Developer: 2K Marin / Publisher: 2K Games / Platforms: Xbox 360, PS3, PC, Mac / Played on: Xbox 360 / Release Date: August 20, 2013 / ESRB: Mature [Blood and Gore, Strong Language, Violence]
The Bureau: XCOM Declassified marks another attempt to extend the classic turn-based strategy franchise into other genres. It’s a process that has been attempted often over the years with little real success, and in fact The Bureau itself went through several changes since it was first revealed to be in development. Now it emerges as a smartly stylized tactical shooter that earns the right to carry the revered XCOM name.
We’ve ordered AI teammates around before in the likes of Gears of War and more notably, in Mass Effect, a format that echoes in The Bureau’s gameplay. This game takes the single-player squad-based shooter to its most hands-on, micromanaged level. At best, the squad mates in The Bureau are only as good as the directives you, their commanding officer, deliver. That in itself should be a draw for XCOM fans even if the ground-level perspective and the real-time combat is a significant change for the series.
The Bureau is presented as an XCOM origin story; how the organization was actually formed in response to Soviet aggression. Where XCOM: Enemy Unknown depicted a futuristic War of the Worlds conflict, The Bureau paints a similar picture, though influenced by 1950s/’60’s UFO films, along with a Cold War backdrop, and right down to the John F. Kennedy picture on the wall. Protagonist William Carter is a U.S. government operative with a Clint Eastwood-inspired gruffness though he’s much nicer than Dirty Harry. Carter carries some emotional baggage but holds it together well enough to be a competent leader against invaders from space.
Carter’s squad of three seems pretty spartan—with a lower-case s—at first, but it’s sufficient in tackling the dozen or so enemies that appear in a given battle. The challenge is in getting out of the traditional third-person shooter mindset. Your squad mates greatly depend on your orders as they can only hold their own for so long when left to their own devices. The game demands a level of multitasking almost equal to most real-time strategy games. It’s a matter of making sure your team always has something to do while you contribute to the fight with your own weapons. It’s just about as complex as it sounds, and the game could have actually benefitted from a couple more tutorial pop-ups, if only to emphasize that you won’t get far if you play The Bureau like a standard shooter.
It’s demanding, but 2K Marin knew the right areas of the game that provide a fighting chance. While you don’t have the same turn-based convenience of Enemy Unknown, time does slow down to a fair crawl when you’re executing commands. Furthermore, a squad mate can use many abilities at the same time. So a support class can conjure both a dome shield and combat stim, on the same spot if you wish, for a power-added combination of offense and defense. Once you do get to about Level 5, you can feel the rush in queuing-up every available ability to take down a mutons, knowing that each ability will serve a purpose. Spamming a single heavy with every available attack at your disposal can feel therapeutic, even if it is overkill.
With AI on your side, your guys throw shockwaves, fire critical strikes, and activate turrets at your whim. There’s even a trophy/achievement for completing an operation without Carter firing a shot. This kind of soldier loyalty and competence offers peace of mind, but you could imagine how much more assured you’d feel if the AI could aim as well you. Taking time to give them targets isn’t a hassle, but watching them shoot at a wall repeatedly is annoying. It’s also hard to consistently trust the hit percentages that appear when you highlight an enemy. You might be better off relying on plain sight when determining who’s easiest to hit. It’s never so bad that you’d fail missions frequently, but it is puzzling when your buddies aren’t showing common sense to shift a couple feet in cover to get a better angle. You’re left wondering if the combat system could have benefitted from a handful of macro commands. It surely wouldn’t take away from the sense of responsibility you feel in holding off this alien threat.
Returning to XCOM headquarters offers a welcome break from the action, a chance to further organize our troops, and more user-initiated exposition with NPC conversations. If you’re into the story, these chats will keep you occupied with revelations about the war effort, even if some of these folks lack interesting personalities. Many of the NPCs will ask you for small favors, like inspecting cracks in a ship or scanning the base for alien infected staff. The practical benefits in completing these tasks are its rewards, most notably the unlocking of non-story missions. These are meant for your additional team members, so they can keep active and their levels current while you’re out with your chosen line-up.
These periods at HQ do a lot to prep you for the next battle, but it can be time consuming if you’re the type who doesn’t want to miss any conversations, let alone those minor rewards. Since it’s a large base, it’s wouldn’t have hurt to let Carter sprint like he does in the field? It’s bad enough that you end up missing the immediacy of the efficient cross-section design of the HQ in Enemy Unknown.
To its credit, The Bureau does deliver the sense of team ownership so expertly executed in Enemy Unknown, right down to the custom names. Putting personalization and permadeath in the same game assures that ownership. It’s hard to blame anyone for rage-quitting if that meant keeping alive your fatally wounded character before the auto-save kicks in.
Since The Bureau is set in 1962, the visuals have more of a post-1950’s look and is nearly devoid of 1960’s kitsch. So what you get is a pleasing atomic age color palette, which we seldom have seen in games save for Call of Duty: Black Ops and Metal Gear Solid 3. Further adding to the sense of retro are the alien character and mechanical designs, which effectively riff off the look of the enemies in Enemy Unknown. The softly lit aesthetics of Main Street, USA juxtapose well against extra-terrestrial terrorism and the destruction the aliens leave behind. The later areas, where Carter and his team infiltrate alien bases, are reminiscent of the strongholds from the Resistance series.
By resembling both a shooter and real-time version of XCOM: Enemy Unknown, The Bureau: XCOM Declassified isn’t the easiest game to grasp. Yet, if you tough it out through the game’s initial hours, there’s a lot gratification to be found in AI team management. Your squad’s dependency on your orders is both their strength and weakness. While the AI could have better aim and spatial awareness, they at least make up for those issues by having potent and stackable abilities. The 1960’s setting provides a fitting backdrop for this XCOM origin story, enough that another 20th century XCOM doesn’t sound like a bad idea before going back to the future.