The concept of a 'tactical kayak' is amusing to me all on its own. And the idea of a stealthy special ops assassin who infiltrates hostile territory, silently kills or eludes enemy agents, and destroys renegade military installations—all without ever getting out of his tactical kayak—is doubly amusing. I mean, it's easy to imagine James Bond killing a few guys from inside his gadget-loaded Aston Martin, but it'd be kind of weird if he never got out of his car for the entirety of Goldfinger.
"Do you expect me to talk?"
"No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to... look, Bond, would you please get out of the car so I can torture you properly?"
This is the idea behind Phantom: Covert Ops, a game for some of the best VR headsets from nDreams due out later this year for the Oculus Rift and Quest. You're doing stealth missions while paddling around in a kayak, and you stay seated in it the entire game. But as amusing as the premise is (to me, anyway), the game's not just a joke. It all works pretty well and damn it if I didn't wind up feeling stealthy while I played Phantom on the Oculus Quest last week.
Paddling around in VR is fun, and it felt surprisingly realistic. I was able to maneuver the kayak around easily before long, steering myself to hide from passing patrol boats in thickets of reeds and silently slipping past guards and under walkways in the world's flooded environments. At one point I found myself wedged in tightly against some pipes under a catwalk, and instinctively moved myself away from the wall by lifting my paddle and pushing it against the metal pipe. It's always a good sign in VR when you attempt something that feels like it would work in the real world, and it does.
In Phantom, both you and your kayak are loaded with weapons. You have a silenced pistol holstered on your chest, an SMG strapped to your back, and a sniper rifle attached to the right side of your kayak. In front of you sits a box of ammo clips you can grab and slap into place with your virtual hands, and explosives you can throw to stick to barrels or obstructions, which you can detonate with a trigger device once you've paddled to a safe distance. It's all very responsive and fun, and picking up, using, and replacing your weapons and paddle instantly becomes second nature.
An added bonus: you don't have the disembodied hands you see in so many VR games. You've got full-on arms and a complete torso, which helps sell the illusion.
The mission I played—to sneak through the flooded enemy zone and blow up a radio tower—took place at night, allowing me to silently paddle through the waterlogged environments. Patrolling guards can be handled in different ways. You can distract them by throwing clips or popping a silenced shot into a fire extinguisher nearby, or just slip past when their spotlights and flashlights are pointed elsewhere.
Passing them by with a ruse or taking them out with explosives or a well-aimed shot is fun. I felt like Solid Snake in a skiff. JC Denton in a dinghy. Sam Fisher in a… fishing boat.
I failed a few times, too. After distracting two guards, I didn't notice a third sitting silently on a dock, and he shot me in the back as I paddled by. Later, I took two guys out with sniper shots but another ran down a catwalk and blasted me. It can be a bit hard to tell how good their eyesight is—there was no stealth meter so at times I felt I was being incredibly obvious, but as long as I wasn't directly in their spotlights or making a bunch of noise, they usually didn't notice me.
There are different ways to tackle objectives in Phantom, so I suppose I could have used my explosives to destroy a radio tower, but I wound up directly underneath it and noticed some exposed wiring. I maneuvered my kayak into place, reached up from my seated position, and started yanking out the exposed cables, one by one. It did the trick—I guess the tower got overloaded or something—and I slid out of the mission successfully as it blew up, having never removed my butt from my boat. Take that, other secret agents who have to sometimes stand up!
As amused as I was to think of an spec-ops assassin who never gets out of his little kayak, I'm pretty sold on Phantom as it does really make you feel stealthy and it's a great gimmick to build a VR game around so that you can be seated comfortably the entire time you play.
I really like to imagine this covert agent doing absolutely everything while in his kayak: Receiving orders, being debriefed, attending all manner of clandestine meetings, and suavely flirting with an enemy agent.
"Pond. James Pond," I'd say, smoothly paddling away to the casino for a martini and a little baccarat.
Phantom is due out this year and is exclusive to the Oculus Rift and Oculus Quest.