Developer: 2K Marin / Publisher: 2K Games / Platforms: Xbox 360, PS3, PC / Release Date: August 20, 2013 / ESRB: Rating Pending
In 2K Games’ forthcoming The Bureau: XCOM Declassified, the past ain’t what it used to be—and neither is the core gameplay of the long-running XCOM franchise. Set in 1962 amid the frantic, paranoid turmoil of the Cold War, The Bureau chronicles the earliest, formative days of the unsung anti-extraterrestrial agency—in the days when the national threat-level color of the day darkens from red to grey, you could say—and trades in the traditionally overhead-view, turn-based XCOM play-scheme for a down-in-it, squad-based, technologically-humbler and altogether more urgently-paced experience.
At a recent Bureau sneak-peek in San Francisco, we had the chance to be some of the first media worldwide to get our hands on the XCOM franchise’s newest, rebooted iteration.
Players take the role of William Carter, a special agent for ‘The Bureau’, originally established as a covert-ops defensive agency against the looming threat of the Soviet Union; JFK is still president in The Bureau‘s skewed timeline, and the U.S. government’s wary focus abruptly shifts from potential Russian antagonists to actively-hostile Outsiders (the Bureau’s collective, xenophobic moniker for any and all visitors hailing from anyplace other than Earth). Long accustomed to a struggle with an often-somewhat-technologically-inferior foe, The Bureau must now quickly adapt and hit the ground running to challenge a threat unlike any the world has ever seen.
Working from the game-hub of the The Bureau’s secret headquarters, players conduct their covert against the alien invasion on a national scale. Consulting a constantly-updated war-room map of the United States from the depths of The Bureau’s main HQ, players can recruit, equip and dispatch Bureau agents to primary and secondary missions all over the country (some of the game’s ancillary sidequests also take place at the HQ facility itself).
Beyond the game’s immediately-conspicuous change in viewpoint (down-in-it third-person) and its glaringly-apparent new retro setting (fedoras and G-man-grade suits rather than helmets and powered armor), the most fundamental, radical alteration to the long-running XCOM franchise on which we can report is the treatment of game-time itself. “Our game never stops, our game is not turn-based,” the game’s producer reminds us. “Even when you’re going into Battle Focus [more on this later], yeah, time slows down—but it never ‘stops’. If you take too long building up your plan, the dude that you’re trying to attack might be over here now, and everything might fall into shambles. You’re thinking on your feet; you’re still using all the strategy that people love…but you can’t actually stop to do it, you’ve gotta keep going. It’s very action-packed. It’s very in-your-face. You’ve got to go.”
So The Bureau is an action game, without the hitherto-reliable, almost comforting fallback fact of turn-based pacing. Faithful, hardened XCOM veterans might blanch and splutter with indignation at that pronouncement alone but in reality, it may not deserve the outrage it might at first provoke.
Here’s how it works: While firmly rooted in the sort of real-time mechanics found in any third-person shooter, The Bureau lets players call up and make liberal use of a tactical/planning scheme called Battle Focus—which, while not exactly stopping time, instead slows it to a decidedly-manageable crawl, wherein up to three of Agent Carter’s support-agent comrades can be given squad-based orders via a radial/context-sensitive interface; when all desired orders have been issued, the Battle Focus interface goes away, and the fur (or scales, or antennae, or scillia, or whatever) once again begins to fly at normal-human speed, just as in any other self-respecting tactical shooter. The 2K folks succinctly liken the difference between the old turn-based and new variable-time schemes to the difference between the player acting as ‘coach’ in previous XCOM games and as a ‘combat quarterback’ in The Bureau.
