The Bureau: XCOM Declassified Review
Don your Fedora, it's alien fighting time.
The Bureau: XCOM Declassified had a troubled development history, starting life as a first-person shooter set in the fifties that didn’t really seem to have much to do with the XCOM games fans had known and loved. While the pre-release identity crisis continued, Firaxis released XCOM: Enemy Unknown, which was an absolute slam-dunk as a revival of the entire XCOM franchise, streamlining everything about the tense turn-based tactics of the original games without compromising the core experience one iota. Enemy Unknown was so challenging, yet deeply rewarding and at the end of a 40-hour campaign on “normal” difficulty, I immediately played through another campaign on “classic ironman” mode.
The Bureau changed itself to something more resembling the XCOM formula that has proved itself to still be as financially and critically viable as ever. The Bureau advertises itself as sixties-era prequel to Enemy Unknown and a more action-oriented iteration of XCOM’s classic tactical gameplay. But this bold pitch highlights its own shortcomings even as it sells itself.
In terms of gameplay, The Bureau is cut from the same space-age cloth as Mass Effect. You go between sequences of third person cover-shooting as part of a three-man squad, and wandering around chatting to people using a conversation wheel. Most of the aforementioned chatting will take place at the secret XCOM base where you, as the grizzled Agent William Carter, prepare to fight against alien incursions. In addition to chin-wagging with the oddballs around the complex, you’ll get to play a few scanning mini-games and simple fetch-quests along the way. When you’re back at base, you can send your agents on dispatch missions which will take place while you’re doing your own business, so they’ll have a chance to gain levels, new squad members and super-powered backpacks. With no real management element to the base breaks between missions, though, The Bureau makes no secret of the fact the meat of the gameplay is grabbing two sharply suited fellas, donning your fedora and fighting the Outsider menace.
Your two companions will be alumni of either the commando, recon, engineer or support classes. Mixing and matching the different classes with your own (your class being the unique “Squad Leader”) can create some cool opportunities for synergy. For example, you can use the Telekentic lift power to hoist an enemy from behind cover into the air, order the support to deploy combat stims to increase your damage, order your recon man to use his critical strike ability, cumulatively doing incredible damage to a target you’ve marked. Using skills in concert with your allies rewards you with a “combo kill”, giving you more experience, and further incentivising the fun.
It is still worth noting, however, that outside of choosing one of two abilities between levels (and sometimes not even that) there’s not much scope for customisation of your squadmates beyond the cosmetic act of re-naming them and changing their appearance. Indeed, the aforementioned Mass Effect games had far more opportunities to build your characters in different ways (and Mass Effect never exactly advertised itself as a game where you can create unique NPCs). Equipment is your opportunity to make your companions more specialised. Selecting weapons for your guys is a bit of a no-brainer as you can simply give them the latest gear they’re allowed (which you don’t have to bother buying or discovering, you just pick them up on the field and they’re unlocked). It’s the shiny backpacks that’ll really make you do a cost-benefit analysis as they offer a very wide variety of statistical advantages and disadvantages.
The Bureau is definitely a shooter only optimised for battles behind cover, not in corridors.
The enemies you’ll face are an odd mix. There’s the familiar XCOM opponents such as sectoids, mutons and drones. As The Bureau rolls along you’ll face outsider commanders who’ll summon more minions, or shield their brethren or deploy turrets to suppress you. There is satisfaction to be had overcoming aliens who are using teamwork just as you are. Oddly, the terrifying chrysallids don’t make an appearance in The Bureau, and they’re replaced by the inky black alien blobs called silacoids. What’s highly amusing about the silacoids is that they are meant to be the “scary” aliens, often sprung upon you in groups while you’re walking through tight corridors, but they’re actually the most harmless enemies in the game. You can kill them easily in a few hits as they futilely nibble at you, trying to siphon even one regenerable health bar from you and your friends. The Bureau is definitely a shooter only optimised for battles behind cover, not in corridors. It’s a shame the silacoids can’t inspire even a smidgeon of the fear and panic of the chrysallids; limiting the scale of emotions you’d expect to feel in an XCOM battle.
Though your squadmates are helpful, and they have some handy abilities, they are still supporting characters, as the kill tally at the end of each mission will attest. In Enemy Unknown, every squaddie had the chance to be a hero, and your choices in researching, building and choosing the right equipment determined their success. The Bureau only has one hero, and the camera is stuck over his shoulder. The satisfaction of building randomly generated rookies into unique alien killing machines is not to be found in abundance as it is in other XCOM titles.
Consequences for wrong decisions have always been severe in XCOM, and The Bureau keeps up the tradition by implementing a perma-death feature on the higher difficulty levels, whereby if one of your squadmates die, they’re gone forever. However, this mechanic very much feels like it’s in the wrong game. Regaining your dead ally is as simple as going to the menu screen and selecting “reload from last checkpoint”. As for other sorts of “tough choices” that I’d seen advertised while writing a news post of The Bureau, there really aren’t that many. There are probably about two major decisions in the game you really have to ponder over. Others are inconsequential options you’d expect from a conversation wheel system, like the choice between being a jerk for no reason or being reasonable (either of which are cheerfully forgotten anyway).
