The Bureau: XCOM Declassified Hands-On Preview

Jonathan Bolding | 17 Jul 2013 12:00
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You'll also be sad when you lose agents, because your agents level up and gain a variety of perks - many of which change the face of the tactics available to you. Each agent is either a Commando, Engineer, Scout, or Support - different from the traditional XCOM classes, but familiar enough. Engineers, for example, can gain a helpful laser turret, mines, and use close range weapons like shotguns, while supports use submachine guns and can buff allies with combat drugs. Commandos gain abilities like taunt, while scouts get abilities to make them less likely to be hit and more likely to snipe their targets. Carter takes on a sort of hybrid leader-psionic role, and he gains some of the most diverse and interesting powers, going from a simple psychic heal, to summoning an alien drone, to mind controlling powers that twist enemies to your side. Leveling up seems about as important as in XCOM: Enemy Unknown - you'll survive if you lose a few soldiers, because there are only a few levels of advancement and you can replace them, but on high difficulties losing a rank five soldier will be crippling.

The controls are well designed, and while they're fairly standard for a third person shooter, they're easy to understand - including easy buttons for rapidly commanding your AI companions. The cover was very reactive and easy to get into and out of, and the shooting is straightforward. The weapons and cover lacked some of the visceral crunch of games like Gears of War, and the animations felt oddly liquid - like no contact was being made between objects, but that didn't significantly detract from the experience. Wonderfully, there were only a few ways to move through cover, and each was usually represented by a different button on screen, so you never dove over to the wrong side of cover or zigged when you should have zagged.

Unlike in XCOM, you won't be doing any research or capturing of aliens to advance your understanding and create new weapons or armor, instead you'll make use of a device hacked together out of alien parts by a friendly bureau scientist. That arm band gives you the ability to pick up weapons out of alien stores, which are then accessible to you in missions after the one you retrieved them in. It's a real change from XCOM, but the designers said that having a research system in the game just wasn't very fun. From the preview, it seemed like a good choice - there was plenty to do in the base, and futzing around researching plasma guns would just have distracted from the fast paced play that The Bureau encourages.

The game looks pretty good, because while the graphics aren't groundbreaking or beautiful beyond belief, the design is consistent and solid. The bureau and its agents have a retro-futuristic look to them, with pastel colors, exposed tubing, and bulbous designs. The aliens, on the other hand, have a contemporary future look, with bulky, metallic sharp-edged designs that look brutal and utilitarian. The clash of the two styles looks great in action, especially once your human soldiers start using the aliens' weapons against them.

After the preview ended, four hours into the game, I was very satisfied and wanted to play more. The gameplay isn't revolutionary, but it is very concise and well integrated. The introduction of new gameplay elements like enemies, weapons, and abilities, is well paced. The story has a serious tone, but feels unevenly executed. It's not a gamebreaker, but this isn't an instant masterpiece and, so far, the characters aren't very memorable. The thing that keeps it from being cliché is how serious it takes itself - it's not apologizing for being a weird period Sci-Fi game. Not one bit. And that makes it pretty special.

The Bureau: XCOM Declassified launches in the US on August 20 for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC.

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