So there you are, as Carter, running down the street of an alien-occupied town, closing the distance to a pack of marauding Outsiders as they scatter their cowardly grey selves behind three equally spaced barricades of smashed automobiles ahead of you. As they begin to take pot shots at your advancing squadmates with their exotic alien weaponry, you call up the Battle Focus interface, and in doing so, turn the rushing river of time to temporary molasses for your enemies. As your alien foes continue to scurry about and take cover—except now temporarily moving, from your point of view, at approximately half the speed of smell—you give your orders: One of your men is to move off to the right and get a flanking position on the aliens; your second guy, with the sniper rifle, is to take cover behind the smoking hulk of a bus crashed crosswise in the road and mark his next target for what will hopefully be a devastating headshot; your third man—and by the way, they do all seem to be men; it is, after all, 1962—is to stay right where he is and lay down enough suppressing fire to give you a chance to get a bead on the most well-covered pack of aliens…and give them an unpleasant, fatal taste of their own tech.
Yes, even though this is an era of primitive, loud, man-made slug-throwers (not to mention smoking everywhere, and lots of magazine-advertisements featuring extremely creepily-airbrushed children), the propeller-heads back at Bureau HQ have managed to reverse-engineer the occasional bit of recovered E.T. tech. One of the more useful (not to mention fun) ones that Carter was able to unleash during our two some odd hours of hands on time was effectively a contained, projected anti-gravity field. Slap this baby on a cluster of hunkered-down aliens who stubbornly refuse to emerge from cover, and it hoists them gracelessly and helplessly into the air—enough time for one or two fellow agents-in-arms to give your unwelcome, high-tech-wielding extraterrestrial guests a concentrated, ranged dose of good old-fashioned American-style lead poisoning.
The constant (and often literal) running mix of hectic, real-time action, chaotic exchanges of fire and isolated bubbles of slow-time tactical planning works far better than it has any right to, at least from what we’ve experienced firsthand. Any backburner mental gripes or reservations we might have brought into the demo-room with us regarding new changes to the XCOM franchise’s traditional pacing were quickly washed away by the admirable fluidity and tension of the new scheme.
As players routinely return from the field back to the Bureau HQ, they will receive updates on the progress of the greater nationwide war with the aliens. Available new core-progression missions, as well as numerous optional side-quest missions will continually show on the Big Board, as will many so-termed ‘dispatch’ missions: These missions are never experienced firsthand by the player, but exist solely for the training of reserve agents in the employ of The Bureau. It’s a way of letting the player’s ‘bench’ of non-currently-active agents get out in the game-world and level up. The ones who come back from this ‘dispatch’ assignments in one piece will be stronger and more experienced agents the player can then draft to his own active ‘away missions’ to replenish the ones the player manages to get killed in active gameplay, which is not so much a matter of if as of how soon and how bad.
It’s important to carefully consider and match prospective ‘dispatch’ missions and the agents you send away to them while you’re fighting the game’s core-story missions. Send away too many agents at one time—or cavalierly send them out willy-nilly to challenges that get them killed off in droves—and there will very likely come an unfortunate point later in the game where A) you face an end-game with a ‘bench’ full of reserve agents that have never become experienced, B) you lose an active agent in a battle and are unable to replace him because all your reserve agents are out getting themselves perished, or C) both at the same time.
The designers describe The Bureau‘s core campaign as ‘meaty’, with fifteen hours of gameplay plus or minus the player’s attentions to ancillary missions or finding in-game collectibles that flesh out the plot. The Bureau will also feature multiple endings, as the player’s choices both in the field and back at HQ can alter the path of the narrative. Another significant and ever-present stylistic aspect of the game is inherent to the setting itself: While finding and eliminating hostile Outsiders is of course of paramount importance, The Bureau also takes some time to smell the historical roses, as it were, given the whole enterprise of at least the promise of a sort of ‘Mad Men in Black’ vibe; its story encompasses a number of social and/or political issues rooted in its 60s-era setting, and the prospects for some interesting, environmental by-the-ways are intriguing.
One has to wonder: While the ‘agent bench’ of The Bureau doesn’t seem to particularly discriminate by race, where are those female Bureau agents, if indeed any exist at all? What’s the larval, Cold War-era equivalent of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ all about? What vestiges of McCarthyism might be floating around the (justifiably-paranoid) Bureau? Here’s hoping the War on Extraterrestrials turns out at least, at bare minimum, as manageably as the Cold War did.
Gamers will be able to find their own answers when The Bureau: XCOM Declassified surfaces in North America in August 2013.