Though bold flanking manoeuvres are often advertised in the tutorials, splitting up the group usually results in one of your guys being isolated and killed, with them being too far away to run over and revive with your magical healing spray.
Whereas Enemy Unknown’s turn-based system had combat where every hit or miss was dramatic and consequential, this is not the case with The Bureau. What combat boils down to is whittling down your extraterrestrial enemies’ health bars continuously and making sure your team-mates stay in a relatively safe position. Though bold flanking manoeuvres are often advertised in the tutorials, splitting up the group usually results in one of your guys being isolated and killed, with them being too far away to run over and revive with your magical healing spray. There isn’t really much tactical decision making to be done. You use your various buff abilities, deploying turrets and drones before battles then continuously spam your various abilities as soon as their cooldowns have finished, focus-firing the most dangerous targets first. Almost every battle boils down to this same formula. There is some slight variation at points, such as a mission where you’re defending a stranded agent, who you can order to detonate explosives planted around the battlefield. Likewise, many of the late-game combats feature gigantic mutons that will charge your position, forcing you to kite them around the map while ducking and diving from enemy fire. Still, I rarely got the feeling that I’d taken calculated risks and used innovative strategies as I had in Enemy Unknown. Usually, I just felt a sense of relief that I’d shepherded my squadmates safely through frantic, but straightforward battles.
The Bureau’s story suffers by having its protagonist, William Carter, severely afflicted by the short-brown-haired-white-guy-with-a-tortured-past syndrome that seems to affect most gaming heroes these days. Symptoms of this syndrome include a deep, gravelly voice, constant traumatic flashbacks, outbursts against the “brass” and “higher-ups”, and frequent protestations of “I ain’t no damn hero!”. The supporting cast are tropes just as familiar as Carter is. There’s a slightly mad German scientist who’ll randomly yell “Wunderbar!” in a wildly overdone accent; there’s stern senior agent Angela Weaver, whose character can be summed up as “Yeah, I’m a woman with authority in the sixties. What of it?!”; and finally there’s Director Faulke, who provides fatherly understanding towards Carter, even as he lambasts him for being a maverick who needs to learn to do things by the book, dammit!
Not only are most of the characters clichéd, but the story frequently contradicts itself. One moment your allies will be talking about how the clandestine XCOM is keeping the alien invasion under wraps, and suppressing information about it to prevent public panic, and the next Carter will be bemoaning how half the world is dead or infected with the sleepwalker virus. At the start of the game, friendly agents will repeatedly express shock and disbelief at the aliens and their technology, even as they’re setting up laser turrets and calling down plasma strikes on enemy positions. Enemy Unknown started you off (rather aptly) with no information about your alien adversaries, only slowly and tantalisingly revealing more details about them as you fought to gain that information. By contrast, The Bureau feels completely off in terms of pacing, and the inconsistent tone of the piece isn’t sure if it wants to be Independence Day or Men In Black.
Though The Bureau has a largely predictable storyline, it does have an interesting metaphysical twist in the game’s final act, that even contains a little bit of delicious commentary about the relationship between the game and its player. I couldn’t help but feel frustrated, however, that the story only becomes really intriguing right as the end is in sight.
The Bureau does not make much use of its sixties era setting. Contemporary figures like President Kennedy and J Edgar Hoover, and issues like the Cold War and Cuban Missile Crisis are briefly mentioned, but these people and events are not interwoven into the plot at all. The Bureau’s tale could have been told in any era, and it kind of feels like a missed opportunity that it’s told here.
As the game went on, I found myself longing to hear some period music to give the proceedings some of the sixties flair I was hoping for, only to hear the same blaring orchestral numbers over and over. XCOM: UFO Defense, with all the technological limitations of the time, did a better job of providing a creepy, foreboding ambiance with its score. It also did a great job of paying homage to the music of the pulpy alien invasion movies of the fifties and sixties, which The Bureau’s soundtrack oddly doesn’t even attempt to draw inspiration from.
Aesthetically is about the only way The Bureau: XCOM Declassified makes good use of its time period. There are plenty of suburbs, campgrounds and diners that just exude a bygone Americana. Many times you’ll find yourself diving behind beautiful classic Chevrolets for cover during a fight, nearby grenade explosions knocking off Carter’s dapper fedora as you go. There are also some lovingly rendered retro-futurist designs of the XCOM base and its spacesuits, spaceships and gadgets. Still, as pretty as the environments can be, the fact that the environment is so static and unchanged by your exchanges of bullets and grenades with the aliens, sometimes left me with the feeling I was fighting in a showroom rather than adapting to the destructible warzones of Enemy Unknown.
A review copy of The Bureau: XCOM Declassified was provided courtesy of 2K Games. The game was reviewed on PlayStation 3.
Bit Of A COM Down
The Bureau is a title that is hindered more than helped by its association with the XCOM franchise. XCOM raises certain expectations of variability, significant choices, and alien invaders with a certain compelling mystique. Sadly, it falls a little short of fulfilling these aspirations. The Bureau: XCOM Declassified is a competent cover-shooter with a few interesting tactical and narrative twists, but its greatest achievement as an XCOM prequel was that it made me long to get started on my third playthrough of Enemy Unknown.