An interesting shooter/tactical hybrid let down by lackluster A.I. and lack of identity.
Reviving a classic franchise from dormancy can be a daunting task. An old-school turn-based strategy series like XCOM, revered by tactical PC purists everywhere, seemed like an impossible mission. But when last year’s XCOM: Enemy Unknown finally launched, it defied all expectations, pessimism and market trends and became a massive hit, critically and commercially.
Meanwhile, in the background, 2K Games’ other XCOM reboot title, a FPS, fell into quiet obscurity and then abruptly resurfaced, rebranded as The Bureau: XCOM Declassified, a third-person cover-based shooter/strategy hybrid set in the sameXCOM universe with its own tale to tell.
Playing through the 14-hour campaign of The Bureau, it’s obvious that 2K did a last minute flip in the wake of Enemy Unknown’s success and threw in several new mechanics to make the game more closely resemble its successful tactical roots. However, too many signs of the lack of confidence 2K once had in the franchise’s strategy origins remain. Safe staples like cover-based shooting from Gears of War, archetypical protagonist with a Batman-esque voice, and conversation wheels ripped from Mass Effect all drag an otherwise solid shooter into above-average territory without its own identity... aside from, y'know, aliens and 1960s.
Watch the official launch trailer.
The Bureau: XCOM Declassified ditches the core continuity of the XCOM series and is set in the United States in 1962. The game is centered around CIA special agent William Carter, a brooding protagonist with an over dramatic past and an over exaggerated gruff voice that unbelievably gets more and more irritating each time he opens his mouth.
Carter is tasked with investigating and stopping an unknown extraterrestrial force that is threatening the very existence of humankind, while simultaneously erasing all evidence of it. Beware, XCOM purists: this is an alternate take on the core timeline and should be approached with an open mindset to enjoy.
Carter joins the shadowy XCOM organisation after some extraordinary circumstances involving a briefcase that saves his life, and from there he leads the fight head on against the Zudjari, a humanoid race of aliens who command various other species in their attack on Earth. Several of the classic enemies return such as the ‘greys’ or Sectoids, and the Mutons, as well as a few new monstrosities. All have enough personality to be distinguishable from the usual alien depictions are fairly engaging to fight, each with their own quirks and tactics.
After some fairly interesting introductory sections, players are tasked with taking two other agents into the field and repel the invaders. Missions themselves involve some pre-planning, such as choosing which agents to recruit based on one of four unique classes and their rank which levels up when you bring them on missions, and where on the global map to travel. There's also a limited level of squad customisation -- namely changing your agent's names.
Shooting the classic grays never gets old.
From home base, your team coordinate to meet the aliens head-on in a series of linear encounters shaped by a hybrid of tactical, cover-based shooting sections. On a basic level, the gameplay of The Bureau works well. The opening moments can trick you into thinking it's just another stock third-person cover-based shooter, but the ‘Battle Focus’ feature changes things up enough to keep things from being played as a straight shooter.
The UI acts as a tactical command wheel where you slow down the combat and command the next set of actions of your two fellow squad mates, such as where to place them on the field to flank enemies or what special ability to activate, like a critical shot from a sniper rifle or a deployable turret. The abilities depend on your agent's class -- Commando, Engineer, Support and Recon -- and each bring a different advantage and disadvantage to the field. This limited level of tactical options does spice up the otherwise solid but 'we've seen this before' cover-based shootouts.
Carter gets most of the offensive goodies, from deadly alien goo that hunts down prey to mind-controlling the hulking Mutons to crush your enemies for you, and these unique offensive skills mostly keep the core gameplay from devolving into generic shootouts. When you get your hands on the plasma-based weaponry of your foe, the gunplay really steps up in the fun-department as the traditional weapons lack some character.
Beware, XCOM purists: this is an alternate take on the core timeline and should be approached with an open mindset to enjoy.
One particular theme The Bureau carries over from its XCOM roots is perma-death: both of your squad-mates can die, and will be gone from the game entirely should you not command them effectively. While this addition is welcome, the sense of desperation and loss isn’t as well executed as Enemy Unknown because there’s no compelling narrative connection between Carter and the agents, reviving them is easy enough, and both agents can continuously revive each other or you so long as one is alive.
Because you’ll have to babysit the questionable A.I. regardless by constantly pulling up the Battle Focus wheel for nearly every firefight, you'll most likely have to ensure their survival by necessity. The few moments where death is around the corner are usually negated because if Carter dies, everyone respawns at the last checkpoint.
Elaborating on the A.I., your squad mates can sometimes be a pain in the ass to manage. If left alone for even a few seconds without specific orders, they’ll usually cry for help, leave cover inexplicably and get gunned down, totally out of character for what should be two elite trained agents.
You'll be saving your teammates a lot more than you should.
There are some fairly atmospheric levels that match the 1960s timeline -- namely rural, spooky farms and secret underground bases -- that make the change from futuristic to Roswell-era setting decent enough, but there are far more generic alien-themed backdrops in the latter half of the campaign that could be ripped from any other major title in the last few years.
The XCOM base itself is one such setting that is wasted, as when you’re there between missions, all you can do is wander around the halls, do a few puzzles and equip your squad or send them out on Dispatch Missions to get Carter some resources while you're away using another team. There is notably an area labelled as the research labs, but for some reason Carter can’t access them, despite franchise tradition always including some form of a research mechanic.
Much of the attempted ancillary details scattered around the levels also fall short to add anything worthwhile to the core narrative, with far too many uninteresting and cliche ‘last letters' lying around than actual interesting background exposition.
The conversations too, feel wooden and padded out and the Mass Effect-esque dialogue wheel feels thrown in just to make the game seem more interactive than it is, though there is some level of impact based on how you answered earlier choices. But long-term incentive to either help an NPC or screw them over usually lacks consequence.
The character models and environments are solid enough graphically, but it’s mostly the 1960s setting and all of its alcohol, chronic smoking and paranormal stereotypes that keeps things visually and thematically engaging, as well as the diversity of alien enemies you’ll be gunning down constantly. The average voice-acting and off-timed lip syncing may turn off some players wanting to immerse themselves, however.
The Final Verdict
Despite some shortcomings, there's nothing inherently wrong with The Bureau: XCOM Declassified like many feared. It's a solid third-person shooter with some great tactical options thrown in to make combat interesting and engaging, and it's got a pretty cool 1960s setting that changes up the futuristic backdrop of the core series. However, for newbies and veterans alike, XCOM: Enemy Unknown is arguably the better tactical title out there for those specifically seeking a pure XCOM experience that revolves around traditional strategy conventions.
However, if you're looking for a faster-paced third-person shooter with a paranormal flavour and a little 'tactical' depth, The Bureau: XCOM Declassified might whet your extraterrestrial appetite.