NEW COLUMN!
In an industry of hidden gems, one column has the hottest takes about the games that time forgot. A connoisseur of the damned and forgotten, Elijah Beahm is here to offer these games a Second Look!

The Bureau: XCOM Declassified was one of the last significant releases of the seventh console generation and one of its most troubled games. It began development in 2006 but wasn’t released until 2013. It was initially unveiled as a first-person horror shooter, then turned into a third-person tactical RPG shooter. The incredibly ambitious game was hamstrung by enough drama to fill its own story.

Despite everything, 2K Marin and 2K Australia managed to produce a cult hit. While Firaxis Games’ XCOM titles sate those who wanted a blast of nostalgia, 2K Marin aimed for something bolder and created one of the most remarkable stories in gaming. The Bureau should have been doomed, yet it’s actually a resounding success. Its one major downside is that getting to the best parts requires some patience thanks to the slow-burn conspiracy plot.

There’s no way of avoiding spoilers when discussing how everything in The Bureau ties together, so if you’re curious and want to see it for yourself, then grab the game and play it. It’s 13 hours at most, and is packed with some of the best encounter design and writing you’ll see in a third-person RPG. It makes several scenarios in the likes of Mass Effect look laughable by comparison. I can’t recommend it enough, but if you need to hear what’s so darn great about it before diving in then brace yourself.

Spoiler Warning | If you have not played The Bureau: XCOM Declassified and intend to, stop reading now.

The Bureau: XCOM Declassified is about control and choice. The game is set in the 1950s and starts CIA agent William Carter, who tragically lost his family to a house fire while away on a mission to Russia. He’s since become broken and increasingly ill-tempered, but he’s the best pointman America has left when it’s revealed that aliens have invaded and infiltrated every level of the government. Assigned to deliver a package of vital importance to a joint meeting of the Army, NSA, and CIA, Carter is mortally wounded by a spy. But then the case he’s meant to deliver explodes and magically heals him. An odd glow covers the screen, and players take control.

The “Outsiders” were first believed to be communists, but it soon becomes clear that America is the staging ground of a global invasion and the clock is ticking. The meeting is a slaughter, leaving only a ragtag group to save the world from total domination. You’re XCOM, the last line of defense, and no one’s coming to your aid.

Carter’s decisions impact the fate of the world as leads his squad into the thick of enemy gunfire. Your enemies are unknown and equipped with weapons that make the rifle in your hands feel like a pea shooter. Every time it seems like you’ve seen everything, brutes, gunships, sectopods, and more all deploy onto the field to crush you. It’s precisely how an XCOM game should feel, with players just barely getting by.

That squad is your greatest asset. Carter’s ammunition is sparse, and almost all his abilities relate to support rather than damage. He can lift enemies, heal his squad, and summon temporary allies. Even his most devastating ability, mind control, merely turns an enemy to your side. Meanwhile, your squad can include cloaking snipers, aggroing soldiers, engineers with rocket turrets, and support characters who buff squadmates and debuff enemies. You can only bring two agents with you at a time and there are up to four ways to build out each agent, meaning you’ve got a choice of 16 possible combinations.

Once you’ve assembled your squad, you lead them on foot and through a tactical command wheel. The gameplay appears simple, but the options available are spectacular. Combat happens in real time but you can queue up multiple actions in a single order. You might have your sniper throw a decoy, flank along nearby cover, and then call in a bombardment. At the same time, you’ve got an engineer deploying a sentry turret you can lift to pound the enemy. Meanwhile, the engineer tosses a flare that sends the Outsiders running headfirst into your sniper’s bombardment and a perfect line of sight on the stragglers. Within an instant, you can wipe out waves of enemies with clever tactics. There’s an achievement for clearing an entire mission with just your squad.

The Bureau is a hybrid of Mass Effect and Brothers in Arms, with abilities out of BioShock. As with all three of those games, synergy is vital, ensuring you discover the best combinations possible. What’s more, you have to level agents up to unlock all their abilities, meaning there’s a substantial loss if they die. Altering difficulty settings makes it easier to keep your squad alive rather than directly changing their stats, ensuring strategy is always king.

A crucial part of The Bureau’s genius is it doesn’t overwhelm you. Your first operation is a rescue mission, but otherwise you focus on just trying to find any advantage against the Outsider threat. The slower pace lets you ground yourself and get to know the wonderfully eccentric Dr. Allen Weir and the other survivors running XCOM.

Everyone has a stake in this operation, which helps drive the plot. Agent Angela Weaver wants to save her brother. Your pilot Leon Barnes just wants to keep his soul intact while following the orders of XCOM Director Myron Faulke. Faulke is every paranoid conspiracy theorist blended with J. Edgar Hoover into a character that’s equally charismatic and unsettling.

