Way back in the yesteryears of gaming, Metal Gear Solid was released and exposed the gaming community to the world of tactical espionage. Stealth was the name of the game and suddenly sneaking in and out of shadows and air vents were the new Rambo. Fast forward 24 years and we have Phantom: Covert Ops VR. Though there have been other stealth titles in VR, few give you the feeling of being in the world that games like Metal Gear Solid and Splinter Cell have created. There is a catch though and results are rather mixed and give you a taste of what stealth-action can be in VR instead of a fully realized stealth adventure.
The big theatric around which Phantom: Covert Ops is based is you are in a canoe. Let me rephrase that. You are in a canoe for the entirety of the game. At a glance, this seems ridiculous, basing an entire game around shooting and dodging guards in a canoe just doesn’t exactly light up the excitement meter. Thankfully though, this canoe mechanic is a hell of a lot more interesting than it sounds. The base idea is you canoe from area to area, completing various objectives, avoiding or taking out guards, and fighting bosses. It very much is Metal Gear Solid in a canoe complete with an over the top punch line spouting villain voiced by none other than Metal Gear Solid’s David Hayer. Canoes tend to be not too exciting in normal video games, but in VR? It’s actually quite thrilling. See, Phantom: Covert Ops relies on an amazing physics system that grants you a near-perfect replica of what it’s like to canoe. Even the more infuriating parts of said canoeing are included which brings up the issues of this game.
Maneuvering a canoe through dark waters while there are spotlights and enemies looking for you everywhere just feels stupid. There is no actual reason given by the game that you have to stay in the canoe. Had the canoe been just a method of transportation and you were able to explore these militant compound environments, then that would a hell of a game. Strangely though, the developers at Ndreams decided people will love stealth canoeing, and I’m not so sure that they will. For one, you will be constantly rowing at almost all times which is not only annoying but physically exhausting. While you’re able to cause diversions shooting at fire extinguishers or alarm systems, the main thing you’ll be doing is sneaking or rowing around. The mission to mission gameplay equips you with a decent arsenal of weapons and gadgets to complete a variety of objectives. Enemies seem to be pretty alert and if you’re caught, you will be dead in seconds because only a few bullets will give you a game over in this game. Oddly enough, you’re constantly scolded for using your weapons to take out enemies. You have tons of clips of ammo multiple weapons and….you’re not supposed to use them? It’s a bizarre game design choice that goes hand in hand with the decision to keep everything canoe based.
When it comes to shooting, it’s honestly not bad. While there are certain times where a longshot will seem impossible to line up or the sniper rifle will seem oddly off-center when aiming, the gunplay mostly feels good and comes equipped with a manual reload action that will produce some intense moments when engaging in a shootout. The problem is that you are actively penalized with your mission score the more people you kill. That would be fine if going a whole level undetected with a reasonable ask. It is not. Steering the canoe into the tiny patches of grass that magically conceal you is a never-ending pain and while most of the mechanics of the canoe are pretty accurate and feel great, there’s a reason nobody has ever done tactical espionage from a canoe. The graphics are also pretty average which is surprising considering I had ultra graphics on in addition to some intense supersampling as well. No matter what you do, you cannot get rid of the muddy, ps2 style graphics that Phantom: Covert Ops provides for you. Overall, I found Phantom: Covert Ops to be a creative romp through some swamps that give you a glimpse into what one VR stealth-action can one day be without fully realizing the vision due to some unfortunate design decisions.
One of the things that Phantom: Covert Ops has going for it is the game is meant to be played seated. That’s not to say you can’t play standing, but to get the full immersion of being in a canoe, you’re going to want a comfortable seat and it will really make it feel like you are there. In order to really get a great workout, you can use weighted gloves to give the feeling of holding a heavy oar. It is also available on Oculus Quest and this gives you a ton of freedom when it comes to twisting your body to pull off certain shots.
I recorded my 30-minute workout with a Fitbit using a Samsung Odyssey Plus Windows Mixed Reality Headset.
Calories burned: 182
Calories burned per minute: 6
Average Heart Rate: 108
Max Heart Rate: 105
Active Minutes: 33
Despite being a seated experienced, Phantom: Covert Ops was one of the more grueling experiences I’ve had in VR. If you’ve ever canoed or kayaked before, you know the insane toll it takes on your upper body and core. This experience is that to a lesser degree, but the added adrenaline of not being seen by the enemy and quickly drawing a gun with one hand and steering with the other creates some sweat-inducing moments that surprised me quite a few times. I found the most intense moment of the game were when I was spotted and had to row away. You need to put a lot of force into it if you want to row fast which can feel weird at first, though you get used to it shortly after.
