The Bureau: XCOM Declassified Review
It never bodes well when the President of the company currently developing an updated version of the classic strategy game series X-COM publicly states that “strategy games are just not contemporary”. This belied the original intention and goes someway to explaining how The Bureau: XCOM Declassified has been in development since 2006 and was originally announced - in a very different form to that which it ended up - in 2010. What 2K Games have ultimately delivered is a third-person tactical shooter, adding to the XCOM universe as support to the fantastic XCOM: Enemy Unknown which was released in 2012 to critical and fan acclaim alike, despite it being one of those non-contemporary strategy games.
The long development and multiple changes in direction along the way - this game has changed era from the 1950s to 1962 and was at one point shown to the public as a first-person shooter - show in the finished product which looks and feels old, feeds off classic science-fiction tropes and in execution just about does what it says it does but in a very rough around the edges kind of way. It’s very nearly breaking apart at the seams but is somehow kept together to deliver this passable - but nothing more - entry into a niche shooter genre (compared to FPS for example) ensconced in a well-known brand name to help push it forwards that little bit further.
You play William Carter, a well-revered CIA Special Agent, who when we meet him is tasked with bringing the contents of a briefcase to Myron Faulke, the Director of The Bureau - a special operation initiated by President Kennedy himself for the purpose of defending the US against any Soviet invasion during the Cold War. Someone comes to pick you up to take this to Faulke but it all goes belly up. The next thing you know is you’re barely alive, the briefcase contents have gone, an ally is dead in your room and the US has been invaded. Not by the Russians. From here the game proper begins - the aim being to defend yourself and your team against the alien hordes as you go on mission after mission searching out alien technologies, defending military sites and connecting with top personnel. You do this by leading yourself and chosen teammates into battle, sending dormant team members on their own missions and piecing together the various parts of the invasion puzzle in the hope that one day you can save the Human Race and end this alien aggression.
The game is built using the Unreal Engine 3 and it shows. Everything looks fine but it’s using technology that has been used on current-gen consoles for most of their lifetime. As we near the next cycle and we get the Frostbite engine for Battlefield and the tech used by Naughty Dog in The Last Of Us this just doesn’t cut it anymore. Looking at those games mentioned shows the state of the art and looking back at The Bureau shows a dated and roughly textured image with a slight unreal feel to the character models. This is actually even more explicit than it might otherwise be given many of those who worked on BioShock worked on this and the HUD exemplifies this, especially when talking with someone on the radio, say. It all just drives you back in time to 2007 which given that is not when we currently are, it’s not what you want to be playing for the first time now. The animation is similarly hampered with lots of screen-tearing throughout our playthrough as well as causing frustration when you know what you need to do next but have to wait for an animation to play out before it will register your choice to press that flashing button over there. The audio experience is fine but none of it helps your playtime feel anything more than run-of-the-mill or by the numbers.
The actual main-game experience is all centered around the tactical shooter aspect of things. You and your two chosen squad members for any given mission need to work together to take down the excessive numbers of enemy aliens (a coalition of sorts termed Mosaic, comprising various aliens) and meet your various objectives. You can have different classes of partners from Engineers to Agents depending on what you choose to do and whilst this choice is rarely important on the lower difficulties it can really yield an advantage on anything from normal upwards. As you enter an arena which will become a battle arena unfortunately (no subtlety to the narrative beats in this game) you can press Circle to enter Battle Focus, which is your chance to direct the others with you as you look to dispose of all grey baddies. If anyone’s played the Mass Effect games this will be familiar to you - a circle pops up with the command’s you can give to one guy on the left and the other on the right. You can make them move and queue up an attack after that, be it a critical strike on a single opponent or the painting of a target area for an air strike. What Battle Focus does is slow down time giving you the opportunity to assess the situation and setup what you think is needed at first to gain traction in a given battle. The first time you do this the game is very lax in explaining the various options you have and it therefore takes some getting used to, which in turn can mean the slowed time still isn’t enough for you. Again, if you’re on a low difficulty this won’t be a problem but as things get harder time and accurate execution are of the essence. Your team members are very good at doing what you ask of them but soon after they do get bored and start trying something else, which typically means them moving out of cover and dying. You can revive them if you get to them but that brings a risk to you as well. The safest thing to do is regularly check and reset their orders to ensure they do what you want them to do.
In time you and your squad will obtain experience points, gain buffs from various perks and become that much harder to kill, and stronger in your aggression as well. Things do become easier but you still need to maintain an over zealous level of control on your team - effectively micro-managing them - if you want to win. You of course will need to revive them too if you expect to survive. This means it’s easier to manage what they do so if they suffer you can get to them and not worry about being in a wide open space whilst helping out. One problem that comes from doing this though is that you can’t just move into cover as you need to run into it, and if you don’t have much space between you and your ailing comrade, well, it can be somewhat annoying trying to crouch behind the metal crates!
Outside of the main third-person shooter missions you get to talk to various folks using a Mass Effect-like conversation wheel and send your colleagues on missions like those of the Assassins in Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood and those thereafter in the series. It’s really quite simple in that if you have the right stats you will succeed on these missions. This is another area of the game which remains from its original pitch but is there for political reasons (it’s a strategy series after all) rather than being an integral and enjoyable part of the game. These last points really show what this boils down to. The Bureau is a third-person tactical shooter like that bit from Mass Effect which looks like BioShock from 2007 and has a narrative many magnitudes of lesser quality. It introduces an element from the successful Assassin’s Creed series and it is a ‘more contemporary’ version of the massively successful strategy game XCOM: Enemy Unknown which came out a year ago. We jest in part - this is the game that’s not in anyway contemporary, that has taken ideas from lots of franchises of this generation and has ultimately missed the boat, pitching itself as a game for this generation but missing relevance by around six years as everyone's moved on. It’s not broken but there’s just nothing to see here.