Additional side characters strewn across all have their own stories to tell. They might just be a guard or radio operator, but 2K Marin went to the lengths of portraying them as people with real goals and drives. You even capture and free an Outsiders who is no longer commanded by the hivemind known as Mosaic. Players are free to bludgeon or negotiate with the Outsider and the alien will react with either despair at human barbarousness or suspicious relief and hope for his people.

This cast of irregulars fills out the story with new developments in every mission. Like Mass Effect 2, The Bureau is formatted like a television show. Every field operation has a unique plot, weapon, or similar wrinkle to keep things fresh. Maybe you’re chasing a psionic Outsider who controls minds. Or it’s a race against time to stop a nuclear launch, requiring aggressive strategies lest Washington be blown away.

Other missions are subtler, like searching for survivors amid a forest fire in California’s redwood forests or checking in on an XCOM listening post that’s under siege. All the while, Carter and his compatriots trade thoughts and worries that slyly hint at upcoming twists. Whether or not you’re on the main path, something substantial always plays out. Nothing feels like a copy and pasted side mission.

Along the way, one of your primary objectives is finding the suspected Outsider leader, Axis. Weaver’s hot on his trail, certain this could end the war. Defeating Axis only reveals that someone greater in charge: an Outsider known only as Origin who wields Mosaic directly. You go so far as to travel through a wormhole in the Hoover Dam just to have a shot at him on the Outsider home planet. After one of the most intense gauntlets in the game, you find that Origin isn’t armed. In fact, he’s been expecting you.

That case that Carter was delivering at the start of the game? It didn’t explode. It opened to reveal an entity older than Carter’s world: You, the player. Wasn’t it convenient how Carter suddenly developed tactical abilities and kept calm despite clearly being on the verge of having a total breakdown? Or how he sometimes goes off mission like letting Weaver get her revenge on Axis for killing her brother, rather than taking the bastard back to milk for intel. He assures her that XCOM has all they need, with a certainty that directly contrasts with the nihilism he displayed at the beginning of the game. It’s as if someone else is sitting at the wheel, isn’t it? Origin drags you out of the pilot seat, revealing your in-game avatar to Carter.

You’re an Ethereal, what Origin calls a demon. You’re a being of vast power made of pure energy that can symbiotically inhabit a host. Origin’s already enslaved his own Ethereal, using her to power Mosaic. Origin was a scientist whose world was dying from the very same destructive choices humanity is making. He galvanized his people into weaponized survivors. Origin believes anything is better than death and he wants to grow stronger by absorbing your power.

Origin bids you to abandon Carter, but you refuse. While he’s pushed your connection to the brink (Carter’s dialogue sounds miles away as he reports what’s happening), you’re able to restore your bond and free the other Ethereal. You escape with your kin back to Earth, destroying Origin’s primary base of operations. It’s over now, right? Not quite, though The Bureau lets you think it is. 

It takes a few more missions for Carter to begin to process that he’s your puppet. When the other Ethereal, who’s being kept alive in the XCOM base’s generator, awakens it calls to you and you turn visible, revealing that you’ve been holding Carter’s body in a T-pose. You can now communicate with the only other member of your kind that you’ve ever met. She discourages you from helping humanity because of her experience with Origin. You can either agree or disagree, but regardless of your decision Carter finally reasserts his agency by murdering the other Ethereal.

In this handful of missions The Bureau smashes the 4th wall to pieces and presents a true challenge — a protagonist fighting for agency by opposing their player. From this point on, every cutscene shows Carter trying to free himself from you. It even happens in the interludes during loading, where Carter is shown mourning in an isolated chair where his consciousness has been tucked aside.

Carter hasn’t grown as a person. You’ve been the one leading the charge and saving lives. Carter’s more broken than ever. He’s raw id locked in a cage, and now he’s fighting back. All his anger overrides any consideration for what you’ve both achieved. The very idea of being taken advantage of, just as he was when the CIA only informed him of his family’s death after his mission to Russia was complete, pushes him over the edge. He speaks directly to the player in what may be one of the most chilling moments in the game: “It’s just me and you, now. Only one of us is getting out of here alive.” The framerate stutters as he turns to look at the screen, directly at you, before the game cuts to black, jumping forward several days.

Suddenly, it’s like we’re back to business as usual. Your friendly Outsider and Weir are attempting to interface with Mosaic once more. Crippled as Mosaic may be, the Outsider mothership is still evading XCOM. It’s a dangerous risk, one that forces the Outsider back under Origin’s mind control long enough for Origin to discover your base. Each side races to see who can stomp out the other first. XCOM is overrun in an attack led by your former ally. Then Carter starts fighting back again. Every time he frees himself, the game goes to a cutscene, only to snap back to gameplay. Your squadmates notice you’re behaving erratically before Carter slips away.

