The Bureau XCOM Declassified Review – Missed chance
In our The Bureau XCOM Declassified review, we’ll take a look at how the latest entry in the XCOM franchise from studio 2K Marin brings the franchise into the tactical shooter genre, and how this prequel follows up the 2012, highly-acclaimed strategy title XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Vigilo confide!
Players take the role of William Carter, a tough, no-nonsense soldier with a dark secret who is brought on to defend the planet as part of XCOM, an organization specifically created to protect Earth from an invasion of little grey men. At the height of the Cold War era, the Outsiders invade and begin terraforming the planet. The story takes you across many locations, from typical small town America, to the base of the Outsiders themselves.
Carter takes his missions from inside the Bureau’s secret base, complete with its own crew that will talk to Carter and give him special missions to do, or new equipment. Unlike the turn-based Enemy Unknown, there is no research in the game – a feature I really missed, along with base-building. Between missions it’s possible to run around the hub, gather intel, and customize agents in many ways. You can even send a group of agents on a mission by themselves, something that usually nets you shiny new gear, but Carter must be present on all story missions.
Combat in the game consists of third-person shooting, not unlike Bioware’s Mass Effect games. Players can take cover behind a plethora of waist-high walls, aim down the sights, and use different powers to attack Outsider foes. The Bureau adds a twist where you can enter Battle Focus Mode which allows you to give orders to your two AI companions, like where to go and who to shoot, as well as when and where to use class-specific abilities, in a nod to Enemy Unknown. Be quick about it though, because time still passes in this mode, it’s just slowed down.
Frankly, the main problem is that our AI agents are dumb as rocks, and require a lot of babysitting if you don’t want to chew through new recruits. Once an agent is down, a bar drains until they are revived, but if the bar runs out you better send out a body bag, as there is permanent death (like in Enemy Unknown). If Carter goes down, you’re stuck in strategic mode until one of your AI buddies comes to revive you. My understanding is that the AI acts the way it does to encourage players to make use of Battle Focus, but running in front of my crosshairs, exposing themselves to enemy fire, and straight up glitching out on the level geometry made me an extremely unhappy commander.
Of course, like in Enemy Unknown, I absolutely had to restart from the checkpoint every time an agent died.
The satisfying part about combat is when a plan comes together: for example, after coming upon some unsuspecting Sectoids and Outsider Elites, I immediately popped into Battle Focus and ordered my men to flank the enemy. Once they were in position and the firing started, I used my Lift ability on the Elite which caused him to rise up into the air, unable to return fire, and ordered the Recon Agent to use Critical Strike on the Elite. While that was happening, the Engineer Agent tossed a mine at a group of Sectoids locked down behind cover, while I tossed one right at their feet. When the dust cleared and my agents emerged from cover, I couldn’t help but feeling like a tactical genius.
My main complaint is that The Bureau hardly feels like an XCOM game. Sure, the game has permadeath and agent customization (and if you aren’t making your agents look as garish as possible, you might be doing it wrong), but it doesn’t go far enough. Carter can hold up to two weapons, swapping them out with whatever he finds on the battlefield, but you can’t tell an agent to pick up a laser rifle. As mentioned, the lack of base building and research further paints The Bureau as a shell around an average-to-middling shooter game with some basic tactical elements. I played the PC version, which ran fine except for a few hitches here and there, but the aiming was loose and movement felt weirdly imprecise. When will games stop making the run button and the cover button the same? I kept popping in and out of cover when I was just trying to run away.
The game has a nice art style, with expressive characters that have obviously raided the Mad Men wardrobe, and levels that hide the fact that they’re just long corridors by sprinkling bits of Americana to create this pulpy, idealized vision of the 60s. The music appropriately swells during combat and calms down during the walking bits, and the sound thankfully borrows a lot from Enemy Unknown. In what seems like a response to complaints that Enemy Unknown’s cast sounds too American, The Bureau’s characters at least have a wider variety of accents. Because it’s a video game in 2013, the game world is littered with audio logs that last way too long and, more often than not, clips with radio and mission dialog, and things like photographs and notes that are written in an obvious computer-typed font that just seem kind of lazy.
I almost cannot believe that this game finally came out. First revealed in 2010 as a new XCOM title, the fan response was toxic – after waiting years and years for the eventually-cancelled X-COM Alliance, fans were hungry for a new title, but XCOM did not suffice. When Enemy Unknown came out, it was a huge success for Firaxis and XCOM fans, but The Bureau was still this weird game that people kept saying existed but we didn’t really know anything about.
Stuck halfway in between a strategy game without much strategy and an action game without much action, I’m not sure who to recommend The Bureau: XCOM Declassified to. It’s certainly an interesting direction for the franchise, but it may not be the right one.