Review: The Bureau: XCOM Declassified
There is definitely a lot of enjoyment to be had with the tactical combat system, but nearly everything else that has to do with the XCOM name falls apart around The Bureau.
- Worth The Time?Yes and no, depending on what you're coming for. XCOM fans will definitely feel cheated, but those looking for a good action game will find it hard to complain.
- Things LovedThe varied and tactically sound squad system. Slick and concise shooting mechanics. Well realised vision of an alien invasion in America during the 1960's. Beautiful, stylized visuals. Varied enemies that will test your tactical prowess and punish your mistakes. Very lengthy campaign. Pulling off a near perfect room clearance with all the abilities available to you.
- Things HatedThe story is often unnecessarily confusing and not that engrossing.. No real incentive to play again aside from a tougher challenge. Some frustrating encounters. A lot of potential wasted on conversations and the XCOM base itself. Permadeath system falls apart when one character always has to live.
- RecommendationWhile there are numerous problems with The Bureau, it would be tough not to tell you to give it a shot, even if just for the incredible combat sequences and hybrid gameplay. XCOM fans might be left wanting of more though, especially after the treat that was Enemy Unknown.
- Name: The Bureau: XCOM Declassified
- Genre: Third-Person Tactical Shooter
- Players: 1
- Multiplayer: N/A
- Platforms: Xbox 360, PS3 and PC
- Developer: 2K Marin
- Publisher: 2K Games
- Reviewed On: PC
The Bureau: XCOM Declassified has had a long and rocky journey, transforming from an ill-received first-person shooter into what can now only be describe as an impeccable hybrid between third-person tactical shooting and real-time strategy elements. Through its use of elements from Enemy Unknown, released last year, and an incorporation of some slick and tight squad-based shooting, The Bureau could have been one of the finest and most gratifying experiences of this year, had it not been for the XCOM name itself.
Players take on the role of William Charter, a seasoned war veteran with a troubled past, a knack for Clint Eastwood impressions and disobeying direct orders. He’s the type of soldier a general would both hate and adore at the same time, making him the ideal candidate for the XCOM program, a secret division of the USA government in the 1960’s tasked with prevent an all-out communist invasion. Trouble is, the invasion came, just not from the East. Before you know it, strange briefcases are blowing up in your face, aliens are attacking Earth and it’s up to you and a select few to not only make sure that their invasion is unsuccessful, but that the rest of the country never finds out about it. A premise with lots of room to explore some themes of secrecy and lies, The Bureau grabs take this putty with both hands but fails to make anything meaningful out of it.
The Bureau’s narrative has, primarily, three pillars to it. First and foremost is the alien invasion itself, revolving around their reason from coming to Earth and basically setting up shop to harvest all its resources and leave a husk behind. Tried and tested territory, and one which presents rather silly and over-complicated twists through a lack of information and typical cliché’s. It’s not the type of narrative you’d want to write home about, in short. The second pillar revolves around XCOM itself, and its mission to keep the entire invasion secret. Sadly, these ideas are rarely explored thoroughly enough for you to even realise they’re taking place, with your superior rarely mentioning what the rest of the country thinks while cities are dropping like flies to the alien plague known as the Sleepwalking virus. The third, and probably most annoying, is the inner conflict taking place within Charter, with a traumatic event in his past cropping up every now and then, attempting to remind you that even he, with his rugged and rough smokers voice, is still human.
None of these three pillars really deliver on what they set out to accomplish, often leaving you wanting a tale to surface that will complement the fantastic gameplay ideas next to it. Sadly though, this never really occurs, with side-quests feeling narratively disjointed and insignificant to your main mission, and the story itself taking some rather drastic leaps forward in a short space of time, leaving you to fill in the gaps or overloading you with some many plot details that it becomes impossible to keep up. That, and often these plot fillers serve as would-be twists that are only surprising because vital information was kept from you, rather than having clever writing construct the twist around you. It’s still serviceable enough to watch the cutscenes and engage in conversation, but there’s not much else to be said about it.
But, thankfully, the same cannot be said for The Bureau’s stellar gameplay. On the surface, you could call The Bureau a straight-up third-person cover shooter akin to many other titles such as Gears of War and Ghosts Recon, albeit with more aliens thrown in the mix. In fact, the first few moments of the campaign will have you convinced that the ticket you just bought entails a simple shooter, up until the point where the game introduces you to the real belly of the beast, Battle Focus. Hitting one key puts you into this Focused mode, effectively flipping the genre in one fell swoop as well. What looked like a shooter a second ago quickly becomes a real-time strategy, with time slowing down and a host of abilities tied to you and your two squad members appearing on-screen. Depending on the classes you chose to accompany you, these abilities can vary from placing turrents to lay down cover fire, deploying mines and even getting teammates to cloak up and sneak around the battlefield.
Having time slow down and not outright stop makes this mode extremely tension filled, as you quickly queue up commands for you and your teammates to execute once you exit the mode. You can’t simply open up this menu when you’re in trouble, as enemy fire will surely bring you down well before you can execute your well thought out orders. In fact, The Bureau punishes you for most reckless actions, with the host of alien variations making quick work of you should you venture too far out of cover for a few brief moments. Should you put a teammate in a similar situation, you could quickly find yourself a man down, with the popular permadeath system from Enemy Unknown making a resounding but ultimately weaker return. Should a squad member take too much damage, they’ll go down and kick off a timer, giving you mere seconds to get to them and bring them back from the brink of death. Should you be too slow, you’ll lose that teammate forever, forcing you to either continue and complete the mission a man down or call in back-up, depending on your difficulty. It sounds like a great tension builder in theory, and works in practice, just not in this game. The requirement on William Charter surviving each mission evidently breaks this entire system, where partial failure is mountains more severe than complete failure. If a teammate goes down, why not just go down yourself and have both of you restart , clean and fresh, at a nearby checkpoint? It’s exploitable to the point where you can nearly go through The Bureau without losing a squad member, which really adds no tension at all.