This culminates in Carter finding the Outsiders’ bomb. Carter’s attempts to free himself grow violent, fighting you off several times. Finally, you inhabit yourself in the universe, floating as an Ethereal and watching Carter reach the base’s main reactor. He threatens to detonate the bomb, taking all of humanity to hell if you don’t release him, and he’s serious. If you refuse, he’ll detonate the bomb. You hear everyone die, and the game cuts to the credits. You can’t make Carter your plaything anymore. Yet, there are those willing to work with you since they know you have their best interests at heart.

Weaver, Faulke, and Weir are all open to being a new host. You choose one, and then guide them to Carter so they can knock him out and disable the bomb. From this point on, everyone addresses you and your new host as two individuals. Whoever you choose not only alters how they handle the mission but decides whose lives are on the line during the final mission. Together, you lead the charge in a desperate bid to destroy Origin for good.

In what may be the boldest design decision in 2K Marin’s history, the developers double down on the branching endings from BioShock 2, permitting Carter, Faulke, Weir, and Weaver’s deaths depending on your choices. The fate of your friends and the entire world is decided by who you trust. It’s a suicide mission where no one gets a happy ending, but if you’re lucky, humanity might just have hope for the future.

All of this is wrapped up in some of the game’s best tactical scenarios. The final gauntlet against Origin’s minions is a true test of your ability to adapt, survive, and overcome. Every squad combination is viable. The environment and enemy composition is superb. There is no guaranteed way to victory, but dozens of possibilities. It’s a true XCOM experience, reaching a crescendo few games can match.

The Bureau: XCOM Declassified isn’t perfect. Some of the guns don’t have punch. A few early missions drag on. It’s clearly a low-budget experience with stiff facial animations and a short runtime. An ending tune implies that you, the Ethereal, are the same Ethereal that leads the invaders in XCOM: Enemy Unknown, which taints an otherwise marvelous, quiet ending. The Bureau doesn’t need a sequel. Its story is complete, which is something rare in modern games.

Yes, it’s just a third-person cover-shooter and its story doesn’t have thousands of branching paths that alter whole galaxies. It’s focused on the story it wants to tell. The Bureau’s narrative and gameplay design are so deeply tied that, if you can look past series expectations, you’ll find one of the smartest games to date.

Elijah Beahm
Elijah’s your Guy Friday for all things strange and awesome in obscure gaming. He spends way too much time talking about such things on Twitter @UnabridgedGamer and his YouTube channel The Unabridged Gamer.

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15 Comments

  1. I wouldn’t say the “best”, but the whole player-as-an-entity thing is criminally underused in all media. That is unless you consider that the Triforce of courage is actually you, the player, taking control over Link in much the same way you do Carter in this game.

    1. Okay, someone get Nintendo on a Legend of Zelda where Link smashes the 4th wall!

      1. If not Nintendo, we can appeal to From Software, since the eponymous Dark soul also may apply.

  2. I bought The Bureau very cheap on sale not expecting much, and it turned out to be one of the few games I stayed with until I finished it in one go of recent years.

    1. *nods* I remember being my 6th attempt at the final boss stage, and I wasn’t even mad; I didn’t want it to end.

  3. Everything I ever read about this game was how bad it was, I even received the game for free at some point. Guess I’ll have to check it out now.

    1. Oh, I know. That’s why I’ve been writing about games like this over the years. The game industry has such a selective memory, some truly stunning titles are lost between the cracks. Glad to have given you a reason to play, and I do hope you come round next week – I’m very excited about the next few games we’ll be covering!

  4. I read this article twice, and I’m still left wondering how your conclusion and title relate to the meat of the article. You’ve mentioned a clever twist (or at least one that you’ve claimed as such), but not really why it relates to the gameplay or why the actual storytelling is so good. Similarly, you’ve mentioned gameplay and what’s supposed to be good about it, even how it can affect the story overall, but not whether the theoretical effects are well integrated. As such, the article alternates topics without connecting them together.

    If that seems like an odd complaint, let me give another game as illustration. Man of Medan (as well as Until Dawn) allows you to get any number of characters killed, but the actual result isn’t a change in the story. It’s lines of dialogue in cutscenes being replaced with silence. The connection between the ending and choices is, and I’m being completely literal here, the same as in Tetris Attack for the SNES. Reading this article, I don’t know if the characters being killed makes any more difference than that.

    Similarly, no matter how clever the story is in theory, it’s hard to consider it good storytelling if it’s all long cutscenes with no interaction (like in MGS4). You’ve mentioned a lot of what sounds like or appears to be cutscenes (based on the pictures). How much of it happens through video game means?

