Into the shadows: ‘Phantom: Covert Ops’ to bring kayaks and stealth to Quest and Rift

Into the shadows: ‘Phantom: Covert Ops’ to bring kayaks and stealth to Quest and Rift

I’m deep in enemy waters with few options beyond paddling forward into the darkness. My mission: seek out and sabotage a high-value radio tower. My chances of survival depend on my ability to stay hidden — no easy task as I navigate a river that’s infested with highly-trained, heavily-armed mercenaries. But I’m learning to paddle around quietly and efficiently, and I’m far from defenseless. In fact, my kayak is packed with enough firepower that I’m questioning how I’m still above water.

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It’s my first time playing Phantom: Covert Ops, a new stealth game from developer nDreams that’s reinvigorating the genre through the power of virtual reality. Phantom is an upcoming VR-only game that breaks new ground by incorporating stealth elements from traditional console games, like sneaking up on guards and working in the shadows, with fresh gameplay mechanics that put a virtual kayak at the center of the action. I’m only a few minutes into the Metal Gear-meets-kayaking experience, but I’m already getting the hang of paddling through virtual waters, in part because everything works the way I expect it to. Sitting in my assault-style kayak, I’m using an oar to paddle forward and can physically reach out for a number of useful objects around my vessel like they’re there in real life.

There’s a silenced pistol resting on my chest, a sniper rifle to my side, and a decidedly noisy machine gun slung across my back. Different types of ammo lay directly in front of me with a handful of explosives nestled slightly to the right. I’ve just sidled up to a dark military complex and need to sneak by without alerting the guards so I can destroy the radio tower. That’s when I see the patrol boat headed my way with a massive searchlight looking for would-be heroes up to noble (read: fun, highly explosive) deeds.

My radio crackles to life, and a fellow operative tells me to use nearby reeds for cover. I spot the outgrowth immediately and make my way over, moving fast but not so fast as to draw attention. I hug the edge of the river and paddle into position just in time to see the enemy vessel pass by on my right — a close call. So close to land, I grab my oar and nudge the kayak free of the watery brush by pushing off the side of the river bank; the action is so natural and effortless, it feels downright magical.  

I continue down the river until I hear a distant murmur to my left. I move in closer for a better look. The mysterious figure has his back turned to me, but he’s clearly packing heat — an enemy combatant, no doubt. I could quietly paddle by, take him out stealthily, or light up the entire area. I go for the latter option and reach for the explosives in front of me. Ordinance in hand, I chuck it near the enemy and swipe the detonator. I close my fist to activate the trigger, and the resulting explosion sends the shadowy figure flying; it’s satisfyingly chaotic and noisy.  

Naturally, the entire vicinity is now alerted to my presence, and before long I’m working up a sweat paddling maniacally out of harm’s way; turns out there were plenty of other bad guys waiting around the bend. On the outside, it looks like I’m ghost-paddling my way to an Olympic gold medal. On the inside, however, I’m frantically dodging gunfire and paddling like my life depends on it, because it does — and it feels like no other game I’ve ever played.

From nDreams, the team behind The Assembly and Shooty Fruity, Phantom is the latest Oculus Studios title making its way to Oculus Quest and the Rift Platform. I recently got the chance to talk with nDreams Game Director Lewis Brundish on what makes Phantom such a unique stealth experience — and how they got the idea for a kayak-based combat game to begin with...

How would you describe Phantom to someone new to VR and stealth games?

Lewis Brundish: Phantom: Covert Ops drops you in the role of an elite special forces operative with one night to prevent a rogue militia from launching a global attack. The game takes place in and around a flooded and abandoned Cold War naval facility, and you explore the waterlogged environment in a military kayak. We’re developing Phantom specifically for VR, so you can totally immerse yourself in the virtual world and interact with the game using fully featured motion controls.

Where did the idea for a stealth-combat-kayaking game come from? Did the stealth combat idea precede the kayak idea, or vice versa?

LB: One of the first things we thought about as we began to prototype ideas for our next game was movement — we knew we wanted to create a game where players could move around and explore the environment, and we wanted to make this process as comfortable and immersive as possible.

VR is an incredibly powerful medium for immersing players in the world of the game, and motion controls really make it feel that much more real, letting you reach out and interact with the world as if you’re really there. Moving your character around is usually done by pushing the control stick or pointing at where you want to move and teleporting to the location; these systems are tried and tested and work well, but we wanted to challenge ourselves to come up with a way of moving in VR that would feel just as natural and immersive as reaching out with your real hands.

The kayak was a fantastic solution to this — you move and steer yourself in a kayak using your hands, so we were able to create a way of exploring our world that keeps the player totally immersed and in full 1-to-1 control at all times.

Once we had the movement concept in place, stealth and combat gameplay followed quite naturally. There are many real military units who use kayaks to infiltrate flooded environments, and we took inspiration from them when developing the tone and gameplay. Because the movement of your boat is so directly linked to the motion controls, you’re able to carefully sneak or silently glide through areas very intuitively — your position in the water also provides plenty of natural hiding spots, with reeds to conceal yourself in and plenty of bridges and jetties to take cover under.

How did you test such a unique concept? Please say it involved NERF guns and real kayaks.

LB: We do actually use NERF guns in the office to act out some of our gameplay ideas, but we don’t have any kayaks in the building unfortunately. We tend to use office chairs with wheels as a substitute!

