There is an ominous feeling around games based on classic franchises that disappear, reappear, disappear then rise again from the ashes. One only needs to look at the infamous Duke Nukem Forever to see just how badly things can turn out. Furthermore the X-COM franchise itself is no stranger to the concept of failed spin-offs ranging from the mediocre flight sim X-COM Interceptor to the abysmal third person shooter X-COM Enforcer that took exactly zero concepts from the original turn based strategy. So the messily titled incoming third-person shooter The Bureau: XCOM Declassified (with its own equally messy backstory of cancellations and redesigns) is clearly treading dangerous ground with the vehement voices of old-school gamers standing on the picket lines waiting to tear it apart.
However, with the recent release of XCOM: Enemy Unknown successfully showing that it is possible to blend elements of action and an arcade feel to the classic turn based strategy, it seems like there is now scope to build on this achievement and develop the franchise. The question then is will a narrative heavy third-person shooter with team based tactics be able to keep the fans happy? We’ve had a brief hands-on with one mission from the game to find out.
We begin in the Bureau’s base. Stepping into the shoes of the main protagonist William Carter. He casts his eyes across the dreary grey office-like halls bedecked with American flags and row upon row of desks and filing cabinets. It is 1962 and the lovely mix of retro technology, pressed suits and fedoras manage to instill the setting perfectly. Keen to understand how the base mechanics will affect the game he wanders the halls hoping to find a crazy laboratory or workshop with raving scientists shooting lasers at targets . Initially there is disappointment for all he discovers are more offices with snippets of conversations and lifeless characters. The base seems like a shell, and while this may simply be the case with the preview build, it is clear the only point of interaction is with the mission computer.
The Bureau: XCOM Declassified will not be a completely linear experience, as is made clear by the amount of missions available on the screen. Players will be able to choose which task they want to carry out, whether it be a small side quest providing them with valuable experience and research or the main plot. There will also be missions that you can choose to send your agents unassisted to help them gain experience, though the details of risk and reward on this are not clear from the preview. The only mission available to play was the main story in which Carter and his team must investigate a disturbance in a small suburb.
Before jetting off to save the world, Carter must then select and equip his team. It is here that the undeniable familiarity of the Mass Effect trilogy begins to take hold. Selecting two agents from the pool to join him (it is a long accepted rule of gaming that fighting aliens with any more than three gunslingers is an unfair advantage), he must choose their weapons and, as they gain experience, assign them skills. Agents will belong to one of four classes each with a skill tree. For example as the support class gains experience it will unlock healing skills, while the engineer can lay down traps and gun armaments. Carter has his own unique skill tree which has room for more variation and can be adapted to suit the player’s style. At this early stage in his development he had the abilities to heal the entire team and, again in an eerily similar way to Mass Effect’s own lift biotic talent, drag aliens off the ground and out of cover.
On arrival to the mission site, Carter pulls out his brick-of-a-mobile phone and learns that one of the bureau’s top agents has got himself into a pickle with these invading aliens and is surrounded in a building somewhere in the town. Indeed the bizarre contrast being the sixties technology and the neon science fiction of the game is one of the highlights with agents dressed in suits but equipped with laser guns and ghostbuster-like backpacks.
The three agents plod forward aware that aliens could appear at any moment. Ahead lies a suspicious abundance of chest high police blockades and undoubtedly when we reach them creepy grey aliens will flood in from the side streets. The Bureau: XCOM Declassified is first and foremost a cover-based third-person shooter and it hard to escape the many similarities to other games of the genre such as the Gears Of War series and, as previously mentioned, Mass Effect. Sticking his head out of cover Carter takes aim and slams a bullet between the eyes of a puny grey (called a sectoid, generally the first foe met in XCOM games). The alien’s health bar drops slightly and Carter sighs, evidently feeling like he has done this many times before.
The Bureau: XCOM Declassified has a trick up its sleeve however. These agents that follow Carter tirelessly are not mere puppets with little effect on the battle. This is not Binary Domain (or again Mass Effect, though there are certainly hangovers from it). These men have tools and they are ready to use them. Hitting a button activates the ‘Battle Focus’ mode where time slows, but does not entirely grind to a halt. Here Carter can issue orders such as activating a special ability or targeting specific aliens. Scrolling the wheel that appears on screen to your allies zooms to their perspective and this ensures you can instruct orders that take out the enemies that are causing you damage or attempting to flank you. Due most likely to the influence of XCOM: Enemy Unknown, flanking is highly important as being caught out of position results in more damage being taken. In fact those red and blue shields highlighting your cover position have been directly imported from Firaxis’ recent strategy.
