The pitch for Phantom: Covert Ops will not convince you. It's an Oculus-exclusive virtual reality game from nDreams where you infiltrate dangerous bases from a "military kayak." It's set in the Cold War era, but there's not much that makes it seem as such. In the vein of the likes of Splinter Cell, with maybe a hair of Hitman hilarity, Phantom Covert Ops is a stealth-action game. But, again, it's all situated from a kayak. You never leave the kayak. Never.
During an Oculus event last week, I played demos for three new upcoming Oculus games for the Oculus Rift S and Oculus Quest. (Both headsets are out today.) The Oculus Rift S is a new and improved version of its base headset, while the Oculus Quest is an enticing entry-level piece of hardware: an all-in-one headset that doesn't require a PC to run, and has no cords. While battery life is still a big question around it, as someone who's used to getting tangled up in all sorts of cords to look like I'm right out of Neuromancer, the Quest sure is tempting.
There is a simplicity to Phantom: Covert Ops, which was demoed on the Quest but is coming to both Oculus platforms. Its interactions are pared down for VR, rather than complicating things with lots of button presses or precise gestures. (You know the one I'm thinking of: the ol' point one hand toward your opposite wrist to bring up a menu or whatever.) You rotate your row to move forward, backward, or even stop yourself, using rowing motions as you grip the paddle with both controllers.
You have three guns in your arsenal and a very limited bank of ammo. You have a silenced pistol, a sniper rifle, and some automatic weapon of sorts, which you pull from your right shoulder rather than the resting sniper on the right side of the kayak, or the pistol strapped to your chest. You also have C4 sticky bombs that you can toss onto bridges and under walkways. Everything is just a grab away.
Phantom: Covert Ops, even with a boat rocking gently beneath you, operates how most stealth-action games do. Rather than crouching in tall grass, you quietly paddle your kayak into tall reeds to shelter you from guards shining flashlights as they speed by on a boat. Being in plain sight is still a bad idea. You can snipe out enemies quietly when they're out of others' line of sight to avoid suspicion, or you can approach it loudly with no care. (With the greatly limited ammo, this is an approach I'd advise against. By the end of the demo, I had run out of all my silenced guns' ammo, making the end section rather tedious.)
I paddled through the level's multiple encounters; in each area I sussed from afar how I'd handle it before figuring out the best route onward. Once I snuck through a large pipe after shooting out lights to mask me in the darkness. Another time, I patiently sniped every guard pacing around, ensuring they were out of the line of sight of other guards of course. I even fudged up a situation once, where my downed guard was spotted and the discovery sent other enemies to shine their flashlights across the water in a paranoid fashion. I was seen and shot at, consequently.
Despite its silly-sounding premise and forgettable name, Phantom: Covert Ops was the only VR game I left the event feeling like I wanted to play more of. With the seated perspective, motion sickness isn't a problem. It benefits, probably, from short stints like my demo too.
While the resolution isn't as sharp as what you'd get on the Oculus Rift S, for a game about rowing and shooting and nothing else, I found it easy to slip into on the Quest. It may be a self-serious toned game, but the goofiness of its premise makes it stand out on a platform with a lot of on-rails shooters, and even more blah military-tinged soldier fantasies. At least with Phantom: Covert Ops, you'll be able to row, row, row your boat gently down the stream later in 2019. Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily sniping for a scheme.