The best way for us to test an idea is to create a rough gameplay prototype and then iterate through a lot of playtesting. We went through tons of iterations of the controls, weapons, and levels in the early stages of the project to get them just right, and we continued testing new ideas throughout development.

Beyond the core gunplay and paddle systems, what are some other ways people can interact with objects?

LB: One of the core concepts that we’ve stuck to throughout the development of Phantom is the idea that the world should behave and respond correctly whenever the player tries to interact with it. Virtual reality is all about believing you’re really inside the game, and whenever you try to do something that doesn’t work the way you expected, you’re taken out of the experience.

We’ve tried to predict what players will want to do and account for it — if it looks like you can grab or shoot something, then you probably can. Beyond that, we get new playtesters to play the game whenever we can and watch what they do. If they try something that we hadn’t thought of, then that gets added to the list of things for us to work on. Some examples of this have been pushing off from the environment with the paddle, throwing ammo clips into the water to distract guards, and shooting thrown explosives out of the air; we saw players trying to do all of that, so we added them into the game.

What can you tell us about the stealth mechanics?

LB: We’ve found that stealth gameplay lends itself absolutely perfectly to VR. The tension and atmosphere is really brought to life in a way that’s hard to explain until you’ve experienced it. It’s similar to the horror genre — when you play a horror game in VR, the fear is elevated to a whole new level, and we’ve found that the tension and anticipation of sneaking and hiding are magnified in much the same way in stealth games.

Because Phantom is a VR game, you really have to take your actions and surroundings into consideration when trying to sneak through an environment. Every movement and sound that you make could attract attention, and your enemies can be anywhere around you. You’ll often find yourself below a walkway with an enemy patrolling above you, and the only way to be sure of their location is to listen carefully to their footsteps creaking overhead. Of course, staying quiet isn’t the only way to get through an encounter — there are lots of options for distracting the guards, like shooting out light sources or engaging in combat.

How open are the environments? I noticed branching pathways in certain parts of the demo.

LB: Every encounter in the game has multiple ways to approach it. Sometimes this is down to the gameplay options presented in the area, and other times you can choose to take an alternate route through the level and discover different locations altogether. We’re designing the levels to give the player as many options as we can — not just to provide choice throughout the initial playthrough, but also to give players more things to try out and discover when they replay an area. We’re adding unlockable medals at the end of each level, which challenge the player to complete the mission in a certain way: no alarms raised, no kills, 100% accuracy, etc. Our hope is that players will keep coming back to experience the missions in new ways and discover everything that the environments have to offer.

When did work on the game start? How has the project shifted during development?

LB: Work on the game started around 18 months ago. Back then it was a very small team of about three people experimenting with the concept and seeing what ideas we could come up with. Initial prototypes were made on Rift. Once Oculus showed us the new Quest headset they were working on, we could really see the potential for untethered VR. As such, development of the game has been made in tandem for Quest and Rift.

What’s been the hardest thing about making Phantom?

LB: The hardest thing has been getting the kayak controls just right. We wanted to capture the feeling and expectation of real-life kayaking, but we also needed to make sure that anyone could pick up the game and immediately enjoy it, regardless of their real-life experience with boats. For a while, we thought that we might need two separate control schemes, one for novices and another for boating experts — but we kept persisting and iterating, and we finally arrived at a version that works great for everyone. It’s intuitive to pick up and play for first timers, but it also has depth and nuance that can be learned over time and mastered (or will come naturally to experts). It took us a long time to get there, but we’re really proud of the results.

How about the most surprising?

LB: The most surprising thing has been watching new people play the game and discovering how many different ways there are to hold a gun and use a paddle! We’re always surprised by the ways that people come up with to play the game, and we’ve tried to cater to as many playstyles as possible.

What’s something you tried during development that wound up on the cutting room floor?

LB: Early on in development, we tried all kinds of ideas for different boats — we had one with a motor and a steering wheel, one with a second character who helped you paddle, and even one with water jets that shoot out to let you move sideways. Maybe we’ll use a few of these prototypes again some day, but for now we’re sticking to the kayak.

Is there anything special you’d like to tell VR fans and stealth fans about Phantom?

LB: Phantom is unlike any stealth game or VR game you have played before. It’s a unique and original combination of elements that together create something incredibly memorable and immersive. We’re looking forward to showing more of the game soon!

...It’s been a busy night of clandestine action and sly maneuvering. I’m almost to the radio tower, but I’m running out of ammo for my weapon of choice, the silenced sniper rifle, at the worst possible time. There’s enemy movement all over the place. Using explosives worked the first time, but it won’t work here, not with this many guards. If I don’t take out this last rabble of enemies quickly — and quietly — it’s game over.

I dip my oar into the water and gently circle the tower. I can hear a few guards squawking into their radios above me; they know I’m here. I put the oar down and grab my trusted sniper rifle with my right hand and slap in the last ammo cartridge with my left. It’s now or never. I bring the scope up to my eye like a kid aiming an oversized pop gun and start firing. I take out the guards above me, but I’ve been spotted. My vision goes red as I start taking fire.

There’s only one thing to do: I grab one of the explosives sitting in the kayak and chuck it at the radio tower. It lands near the base and attaches securely, like I’d thrown a magnet at a giant refrigerator. I squeeze the detonator, and the whole thing goes up in smoke. The night’s adventure leaves me with a quickened pulse and a feeling of genuine accomplishment — a real sensation that gamers, and particularly VR gamers, know something about. This is how stealth games were meant to be played.

Watch for Phantom: Covert Ops to launch later this year on Oculus Quest and the Rift Platform.