    1. I’m not sure I agree with your complaint. It sounds like unless the choices you make over the course of the game literally results in different gameplay, then they have no value to you. Personally, I often find the means of how a video game story reaches its key moments far more compelling- and often more meaningful- than what happens specifically (in terms of gameplay) as a result of my choices. Take Mass Effect 3, for example. I found the stories that led me to the infamous tri-color choice (the ending was not good writing, for the record)- even though I end up at the same spot regardless- to be very engaging and meaningful. I cared about how I got there, which relationships I fostered, alliances I made, enemies I vanquished, even though the game led me to the same spot, the same decision, regardless. Would you label all those choices and interactions as ‘lines of dialog with cutscenes,’ too? I think I get what you’re saying: that giving the player the illusion of choice isn’t good writing, if you’re just swapping out assets based on what they choose. But I would say that not all good video game writing has to arrive via ‘video game means.’ I almost think what you’re getting at has more to do with design than literal ‘writing’- the integration of writing with gameplay mechanics, in other words. I think part of what makes Xcom Declassified worthy of this article’s title is the fact that no other medium could tell this story. Whereas most video games pretend there is nobody controlling the protagonist/avatar, this game uses the player interaction as a key part of its story and reveals that in a clever way.

      1. That’s not what I was saying at all. Firstly, notice that the article and its title both use the word “storytelling”, not “writing”. Secondly, most of what the article says about the story is that it’s episodic and eventually reveals the narrator to be unreliable. My point is that the article itself doesn’t do a good job describing how the story itself is told, despite the main claim being that the storytelling is good.

        I have no problem with stories that are told through just cutscenes. I rather like visual novels, which are basically the equivalent of only cutscenes. But I’m not going to complement the storytelling for a kinetic novel for doing things kinetic novels don’t usually do unless it does something that hasn’t been done numerous times just as well in other media.

        As for the claim that this story could only be told as a video game, here’s an example in the medium of books for why I disagree: the second book in the “classics club” series, later adapted to anime as “Hyouka”, the high-school mundane detective mc is asked to figure out the intended ending of a movie one of the other classes was making that involved a murder mystery. After a while of not believing the on-screen characters could’ve done it, he supposes that it was the cameraman. The movie gets finished with the on-screen characters turning to the cameraman in horror as the twist. To me, this game’s twist sounds like the same type of thing. (side note: there’s actually another twist in that book’s ending after that)

        1. It’s been a while since I played the game, but from what I remember the combat tactics were good, but recognizable. He describes them in the article, the gist being they’re oriented towards enhancing and coordinating the attacks of your squad. I even remember a scene in the game where some analyst from the base is telling you how incredible your particular squad is; the number, variety, and efficiency with which you’re killing the invading aliens far outstrips any other squad, essentially. I took that at the time to be like someone telling Shepard how much of a badass he is. But, the thing is, as the article also describes, all of that is actually due to the fact that ‘you’ are an Ethereal and not Carter at all. That is why you are able to wield all the abilities you just assumed were part and parcel of a 3rd person tactical shooting game. The game takes the assumptions the player has about the medium and then works them into the narrative. So no, this couldn’t be done in the same fashion with a novel; it requires the unique interactive nature of video games.
          The storytelling is also helped by the detailed portrayals of characters (“Additional side characters strewn across all have their own stories to tell…This cast of irregulars fills out the story with new developments in every mission”). As the author pointed out, a lot of care was taken to wrap each character’s individual thread into the narrative tapestry, both through dialog, collectibles, and combat mechanics. There’s just a lot of synergy in general at work between the narrative storytelling (writing included), the missions, the mechanics inherent in the medium, and between abilities within the combat mechanics themselves. The article does a better job of explaining the focused narrative than I can in a post, but basically: “It’s focused on the story it wants to tell. The Bureau’s narrative and gameplay design are so deeply tied that, if you can look past series expectations, you’ll find one of the smartest games to date.”
          To me, that’s all a part of ‘how the story is told;’ if none of that convinces you that the game has great storytelling, I guess I don’t understand what would.

  5. Really liked the article and the overall idea of a column about good (or at least interesting) elements of overlooked games. But the setup is also a little paradoxical. “Let me tell you why this game, which you probably didn’t play, is actually really great! By the way, if you want to properly enjoy it, you should stop reading and go play it now, even though you had no reason to before and probably would never have if not for the cool stuff in my article that I just told you not to read.”

    1. This is good feedback. Most of the articles won’t be this spoilery though. We were working on the column layout while putting this one together.

      1. Yeah, this was actually something we discussed while tinkering on things. The nature of The Bureau makes it a tad more difficult to avoid, but future titles shouldn’t have this problem.

  6. I have this sitting on my steam library for years, needed this little push to try it. Thanks!

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