It’s been a few years now since we first got a look at what would become The Bureau: XCOM Declassified, and this game has come a long way since its origins as a First Person Shooter with an XCOM paint job. It’s shaped up as a fine third person cover shooter, with a dash of squad tactics that make it stand out from the pack. The game has great art and atmosphere, with scenes and characters looking very distinct. The story, however, leaves something to be desired with fairly generic plot elements and characters.
In The Bureau you’re agent William Carter, an effective, but depressed and humorless Ex-CIA agent recruited for a mysterious division of spy hunters in 1962 America. After a surprise attack, you’re pressed into service earlier than expected and have to deal with not only the unexpected alien invasion, but the emergence of your own mysterious psychic powers. Agent Carter seems like standard fare for video game protagonists: he’s so hardcore and grim that it comes off as comical, with an inability to relate to others. He’s also a rampant alcoholic – but it doesn’t look like The Bureau will make dealing with carter’s psychological problems a facet of the story unless you want them to be.
Several times a mission you must make choices that will have repercussions later in the game. The developers were very clear in saying that the game has branching paths, hard choices, and multiple endings. Those choices aren’t always labeled clearly, either, so any dialogue you choose can affect the game’s outcome. Other things, like developing deeper bonds with your fellow bureau agents, are locked away in side missions or optional dialogues.
Oh, and, the game is very, very 1960s. There are plenty of three piece suits, and all the smoking indoors you could ever want. Seriously. I had a hard time finding five soldiers in the base who weren’t holding a cigarette or cigar, and the air is thick with clouds of smoke. The computers are satisfying strange and blinky, with plenty of typewriters. If the aesthetics don’t remind you of The Right Stuff or Mad Men, then, well, you probably haven’t seen Mad Men.
Overall, the story and dialogue were the weakest parts of the game. It was clear that there had been several scripts, and some of the more jokey, less realistic style of previous game builds was still evident – the normally stoic carter would sometimes crack a joke after a headshot, or a thriller-esque action sequence would suddenly break out. Likewise, it didn’t feel like Carter was the most relatable character in the world – he seemed driven to make the most grim, unfeeling comments he could in dialogue scenes, which quickly grew tiresome and predictable.
While The Bureau does pull you down from the god’s eye view of XCOM: Enemy Unknown, and most notably adds a real story to the notoriously plotless series, it’s very true to the essence of XCOM. You will find that maneuvering to flank enemies is the core of the game, and the familiar red and blue shields will let you know whether or not you’re going to be flanked. You’ll synchronize your special abilities with those of your allies for greater effectiveness. You’ll get your allies killed, and yes, there’s definitely permadeath. You’ll die too. A Lot. Because XCOM‘s notorious difficulty hasn’t gone anywhere with this game. If anything, the extended length of missions in The Bureau means that keeping your allies alive is more important than ever. With some missions clocking in at half an hour or more of continuous play, you’ll be very sad if you let one of your companions go down in the first few minutes.
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.