XCOM has had almost two decades worth of games to create a story, and yet, to date, little canon has actually been established for the series. The Bureau: XCOM Declassified is touted as a change of pace for the franchise, offering an in-depth story line to accompany the novel squad-based tactical shooter gameplay. Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing will depend on the player, of course, but it has created some excitement among franchise fanatics eager for some backstory, as well as those eager to experience XCOM from a different perspective.
The prospect for some XCOM backstory is exciting but The Bureau doesn’t really deliver on this promise, instead offering only minor tweaks to the already-established canon. If you’ve ever played, or even heard of XCOM, you know that it is a clandestine government organization fighting off an alien invasion. The only additional backstory that The Bureau provides is that it was created by Faulke, a high level national security agent and boss, in order to combat a full-scale soviet invasion of the US. When it becomes plain that the threat is not of this world, XCOM establishes itself as the go-to anti-alien military force on the planet. That’s pretty much all you get. By the time The Bureau even starts, XCOM has already been created, and you’re just acting as the lead agent. There is no history of the group, no repelled soviet invasion. All you get is another alien incursion that you have to combat against all odds.
The characters in The Bureau are mostly generic caricatures, with very little to distinguish them from one another. Sure, De Silva is a demolitions expert, where Faulke is a high-level commander, but you don’t really get a sense of what makes them unique in the game. The story, or what there is of one, largely develops between missions, taking place mostly in the XCOM HQ. You’ll spend a good portion of your time wandering from one end of the base to the other, talking to various people over and over again in order to unlock the next mission. This is one of the most frustrating parts of the game. When you just want to go shoot some aliens, you’ll instead find yourself meandering through the base at half speed, wishing you could sprint. An added bit of environmental flavor is the decontamination room that separates the two sides of the base. In order to pass through, you have to wait for several seconds to be cleared to exit, which is admittedly kind of neat the first time, but not so much for the other thirty times you’re trying to expedite the next mission launch.
Though the lack of depth in the XCOM backstory is a little disappointing, the gameplay is a different matter entirely. The tactical squad-based shooter mechanics deliver where the narrative fails to do so. If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to play an XCOM mission from the perspective of a soldier on the ground, The Bureau provides that. If you like dashing between cover, flanking groups of aliens for easy kills, and ordering your squad mates to drop Laser Turrets or perform Critical Strikes on softer targets, then The Bureau will be right up your alley. If you’re a one-man army, however, and hate to rely on your team, the experience will likely be a frustrating one. The Bureau punishes you for trying to go it alone, and rewards you for solid team tactics. Whether you’re trying to take down a Heavy Sectopod or you’re facing down a Muton, you’ll be heavily dependent on your squad to draw fire, flank the enemies, and for their special class-specific abilities.
You, as Agent William Carter, get access to the most profoundly useful abilities, from Heal, which regens your whole squad’s health to full, to Mind Control, which temporarily takes control of an enemy unit. You’ll pick two agents to accompany you on the field, from a total of four classes; Recon, Engineer, Commando, and Support. You’ll also be able to equip any two weapons in the game for yourself, though the classes are restricted to certain weapons, so, for example, the Engineer can only use shotguns and their equivalents.
Finally getting your hands on the traditional XCOM weaponry will be an absolute treat for franchise veterans. Picking up your first Laser Pulse Rifle, which gives you the three round burst you’re all too familiar with, is thrilling, and as you progress through the game, you’ll get into the more advanced Plasma weapons that you’ve yearned to wield since you researched your first Plasma Pistol. You’ll even get a new-and-improved Blaster Launcher, which fires three high-damage plasma projectiles in rapid succession. Depending on the difficulty, this can easily one-shot a levitated Muton, so the fact that this unlocks fairly early in the game diminishes much of the challenge.
That’s not to say that the game is not challenging. You’ll likely get pummeled by the first Muton you encounter, unless you lower the difficulty. The focus on team tactics is no joke in The Bureau, as the heavy enemies – really only Mutons and Sectopods – will absorb dozens, possibly hundreds of bullets before you start doing any real damage. Keeping your squad on the move and out of range of the Muton’s ground pound ability, or keeping them in cover from the highly-mobile Sectopod is crucial to taking these armored units down. The Elite Mutons and Heavy Sectopods later in the game really ramp up the challenge, and short of a Lift/Blaster Launcher combo, can take a good bit of teamwork to finally take down.
What The Bureau lacks in compelling story, it makes up for in challenging and novel gameplay. Instead of the simple squad commands of, say, Army of Two, you’ll have robust movement, focus fire, and ability commands for each squad mate. Taking cover is as imperative in The Bureau as in any XCOM game to date, and clearing the Outsiders out of a small town in the Midwest feels just like XCOM should feel. Given the mediocrity of the story, The Bureau is not a must-play for XCOM fans, but if you’re a fanatic looking for a new way to experience your favorite franchise, or just big into squad-based shooters, you’ll definitely want to check it out. All told, The Bureau‘s gameplay is excellent while you’re in the field, but every other aspect of the game, from wandering through HQ to the extensive, but tragically bland dialogue, will leave you wanting. Spending almost half your time on the mediocrity really drags the game down.
Bottom Line: The Bureau: XCOM Declassified doesn’t tell much of a story, and the gameplay is split between the action-packed missions and the supremely boring HQ meanderings. You’ll have a ton of fun when you’re actually on missions, but that only accounts for 60% of the time you’ll spend in game.
Recommendation: If you want some backstory for the XCOM franchise, read some fanfic. If you’re just looking for an exciting squad-based shooter and don’t mind a little bit of downtime, then The Bureau will be right up your alley.[rating=3.0]
This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of the game.