When XCOM made it’s grand return last year with “XCOM: Enemy Unknown”, it took everyone by surprise. The game was well received, sold well, and by the end of the year it landed on quite a few “Game of the Year” lists. With the announcement of “The Bureau: XCOM Declassified”, there was a sense of cautious optimism. While it was an entirely different game, it was still holding the XCOM label proudly above it’s head. Did it manage to escape the shadow of it’s predecessor and stand out on it’s own? Continue reading to find out.
Set in 1962, “The Bureau” kicks things off in a big way. As soon as we’re introduced to our main character, CIA Agent William Carter, the world is blindsided by a massive alien invasion. Agent Carter is soon drafted into the XCOM program, an organization originally designed to be the last defense against a communist threat that is now set on fighting back the alien menace.
With it’s 60s setting and heavy sci-fi atmosphere, “The Bureau” tends to feel like “The X-files” set in the “Mad Men” universe. Combining the world of fast-talking and dapper looking men with the dire and sometimes chilling atmosphere of an X-Files episode makes for an incredibly engrossing experience. Unfortunately, atmosphere is the strongest part of the story.
“The Bureau” starts off well enough, the main storyline is your typical alien invasion scenario where the humans get their ass kicked only to rally later on and fight back. And while that’s a bit cliche, the unique setting gives it enough flavor to make it feel refreshing even when it’s not. Walking into a town that’s been decimated by an alien attack is made even creepier thanks to the old music and retro set dressing.
However, as the game is building to a natural climax full of tension and excitement, it inexplicably decides to extend things for another few hours with a twist that isn’t earned at all. The story then becomes too complex for it’s own good and wraps up with an unsatisfying cinematic. It’s almost as if they thought the single player campaign was too short, so they shoehorned a few extra missions into it.
Characters are also an area where the game comes up short. With the game putting most of it’s focus on the end of the world scenario, there’s very little room for character development. Which is a shame because there are some interesting characters in this game, but not much is done to progress them throughout the story. The main character is an example of this. Despite William Carter being a badass with a tragic past, he never really grows or changes. He just exists as this stereotypical 60s hard-boiled detective-type figure. Which, on the surface, is still cool. It just would’ve been so much better if they had gone beyond that. Other characters are either unceremoniously killed off or just mishandled all together.
The story also seems to have diverging paths where the player is given choices about things that are happening. I say “seems” because I’m not entirely sure any of my choices truly mattered. In one scenario I’m given the option of letting a character kill themselves or convincing them not too. I decided to tell them not to do it. When I met the character later on, it clearly seemed as if I made an impact in the story. However, the other characters react in weird ways. Some act as if the character had died or they give me generic responses like “you made the right decision” which seems like an answer that could match up with either scenario. I may have been given a choice, but the lack of a real impact makes it feel as if it was all for nothing.
“The Bureau” plays a lot like Mass Effect 3. Players are presented with a cover mechanic and a power wheel system where you can tell your squad mates what to do. Unlike Mass Effect, though, when you’re using the power wheel time doesn’t stop. Instead it moves at an extremely slow pace. This means enemies will still attack you, so you have to think quickly about what you want your teammates to do. While not as difficult as “XCOM: Enemy Unknown” the game still presents players with a decent challenge that leaves you feeling victorious every time you survive an enemy encounter.
As Agent Carter, you take command of two other agents who are divided into different classes. There’s the recon (sniper), engineer, commando, and support. Each presents you with a unique set of abilities that you can call upon during a battle. Personally I found the engineer and support to be the most fun to play with as their abilities were extremely useful. I was able to take down the baddest foes with a little weaken armor/mine/turret combo.
Agent Carter has his own abilities as well, which prove to be just as powerful. From summoning creatures to mind controlling an enemy unit, Carter’s abilities leave you feeling quite powerful towards the end of the game. However, this is balanced by the fact that a few hits from the enemy can leave you nearly dead.
You can’t just rush the enemy or stand out in the open for too long. So you need to take advantage of a serviceable cover system that allows you to hide behind walls while you issue orders or flank enemies. It works well enough, but the sprint button and the button to stick to cover are the same, so I found myself trying to run away from an enemy and then accidentally sticking to cover in an area that left me in the open.
I should also note that you don’t have access to all of your abilities right off the bat. The game has a leveling system that allows you to unlock certain abilities at certain levels. Carter can go all the way up to level ten while the other agents cap out at five.
In order to expedite the leveling, you can send your squad mates off on missions by themselves and they’ll earn a level almost every time. Carter can also participate in side missions that gain him extra experience points. Even then, I wasn’t able to hit level ten until the final hour of the game.
This is where being mindful of your teammates comes into play. Your fellow agents can be taken down in the middle of combat and if you aren’t able to revive them before a timer runs out, you lose them forever. So if you get someone up to level five and they die, that’s it for that guy. So micromanaging them becomes crucial in some situations.
For the most part the AI is competent enough. Occasionally a squad mate will decide to run headfirst into an enemy turret or stand outside of cover, but I didn’t have to babysit them too much. When I wasn’t ordering them around though, I didn’t feel like they were doing much of anything. By the end of every mission I would rack up 80% of the kills. It would have been nice to see the AI carrying it’s own weight without direct control.
The biggest problem with playing “The Bureau” though, is the way it performs. I played the PS3 version, though I’ve seen this on the PC as well, and the game tends to stutter a lot. I ran into moments where it momentarily froze, lagged a bit during intense combat, and suffered through a bit of texture pop-in. There are some definite performance issues with this game that might dampen your enjoyment of it.
Between missions the game allows you to wander around the XCOM base, this proves to be a pretty enjoyable experience as you can talk with other characters to learn more about the game’s world. Interactions also give you the chance to earn new side missions and partake in mini-quests within the base. So there is some benefit from taking advantage of these quieter moments.
There’s a lot of fun to be had with “The Bureau”, unfortunately it comes with a few too many stipulations. If you’re a huge fan of the XCOM series and can’t wait for the next Firaxis edition, this might tide you over. “The Bureau” is certainly not a bad game, if it just had a stronger story or provided a smoother experience I’d be happy to recommend it. As is, I can only say that your experience may vary.
“The Bureau: XCOM Declassified” is currently available on the PS3, XBox 360, and PC.