Let’s not waste any time here: The Bureau is not an XCOM game.
But don’t leave just yet! While The Bureau: XCOM Declassified may bear little resemblance to either last year’s Enemy Unknown or any of the earlier classics, it does offer a challenging tactical shooter with a side-helping of 60’s B-movie sci-fi narrative that work together to make an interesting experience, if not an entirely successful one.
For this mission you’ll be slipping on the turtleneck jumper of booze-swilling, Michael Shannon lookalike Agent William Carter, who is thrust into a secret section of the government as bug-eyed men from outer space start shooting up small town America. To defend the homefront from the cast of any sci-fi B-movie you can think of, you’ll be taking two agents with you into the field for some cover-based tactical shootouts. Think the results of a breeding experiment between Rainbow Six and Mass Effect, suited up in a fine waistcoat and trilby.
Punctuating these shootout missions are downtime segments in The Bureau itself. A wonder of art direction, XCOM’s base of operations contains everything you love about 60s sci-fi: chunky green monitors, cheap wood paneling, whirring reel-to-reel recording equipment. From the command chambers you’ll be able to access the map to field agents on away missions and watch your enemy’s actions. You can talk to most characters at base, where you find the XCOM project’s staff scientists debating their position in the universe, G-Men with questionable ethics, and communications officers doing their best to keep the explosive invasion under wraps. They all offer slim windows into elements of the XCOM universe. Unfortunately, each of those windows shows something far more interesting than the grunt work you will spend the game performing.
Despite being billed as an origins story for XCOM, the division itself seems to have been in operation for a number of years, so don’t go looking for any revelations as to how the project got started. Instead, Carter is quickly drafted to fight the war XCOM have spent a decade preparing for. And a war it is: rather than the small scale cover-ups that the advertising campaign would lead you to believe The Bureau is about, you’ll be fighting a full-on battle against destructive aggressors in the streets of suburban America . Diners and farmhouses will be seen ripped apart and dominated by alien tech that takes most of its visual cues from Enemy Unknown’s alien architecture, but also a little inspiration from 1960’s sci-fi. Listen closely and you’ll probably hear a few Star Trek and War of the Worlds-like sound effects, too.
Carter manages to fight this war pretty well by using a hybrid of Enemy Unknown’s turn-based strategy system and standard cover shooter mechanics. When the lasers start to fizz and your two squad mates dive for cover, you’ll be able to use “Battle Focus” to slow the action down to a standstill and gain an overhead view of the battlefield. Each of your agents has a skill bar of actions, with three unique class abilities. Engineers are able to throw down turrets and mines, whilst medics can erect force fields and spray clouds of performance-enhancing drugs.
There’s no limit to the amount of times you can use this Battle Focus system, and that’s a good thing, since you need to use it constantly. For those fearing a switch to shooter-land would dilute XCOM’s tactical focus, cast those worries aside. Enemies constantly assault, bombard you with grenades, and operate drones that can flush you out with ease. Combat is full of energy and movement. Your agents are capable of holding their own for a while but you constantly need to provide orders to gain any progress. Some may see this as frustrating, but I feel this keeps the tactical element of the series in full flow.
Battle isn’t all death and glory, though. The system was clearly designed for analogue sticks, so moving your agents isn’t a case of clicking where you want them to go, but moving a marker as you would a character across the map. For some sadistic reason these markers obey the physical laws of characters too, so you can’t push them through walls or swap from level to level without winding up stairs. This is frequently frustrating, and since the same system applies to abilities, sometimes you can’t lay mines or turrets down in places that are clearly in your throw range because you can’t move the marker past a piece of cover.
The other main issue with combat is that all enemies are bullet sponges. In the opening missions when you only have conventional weaponry, even taking down a fragile Sectoid can almost empty an entire clip. You’ll eventually pick up enemy weapons to use against them, but even the mid-tier laser guns seem ineffective. Despite the reasonable depth of tactics available, there will be a few battles that become tiresome because you simply feel impotent.
Technical glitches won’t alleviate that fatigue, either. The framerate is frequently sporadic; only once did it ever dive to unplayable levels, but it bounces around between 30 and 60 frames per second alarmingly frequently. It’s not always when you expect, either. I found conversation sections dipped quite often, whilst heated battles often ran at higher rates. Still , you’ll be pleased to know that The Bureau has a solid set of PC options though, including field of view.
But my biggest problem with The Bureau is that it misses so many of XCOM’s key points. XCOM is about being able to capture enemies, interrogate them, and reverse engineer their tech into versions usable by humans. It’s how you turn the tide.
The Bureau opts for the usual pick-stuff-up approach. You’ll retrieve weapons from enemy corpses in the manner of most other shooters, and stat-boosting technology backpacks can be acquired through the discovery of blueprints. This instant access approach to technology negates any sense of true progress, any sense that your victories have been important ones. It’s a real shame, since traditional XCOM research and development could have slotted in perfectly during the ‘back at base’ sections. A small addition, but one that would have added much to the feel of the game.
For all that The Bureau get’s wrong, it is at least a passable tactical shooter with a novel, well-realised setting. If you love the golden age of science-fiction, there’s something here for you. Just don’t expect it to ever get truly interesting, because XCOM Declassified never captures what XCOM is all about.
Enemy Unknown is the perfect power fantasy: starting weak and defenceless, and over time taking the X-Factor of the big bully and using it against him. The unstoppable feeling you get at the end of Enemy Unknown, when everyone has rocket-powered armour and is firing green bolts of instant death, is the payoff you’ll never find in The Bureau. The spirit of XCOM just isn’t here.