk of ambush, and travel the globe less speedily.

Foxer fiends may find the inter-mission ‘investigation board’ mini-game a mite disappointing. Instead of secreting genuinely useful nuggets of info in the documents gathered in the field, CreativeForge turn intel analysis into a mechanical chore requiring almost no wit or experimentation. Perhaps I’ve missed some subtleties, but pinboard play appears to boil down to highlighting obvious ‘codenames’ in texts, then linking, with lengths of string, docs in which the same codenames appear.

More engaging are hideout activities such as developing agents, crafting tech and base improvements, and monitoring the world map through which randomly generated and story missions are initiated. Failing to investigate and counter the activities of your mysterious opponent, increases the likelihood of your base being discovered, and advances a potentially game-ending ‘Doomsday Counter’.

Uncommonly rich, tactically libertarian, and genuinely intriguing, Phantom Doctrine makes a very good first impression. The fact that interactive entertainment of this calibre and heft* can be bought for less than half the price of a cinema ticket or paperback novel, will always strike me as amazing.

* The devs claim there’s at least 40 hours of play in the SP campaign.

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Half RoboCop, half Judge Dredd, the merciless lawman at the centre of this top-notch top-down shooter is versatility cyborgified. The Aladdin’s armoury of weapon and ‘cyberware‘ mods he eventually* has access to, joins forces with unpredictable perp AI, unusually frangible scenery, and optional secondary goals to make the eighteen campaign missions très replayable.

* Mods must be unlocked through mission progress then individually purchased with currency ‘liberated’ from criminals and crime scenes.

An hour ago I began using a stealth gizmo called ‘shadow blend’ that transformed my tactical approach. Where previously I tended to tackle threats head-on at medium and long ranges with the help of a plasma-spewing companion drone, I’m now ambushing at close range, and playing hide and seek when things get hairy.

The cyberware switch, paired with some complementary ‘Gavel‘ ammo choices, has enabled me to overcome hostiles and missions that felt unbeatable at first, but it’s no silver bullet. If I’m going to triumph over the rioters that throng my mostly recently unlocked campaign scenario I may need to trade cloak and dagger for something less subtle. Perhaps it’s time I re-equipped those bouncy ‘heavy laser’ rounds and experimented with my latest secondary ammo unlock – ‘mechanical spiders’.

Of course, intelligent loadout choices don’t guarantee success in 10tons’ tongue-in-cheek police-em-up. You won’t get far unless you shoot straight, use cover wisely, take care around hostages, pick sensible moments to reload, and, from time to time, mousehole like a Stalingrad sapper. Many walls can be holed with weapon fire or a forceful thump or two. Sometimes in order to access better protected areas of a map you’ll need to find a key or hack your way past a door using cyberware.

Thus far I’ve culled perhaps half a dozen types of lawbreaker. The most formidable have been armoured bosses and their robotic toys, but grenadiers, rocket slingers, and alarmingly aggressive melee maniacs have also produced squeaky bum moments.

It would be nice if, now and again, a ne’er-do-well opted to surrender rather than go out in a hail of gun fire. While I believe I’ve witnessed foes executing temporary tactical withdrawals, as yet no-one has dropped their piece and pleaded for mercy when staring the down the barrel of my Gavel.

Apart from that capitulation complaint, the action-packed and atmospheric Jydge emerges from its 3×3 playtest without a stain on its character. I love what I’ve seen so far and can’t see myself leaving crime-ridden Edenbyrg while there are missions and murder methods still to be tried.

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F-117A Nighthawk Stealth Fighter 2.0

((Harrumph! When I selected the titles for this week’s 3×3, the regularly reduced F-117A 2 was doing a very convincing impersonation of a GOG Spring Sale participant. Annoyingly, it turns out its 75% price reduction was a consequence of another unconnected sale. It’s already returned to ‘full price’ – £4.90.))

Panzer Elite, Steel Beasts, Rowan’s Battle of Britain… just a few of the greats this singular sim managed to outscore in THC’s Top 50 Combat Sims reader poll. Having finally, 32 years after its release, got around to experiencing F-117A 2’s low-altitude nocturnal sorties in person, I now have a much clearer understanding of why this MPS Labs design is so fondly remembered.

In a nutshell, what we have here is the flight sim equivalent of Thief. You venture into regions teeming with metaphorical sentries and guard dogs, complete or fail an alotted task or two, ideally without being detected, then head home for tea and medals as surreptitiously and swiftly as possible.

Where Garrett had his visibility gem, Nighthawkers have an EMV (Electromagnetic Visibility) meter – an invaluable fictional gauge that simultaneously displays both aircraft conspicuousness and the level* and type of enemy radar coverage in the vicinity. If the hostile radar bars shown on this device ever overlap your EMV bar it’s time to start sweating – you’re ripe for detection!

* This can vary as radars sometimes shut-down for short spells.

