Developer: 2K Marin / Publisher: 2K Games / Platforms: Xbox 360, PS3, PC, Mac / Release Date: August 20, 2013 / ESRB: Mature [Blood and Gore, Strong Language, Violence]
At first glance, The Bureau: XCOM Declassified feels–if I may sound slightly cynical–a game born out of a focus group of gamers who wished for more action and a faster pace in last year’s critically acclaimed XCOM: Enemy Unknown. When I mentioned this to The Bureau’s creative director, Morgan Gray, he didn’t think I sounded cynical at all. He loves the prospect of this prequel carving its own identity and being something different. After few hours of hands-on time with the game, I saw what he meant. The Bureau has as much in common with Enemy Unknown as it does with the AI managing aspects of Mass Effect, and that’s actually a good thing.
The Bureau’s 1960′s Cold War-era setting was more than enough to grab my attention. It stylistically borrows from UFO movies of the time, complemented with a nostalgia-tinged color scheme and light bloom. As a prequel to Enemy Unknown, it’s very insightful to witness the birth of the XCOM organization since The Bureau begins shortly after aliens have infiltrated Earth. It’s also great to see visual reworkings of classic XCOM enemies, many getting a retro, prototypical makeover.
If you are looking for similarities to Enemy Unknown, you’ll find them in the cover tactics and the ability to give orders to your other squad mates, although this time around, you’re limited to only two AI buddies. When choosing your next cover point, you’ll see the familiar full, half, and red shield icons that give you an idea on how protected you are.
Different operatives have different class-based skill sets and it’s in your best interest to diversify. For example, this is one of those action games where the support class is extremely valuable, as two of the operative’s early skills include an ability-boosting combat stim and a small dome shield. I was surprised that the game actually lets you stack these skills, meaning that you can have the agent activate these at the same time (though many skills have cool down periods). Speaking of convenience, your main character has a very effective healing ability, one that heals all squadmates no matter how far away they are.
If you are spreading out, you’d better have a good reason to do so. The conventional wisdom is to keep the squad tight and close together, which certainly didn’t hurt during my session with The Bureau. That’s not to say there might be heavies or bosses down the line that might take advantage of the group being in a huddle. Much like playing Enemy Unknown for the first time, there’s something appealing about experimenting with group tactics in a given level with fresh eyes.
Many unfamiliar with XCOM tactics might feel the temptation to be a lone wolf and not utilize on your two other team members, especially when this game looks like a third-person shooter. That would be a mistake and the steady stream of enemies will punish you accordingly. Teammates are proactive enough to fire at enemies without proper orders, but their behavior when left alone is nothing compared to what they can do when you command them. There is a gratifying sense of multitasking, but not in the overwhelming way real-time strategy games demand multitasking.
Compared to my initially reserved reaction to The Bureau, my feelings for the game after five hours of hands-on time were notably different. 2K Marin managed to find a sweet spot in giving the player control of co-op AI without the convenience of stopping the game flow. This maintains some momentum in the action and gives the enemy a fighting chance. Add the Cold War setting and you might very well have a game that, in many respects, I might actually enjoy even more than Enemy Unknown.