Well, surprisingly we’ve found most exhausting arm workout in virtual reality. Because of the amazing way Phantom: Covert Ops recreates a canoeing experience, you’re going to be physically wrecked arm wise after a lengthy amount of time playing this game. My play session lasted about an hour and afterward my arms were killing me. Rowing is a constant throughout and to get your canoe to face the direction you want is as much an exercise in frustration as it is physically. I won’t say I’ve had the best time in VR playing through Phantom: Covert Ops, but I will say it was an intense experience that I won’t soon forget. There’s a blueprint for something special here even if it isn’t fully realized.
Because of Phantom: Covert Ops preference to have the experience be seated, your legs are not really involved at all. That being said, the game is also fully playable while standing and while there are no required leg maneuvers, I found it beneficial at times to duck into the boat while floating by so I stayed out of the enemy’s sight. Outside of this, there is not much of a leg workout involved even if you decide to stand while playing.
Core and Balance- 8/10
If you’ve ever seen a professional rower, they are generally in outstanding shape and that is no accident. The act of rowing in real life is an incredible core workout that will quickly test your physical endurance and while in VR you miss out on the feeling of holding an actual oar, the action is still the same and after a lengthy play session, you will feel it in big-time in your core muscles. Depending on how much force you put into it, you will either be floating slowly down the river or be flying down it. The most stress in the core on my end came when I had to reverse direction. Phantom: Covert Ops makes it quite difficult to get your canoe where you want it to go and it takes quite a bit of physical effort to make it happen.
Time Perception- 6/10
During your time in the dark swamps of Phantom: Covert Ops, you will get tired pretty quickly from the nonstop rowing and because of that, you’ll realize the passage of time more so than other games. Some VR games will make you get lost in their worlds of wonder and exploration, here though, it’s dark and depressing and often not very pretty to look at both graphically and environmentally. I have to say I was more relieved than disappointed to take the headset off after my time with Phantom: Covert Ops. It just wasn’t a pleasant place to be for very long.
While the experience is pretty short at around 3-4 hours depending on how many retries it takes to complete, there is a bit of creativity within how you go through each level. If you decide to go guns blazing, it’ll be a much different experience than if you decided to be stealthy and avoid all detections. Enemies seem to react differently sometimes as well and using distractions vs. just trying to sneak past them offers different results as well.
Fitness Scalability- 6/10
There is very little within the game that offers fitness scalability. While there are difficulty levels, they do nothing to make you work harder physically. Sitting down versus standing up is the only thing you can really do to change what kind of workout you’re going to get. Sitting down gives you the most immersive experience by far, though it’s the less active one overall.
Dizziness/Lack of Nausea- 6/10
This one is a bit tricky. Some people get seasick and some people get VR sick. For the people that suffer from both? Good luck with this one. There is a bit of dizziness to get over right off the bat because you’re going to be moving fairly fast while obviously not moving in actuality. This feeling can be a bit jarring to get over and while it eventually went away for me, some will find this to be a difficult experience to spend a lengthy amount of time on.
Social Competition- 6/10
There is the ability to get a high score at the end of each mission, so some social competition can be possible in the future. As of now, there is nothing outside of telling friends your high score that you can actively track.
VR Fit Score- 6.8/10
Phantom: Covert Ops is a different kind of experience that gives you some espionage tools and lets you complete the missions as you see fit. It’s got some fantastic rowing physics that replicates what it’s actually like to be in a canoe. For some that is a very exciting and innovative creation. For others, they might not care for it. Hand tracking and aiming your weapons is pretty much flawless and although you are scolded for killing enemies, it is the most enjoyable part of the game. The workout your arms and core will get during your time with the game is pretty much unmatched.
It’s a very particular experience that will satisfy some stealth purists and alienate others. Despite playing on a high powered rig, I was unable to get a good graphical experience out of the game. The concept is also a bit ridiculous and it’s completely at odds with what is a very serious tone through the game. The feeling that this would have been a much better game had you been able to leave the canoe and explore the compounds on your own is pervasive and did not leave me during my time with the game.
Phantom: Covert Ops is available on Oculus and Oculus quest for $29.99 and playable with Revive on Windows Mixed Reality, HTC Vive, and Valve Index.