Altitude, engine output, aerodynamic cleanliness, and jammers… they all impact EMV. Barrelling along at top speed at 1000 feet with your weapons bay agape, is a marvellous way to attract the attention of local enemy fighter bases and SAM batteries, especially if you happen to be ignoring one of the sim’s golden rules (skirt dopplers where possible and bee-line towards pulse radars) at the same time.

Traversing theatres quartered by inquisitive radio waves is made easier by a simple autopilot. Master the art of moving, on-the-fly, the INS waypoints that guide this AP, and figure out how to find and cycle targets with the help of your FLIR cam, and you’re pretty much ready for action. I completed my first successful sortie (albeit with “easy landings” active) within an hour of installation.

Decidedly outlandish today is F-117A 2’s wealth of sortie types and theatres. There are no scripted mission sequences here or realistic WOFF-style career restrictions. Once you’ve created a pilot you’re free to switch theatres (Persian Gulf ’84, Northern Europe ’85, Libya ’86, Central Europe ’86, Middle East ’89, Desert Storm ’91, Vietnam ’94, Cuba ’95, and Korea ’97) at will. Don’t fancy that randomly generated bombing mission, anti-ship strike, or photo recon run? Simply reject it in the hope the next sortie will be more to your taste. If you’ve ticked the appropriate tension level (cold war, limited war, or conventional war) and sortie type (air-air or strike) boxes on the transfer request form, you can even find yourself tasked with eliminating a Mainstay, tackling an entire enemy fighter patrol, or paying a clandestine visit to a secret airstrip.

For a sim with texture-free terrain and plane skins, no virtual cockpit, and pretty basic sounds, this demi-antique does a surprisingly good job of selling its fantasy. Glancing at the twinkling lights of a passing village or bridge… ‘hearing’ AWACS reports of scrambling MiGs … ‘listening to’ aircrew wisecracks after landing… at times F-117A 2 feels every bit as vivid, every bit as alive as its modern counterparts.

Not that it has any true modern counterparts. After four hours of happy HE delivery, MiG mugging, and weathervane worrying in Central Europe, Cuba, and Libya I’m now convinced Simulatia needs a Nighthawk 3.


  1. I’ve been busy with work and other things the past few weeks, so it’s nice to come back and see Phantom Doctrine at the top of this week’s 3×3! I sunk over 100 hours into the game, the first time I’ve spent so long on a turn-based tactics since the days when computer games started to remember how long you played them. It checks all my boxes – cold war setting, pulpy spyfic, world travel, non-violent/stealth options, conspiracy theories made real… However I will say for the benefit of other readers it does get a little samey after 10-20 hours. The level layouts start to repeat, and eventually the weapons and base upgrades are just “+1” versions of what you had before. I felt at times that I was just going through the motions until the next story mission unlocked. And yet… and yet… I couldn’t put it down. It has that Civilization/MOO magic that compels you to keep on going one more turn. Just as you mitigate one crisis, there’s another one unfolding, and next thing you know it’s 2am. Great game.

  2. Jydge was my gateway drug to 10tons games. That is an awesome small studio that makes really fun to play games.

    Sorry you missed out on the sale price of F-117… I grabbed it and six other Microprose classics during the sale for around $13 total. Couldn’t pass that up. Now, I just need to locate the box in the basement that has the original hardcopy manuals for them. Nostalgia is a powerful thing…

  3. I found the investigation boards in Phantom Doctrine to be harmless world building that offered simple satisfaction.

    Only 97 hours played, maybe another full campaign is due..

  4. Phantom Doctrine bought. You had me at silent stormers and for that price can’t go wrong. So far indeed a nice and tactical game and i like the atmosphere.

  5. Well heck, at less than $5 how can I resist something like Phantom Doctrine? The lack of real world weapons always turned me off XCOM, but this looks like it has some potential.

    Also finally discovered on good old games: Hidden and Dangerous 2! I saw the ads back in the day, but at that time my consciousness was totally enthralled by the original Call of Duty. Looking at it now, I’m just glad I finally found it. TV-PressPass at any age could have found lots to love in sneaking and Nazi slaying with some complicated command systems, but I’m glad I’ve finally come around to it.

    Dovetails beautifully with SAS Rogue Heroes, both the book and series.

  6. F-19/F-117 was handily the main game of my childhood. I might still have more hours in that than any other flight sim to date. Maybe I should try Thief someday.

    I later learned that the real plane was in fact significantly less capable and had significantly less SA (at least according to publicly accessible information). Any modern take would probably be compelled to adhere to such limitations or else risk being derided as a “game,” which is unfortunate. I love games.

    Some trivia about the high number of theaters: They took the 4 previously-existing ones from the original F-19, added the 3 from F-15 Strike Eagle II that didn’t overlap, leaving Cuba and Korea as the only actual “new” ones. Still great to have so many options.

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