Keeping a squad of well-trained operatives is also a fairly easy tasks, thanks to the numerous ways in which you can achieve it. Firstly, and probably easiest, is regularly swapping out teammates in-between missions and making sure that a good number are always kept near your current level, which is increased via experience from killing, you guessed it, aliens. These could include tagging them along the lengthy main mission, which span close to an hour each, or the shorter and more rapid side missions that often tend to take half the time. In addition to that, you can also send of a team of squad members of on individual mission around the country, similar to the system present in Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood. Sadly, these missions are often easy and certain victories with the right amount of agents sent, and with no small limit on your squad size from the start this can become more of a chore than an actual tension filled exercise. Thankfully, having the choice between four distinct classes, each with individual subclasses, makes for some versatile squad building, allowing you to customise their abilities as they level up through combat. Not only that, you’re also able to customise their appearance, name, equipment and more, making them truly unique and personal members of your team if you want them to be.
The real problem here is just the few mistakes made when it comes to creating your squad. You’re never limited as to how many teammates you can enlist, aside from the maximum cap of ten that is assigned to you at the very beginning of the game. All the classes are open from the get go as well, and it seems like a good idea at first, allowing you to fully customise your squad and prepare them for hot swapping in the future. The problem is, that never really happens. Eventually you’ll become comfortable with the two classes that really compliment your gameplay style, and you’ll never feel the need to swap. With the somewhat broken permadeath system, this becomes even more of an issue, because now the only mechanic that could possible force a change out of you is essentially exploitable. It’s a jarring issue and one that has a massive negative impact on the entire game.
However, you couldn’t really ask more in terms of the actual combat, which is a truly satisfying and rewarding action experience. Those that take place in more open and expansive areas, such as in front of a diner or in an underground alien instalment, are the most entertaining, allowing you to flex your strategy prowess and use your squad with brutal efficiency. Queuing up several commands and watching them execute with flawless and exact precision is a breath-taking affair, and one that will keep you on the edge of the seat, waiting for the next. Those in more cramped environments offer up more of a challenge but sometimes boil down to frustration, as some awkward camera issues and sometimes cumbersome abilities control can lead to some cheap death. Thankfully, those types of instances are few and far between, but so too are some of the more entertaining skirmishes which throw in another element into the mix, whether it be a larger, more armoured enemy or a temporary ally that adds to your arsenal for a brief period of time.
When you’re not out in the field taking advantage of the best The Bureau has to offer, you can kick back and enjoy some downtime in the XCOM base itself, which serves as a hub in-between mission. The real problem here is just the amount of wasted potential. Early on you are enticed with a small side-mission in the base itself, seemingly telling you that more will follow and make these pit stops more than conversation opportunities. Thing is, not more than a handful ever surface gain, and considering conversations with other characters is usually a bland affair, you’re left wondering why such a large and detailed base was built for you when you have nearly nothing to do in it. Walking around and conversing with other characters can reveal more about the story, but most of the time it serves to drive home something that The Bureau suffers from a lot; these people have nearly no emotion towards what is essentially a history changing invasion. This can be seen early on, when Charter shows no real reaction when encountering a sectoid for the first time. The entire XCOM division just goes about their business like nothing has changed. It’s a bloody alien invasion for crying out loud, somebody please react accordingly!
This also seems to have an effect on gameplay from time to time as well. Although it is still fun to dabble with alien technology, The Bureau never really explains how you’re able to magically control and deploy some of the alien goo blobs and drones, not to mention laser turrents and artillery strikes from what seems like an invisible U.F.O. It’s more evident at the beginning of the game, where your very first encounter with the alien race also includes a teammate that can instantly deploy some of their technology already. Um, exactly how is that possible? And why does Charter constantly have scientists telling him about their advances in making alien technology work for them when Charter himself is basically doing that on the field with no help at all? There’s just a jarring disconnect from gameplay and narrative here, and while it serves to make combat more interesting (succeeding as well), it just makes no sense.
Thankfully though, you’ll have a tough time nit-picking anything out of the setting of The Bureau. 2K Marin have nailed this facet at least, producing a stunning realisation and recreation of America in the 1960’s, and what it would look like if a highly advanced alien race invaded it at the time. Seeing the contrasting differences between the human and alien architecture, and seeing how they combine, is really incredible, and 2K can be commended for creating what is a rather beautifully stylised title, trading more realistic visuals for a more colourful and limited colour pallet that works extremely well. The only real problem here are characters actual faces, which lack certain details and are sometimes really ugly to look at. That, and the lip-sync is complete messed up, to the point where it becomes a game trying to figure out how they’re saying the words they are with that type of lip movement.
When you think about The Bureau: XCOM Declassified as one bundled package, it’s a bit of a mixed bag. There are some really good ideas in terms of the third-person shooting and RTS hybrid that is successfully pulled off, but other elements that work within context of the XCOM name fall apart around it. In this way, it almost feels like the XCOM name itself is The Bureau’s worst enemy, with the reliance to hold onto that name resulting in the inclusion of mechanics that don’t really work well with the core gameplay idea. It’s still a good game, and one that many would enjoy playing. It’s just that, with the inclusion of the XCOM name, certain deliverables are expected. And on this front, The Bureau doesn’t really do its job.