The Bureau: XCOM Declassified
The feeling is that The Bureau: XCOM Declassified doesn’t quite know what it wants to be. It began development as a first person shooter, 2K seemingly choosing the most popular genre of the time to try and revive their strategic alien sci-fi series with a contemporary hook. Before long, however, that idea was scrapped and The Bureau became a cover-based third person shooter before eventually adopting a tactical focus after the success and popularity of Firaxis’ excellent turn-based strategy game, XCOM: Enemy Unknown.
With that game succeeding in a contemporary market – dispelling any notions that the formula had become outdated – The Bureau’s role as a modern revival is less defined. Part shooter, part real-time strategy, it wants to break off and do its own thing but doesn’t want to abandon an XCOM name that now carries some stock. This results in a game that’s eager to please everyone but never quite commits enough either way, relying on tired tropes and half-hearted ideas hastily pulled from its strategic predecessors.
Fans will certainly have a hard time deciphering how The Bureau’s story ties into the rest of the series mythology. It’s branded a prequel after all, set in the early 1960s amidst the Earth’s (read: America’s) first extra terrestrial invasion. You play as Agent William Carter, an ex-CIA operative and as archetypal a protagonist as you’re likely to find. He’s almost comically gruff, complete with a drinking problem and a troubled past that haunts him to this very day. None of these details have any bearing on the narrative, however, it’s all just ancillary tripe to let you know he’s a dangerous loose cannon and the only man to get the job done! He’s not very compelling.
“You play as Agent William Carter, an ex-CIA operative and as archetypal a protagonist as you’re likely to find” The actual narrative deals with the founding of XCOM and their first encounters with this devious alien menace. It’s an interesting setup, but one that’s floundered due to a weak script that constantly pulls from a throng of well-worn sci-fi clichés. There are obvious double crosses, plenty of plot holes and characters contradicting themselves at every juncture. Most of it is nonsense and any attempts to justify its drivel only compound the confusion. A late game fourth-wall breaking plot twist piques interest but it arrives too late and after such absurdity that it’s difficult to care.
It also has issues with pacing. After each mission you’re let loose in the bowels of XCOM HQ, free to explore it’s labs, firing range, briefing rooms and so on. This is exciting the first time it happens – a chance to poke and prod at the fabled XCOM HQ – but it doesn’t take long to realise it’s all just fluff. There’s nothing tangible to do during each lengthy visit, only characters to converse with by utilizing a Mass Effect-style conversation wheel that favours exposition dumps and incidental information over any meaningful characterisation or plot threads. You’ll also find the occasional side mission but these are contained solely within the HQ and your reward for completing them is unlocking more side missions out in the field.
While Enemy Unknown employed its HQ as a means to research and manufacture new weapons and equipment, The Bureau wastes this potential. Capturing aliens and scavenging their technology would provide interesting new mechanics, taking them back to your vast laboratory to be researched and reverse engineered to place these devastating tools in your hands. Instead, The Bureau grants you access to alien weaponry by simply allowing you to pick them up off the floor. It’s another example of 2K Marin attempting to appease the XCOM crowd but never going far enough to be effective. Why even have a HQ when it’s put to such meagre use?
“Why even have a HQ when it’s put to such meagre use?” The same can be said of permadeath. A staple of the series’ strategy games, dealing with the loss of your squadmates (particularly those at a high level) can be a devastating blow for your current mission and those going forward, exponentially heightening tension as rookies enter the fold. This system is present in The Bureau but it falters in its execution.
As you head in to combat with Carter you take two squadmates with you that can die at any time. Their deaths would be bothersome, stacking the odds firmly in the enemy’s favour as you’re further outnumbered and outgunned, but after each battle has ended you’re allowed to simply replace your fallen ally with someone else. An odd choice, but surely it’s still problematic losing a friendly that’s fully ranked up? Unfortunately not. While you can only take two squadmates into battle at any one time, you still have plenty in reserve.
Rather than rotating between your allies from mission to mission to maintain synergy between their rankings, there are Dispatch missions you can send them on that they’ll never fail (unless done intentionally), gaining a ranking with the completion of each one. It doesn’t take long to have every single one of your squadmates fully ranked up with little to no effort on your part. Someone dies? Just draft in a replacement that’s just as good. This destroys any sense of tension or attachment to your allies, limiting permadeath’s impact to a relative non-entity. It’s another idea taken from The Bureau’s strategy counterparts that’s simply half-measured and ultimately disappointing.
And yet, despite all of these flaws and questionable design decisions, the core mechanics are incredibly enjoyable. Sectoid heads pop with a satisfying outburst of green goo. The variety of weaponry (both human and alien) provide plenty of options. Your extra terrestrial foes come in all shapes and sizes, some armoured, some shielded, each coming with their own intuitive threat level. To take them out you’ll need more than just firearms, moving further away from Gears of War territory and taking inspiration from Mass Effect’s power-focused shooting gallery.
As Carter, you begin with a healing ability, your squadmates utilizing critical sniper shots and a blinding flash of sparks to scatter enemies out of cover. It doesn’t take long, however, to unlock more abilities, expanding upon your tactical options with deployable turrets, the capability to lift enemies into the air or employ a handy shield. There’s a ton of diversity spread from Carter to his squadmate’s four available classes, and you’ll need need to combine their range of abilities together to get the most out of each.
“The commands, abilities and wealth of tactical options recall the series’ strategic brilliance with a verve that’s sadly missing elsewhere” Pulling them off is easy, too. With a radial command wheel at your disposal you can quickly trigger three abilities concurrently, moving your squadmates across the battlefield with Enemy Unknown-esque cover indicators to let you know how protected they are. And you’ll want to keep manually moving them around, too, because the AI can be downright terrible at times. Leave them to their own volition and they’ll constantly dash into open spaces, essentially walking into bullets like suicidal maniacs. With an incredibly short bleed-out time you find yourself reviving your allies more often than not, their idiocy proving extremely frustrating. Once you do discover that they need to be micromanaged at every step things do improve, though they’re still not keen on staying behind cover even once you’ve ordered them to.
This can limit your tactical options in certain situations with some enemies having weak spots on their back, for example. Ideally you’ll want to set up your squadmates to distract these enemies while you flank around behind them, but they’re hesitation to stay behind cover and follow your lead instead makes these situations problematic. Some of the latter abilities do offset these issues, such as a holographic distraction tool that can be deployed to lure enemy fire, but that doesn’t excuse the AI’s failings.
When it does work right battles are hectic and exhilarating. The commands, abilities and wealth of tactical options recall the series’ strategic brilliance with a verve that’s sadly missing elsewhere. The setting has a lot of character, too, as you fight through the small towns and farms of Middle America. The idyllic 1960’s backdrop is contrasted by ominous and advanced alien technology and deserted locales. A destroyed diner captures the sense of place as its jukebox plays the most popular songs of the era, while the riveting score recalls the pomp of its motion pictures. The predictable appearance of waist high cover is always an obvious indication of combat, somewhat dispelling the inherent tension of the unknown present in other XCOM games, but it doesn’t detract too much from what is a very fun and satisfying tactical shooter.
That The Bureau is as enjoyable as it is despite its troubled and uncertain development is somewhat of a triumph. But that uncertainty still clogs up the experience with a disappointing lack of identity, pulling from games of a similar ilk and taking a half-measured approach to the aspects it takes from its strategic predecessors. There’s a good game here and it’s certainly the contemporary title 2K was looking for, but it’s Firaxis’ “outdated” effort that comes out on top if you want a modern taste of XCOM.