Perhaps the most impressive part of the ‘Battle Focus’ mode is the considerable effect it has on the battlefield. Instructing your sniper to pick off a maneuvering alien with a critical shot will most likely kill them, similarly other team abilities such as calling in airstrikes can devastate the opponents but have very long cooldown times. Skills can even be combined causing bonus damage if timed correctly. Pulling off clever moves within the ‘Battle Focus’ mode is particularly satisfying as the aliens are defeated without Carter even having to pull the trigger.
It is not high strategy however and there is a danger that the hardcore XCOM fans will be unsatisfied with what is being offered. For example there are few options to spread out your men across battlefields and really get behind the enemy lines. In fact, on the medium difficulty that this was played on, there is certainly a feeling that the entire mission could have been completed without entering the ‘Battle Focus’ mode at all. We can only hope that later missions and harder difficulties will ensure that clever strategy is required to survive.
And survival is essential. One of the most important hallmarks of the XCOM series remains in The Bureau: XCOM Declassified: death to your team is permanent, but it is hard to gather just how much of an effect this will have on the gameplay from this preview. If Carter falls in battle the game will end and have to be reloaded from the last checkpoint, however a if a squad mate goes down then they may never stand back up. This means that all the experience and skills of this member is lost and your team will have to survive with just two members until an agent resupply station is discovered. Far more tempting would be a convenient reload of the most recent checkpoint, resurrecting the departed, and there is a danger that this permadeath could simply become an irritation rather than a feature.
Carter and his team progress through the empty streets and his attention is drawn to the mock recreation of a sixties suburban environment. He enters a half-destroyed garage, examining the random notes left behind. He wonders whether these scrawled bits of writing regarding a failed delivery of bobble headed alien toys have any relevance to the gameplay or plot or are simply a device to provide some respite from the frenzied action. He plods onwards noting all the doors he cannot open and how disappointingly linear the mission area seems to be.
On top of a roof ahead of him Carter spots the agent he has been sent to rescue. Unfortunately there is also a small army of aliens inhabiting the area of chest high walls between them. His mobile brick rings while he takes cover from the barrage of plasma fire coming from the Sectoids and he learns that the trapped agent has planted a plethora of bombs in the courtyard ahead that he can set off when advised. Bringing up the battle view he marks an explosion point surrounded by aliens and the following devastation throws them off their feet, killing some and leaving the rest in open ground to be easily picked off. It is a fun, if a little gimmicky, trick that highlights the emphasis on strategy and timing over all out gunfights.
The aliens are getting a little desperate now but refuse to give up without a real fight. A massive plasma turret is dropped in by an alien engineer, forcing Carter and his team to take cover. Calling in air support via his own engineer, a bombardment of fire hits the machine. Carter instructs his sniper to take aim at the alien attempting to repair the damage and a critical shot to the head downs it. It seems that the team and the trapped agent are safe. Suddenly dropping in from the heavens appears a gigantic Muton, far larger than any seen in previous XCOM games. No matter what Carter throws at it, this monster is not going down. He strafes from cover to cover, staying outside of the alien’s range, chipping away at his health bar. Finally with a dismissing grunt, the Muton collapses. Carter, and his heroic team, save the day.
This mission finale illustrates perfectly the issues that The Bureau: XCOM Declassified faces. At its best it is an intensive strategic shooter, reinvigorating a genre that has collapsed since the days of Hidden and Dangerous or Rainbow Six, however too often it sees itself dangerously straying too close to much more generic action that the video game world sees released every month in some form. Ultimately what will decide in which direction this game falls is whether later missions will be less linear and involve more thoughtful tactics than what is displayed here. Also the effect the base will have on proceedings, presumably with the hiring of recruits and research of technology, remains to be seen. The combination of these factors and how they change the finished product will decide the success of the game and notably the response from the XCOM fanbase. At present they may wish to put down those placards and stop shouting so vehemently and instead adopt an intrigued but still rather suspicious pose.