Hands-On: The Bureau: XCOM Declassified
Here’s a question for you; how would you react if aliens, out of nowhere, attacked earth? Would you expect the military to be up to the task of defending humanity, or would you hope that there was some underground organization that has been planning for something like this for a long, long time? The Bureau seems to understand that you’d expect the second option, introducing you to the XCOM division during it’s not so humble beginnings in the 1960’s. Fedora’s, cigarettes and M14 rifles, The Bureau is trying to bring the XCOM franchise to a time period rife with alien conspiracy and popular culture, and it’s got me quite excited.
You take control of Agent William Carter, a typical cookie cut war veteran with a “mysterious” past. Also, he does an awesome Clint Eastwood impression. XCOM quickly throws you into the action within the few minutes of the title, making my two or so hours with the game as action filled as possible. Not long after having a briefcase explode and turn one unfortunate lady into a smouldering pile of ash, Carter is shot at by hovering gunships, encounters little aliens with glowing necklaces and manages to make a few friends along the way. But, sadly, this is the first stumbling block. Unlike seemingly every other person in this entire title, Carter is the only one who had no idea that something like an alien invasion was plausible. However, he manages to cope with what’s happening around him all too well, even with his first sighting of the little sectoids coming off as little more than target practice.
Also, seeing team members throw out laser turrets, in the 1960’s no less, is also a bit startling. The narrative tries hard in it’s opening scenes to make you believe that scientists and military personal around America had known for a couple of years that these aliens existed, but it just seems a bit out of place considering the heavy focus on the rest of the 1960’s tropes. In fact, it’s more disappointing than startling, because 2K Marin seem to have had a lot of fun recreating this iconic period of time in history. Everything is there; the diners, the cars and the obscene amount of smokers, so having this type of immersion broken so easily is something most people will find hard to look over.
In a way, you could say these immersion breaking mechanics were put in for the sake of gameplay, and in a way you could somewhat forgive it for that. In case you haven’t picked it up yet from the previous trailers and walkthroughs, XCOM is not your ordinary third-person shooter. Not by a long shot. It’s easy to say that the command wheel is scarily similar to something seen in the Mass Effect universe, but the way this is used, as well as the fact that it’s a core part of gameplay, makes it extremely different. One button press puts you into Battle Focus, which is a polite way of saying that your third-person shooter has now changed into a real-time strategy. In this focus, you’re able to use a queue of commands to your two other squad members, including move orders, special attacks and who to focus in a firefight. You can also use your own abilities in this mode, which never really grew past a simple heal in the demo on offer. Tactically using you squad members is what essentially makes XCOM a different, and entirely entertaining, third-person shooter, because now, more than ever, rushing into battle seriously does get you killed.
And hell, does XCOM know how to make death something to actually fear. Much like the XCOM strategy title of last year, Enemy Unknown, The Bureau features the permadeath system, which is something that 2K Marin are really driving home. Should a teammate go down in battle, they will be incapacitated for a brief period of time. During this time a life meter will appear under their name and slowly start to drain, counting down to their imminent death. This is where your strategy becomes even more important, because letting a squad member, and more specifically a strong, levelled up team member, die is a tragic and game changing event. Once a member dies, they’re gone for good. Like, really gone for good. Much like Enemy Unknown, this adds an incredible dynamic to deal with while playing, as you really become attached to those two little A.I names that follow you around. You care for their safety, not only because it’s integral to you success, but because you’ve sunk so many hours into building them up.
You’ll have access to your squad members outside of battle as well, as you’re taking time off in XCOM headquarters and deciding what your next move is. There seems to be a lot of inspiration drawn from Enemy Unknown, which is not bad considering just how incredible that title was. When you’re not out tackling sectoids and outsiders, you can send out of work squad members into missions across the country, allowing their skills to passively build up over time. Think of how Assassin’s Creed handled your recruits, and you’ve basically got what The Bureau is trying to achieve. Although I didn’t get much time to actually explore this mode of The Bureau, I can certainly see it becoming something that you have to keep an eye on, especially if you all of a sudden lose a very highly ranked team member and only have a level 1 squaddie to replace him or her with.
Aside from that, XCOM headquarters allows you to undertake side mission and what seems like unusually placed “personal quests”, which see Agent Carter interact with all the happy faces around the XCOM base. You’ll hear murmurs of things that need to be done around the underground bunker, and it’s up to you to sort them out. I mean, who else is going to decipher a mysterious radio signal, or re-calibrate the satellite top? Maybe the people in charge of shit like that? Regardless, these little excursions allow you to have some colourful conversations with the rest of your team, introducing you to a familiar conversational wheel which allows you to explore conversations further or just let them be. A 2K representative at the vent explained that some decision you make throughout the game will have different outcomes, but again I never got to a point where I could see my decision manifest on the battlefield.
Thankfully, that didn’t stop me from having an extremely enjoyable play session during my two hours with The Bureau. Enemy Unknown was easily the biggest surprise for me last year, and The Bureau looks like its taking its roots into consideration and making sure that this is a game XCOM fans, old and new, want to play. There’s a little bit of everything here for everybody, which more often than not spells danger, but The Bureau looks like its brining these mechanics together and making them work in a coherent and thoughtful manner. The Bureau wants you to think before you act, and this tension alone is enough to keep you on the edge of your seat. Whether or not the narrative improves as the campaign goes, and whether some of the camera niggles I experienced are fixed by the time of release is another question, but right now only one thing really matters; the fact that I can’t wait to play it again.