After much delay and several design changes, 2K Marin’s XCOM project is finally here. Originally announced as a first person shooter set in the 1950s simply called XCOM, the game was promptly condemned by series fans. With last year’s XCOM: Enemy Unknown winning the goodwill back from fans, 2K decided to bring the project back as a tactical third-person shooter. Retitled The Bureau: XCOM Declassified, the game sports a renewed focus on team management and tactical combat and tries to bring itself closer to the real XCOM experience. Does it succeed? The answer is tricky and I found myself on the fence through the entirety of my 12 hour playthrough. But if I had to pick one I’d say yes, it does, almost.
The Bureau takes place in 1960s America. Cold War paranoia is at an all-time high and conspiracy theories run abound. What better time than this for visitors from another world to show up and start wreaking havoc, right? Personally, I felt the game started on the right note. The setting and atmosphere has a classic sci-fi vibe to it and feels perfect for an XCOM game, perhaps even better than the contemporary setting of Enemy Unknown. Vintage technology and attire make the game stand apart from most sci-fi shooters and their bald space marines. That along with a Bioshock-inspired UI helps sell the period aesthetic the game is aiming for.
You play as William Carter, an All-American government agent with a raspy voice and a penchant for hats and waistcoats. As expected, he has a troubled past complete with the obligatory dreams and hallucinations between missions. Carter is also the newest recruit of XCOM, a clandestine organization fighting the alien threat via covert operations and salvaged technology. The plot plays out as Carter’s experience of working with XCOM while also acting as an origin story of sorts for the organization itself.
The game begins with a rather lengthy tutorial-like mission which gradually explains the basics of Bureau’s tactical combat. It’s not long before you start to realize how similar everything feels to the Mass Effect series. Once you start talking to other characters and the familiar dialog wheel shows up, it feels like the developers aren’t even trying to mask the influences but actually flaunting it. The Bureau is not an RPG though and you will not be making any game changing decisions or building relationships. The focus is strictly on combat. so a lot of the things which happen outside of it sometimes feel like unnecessary padding.
The campaign is broken into several missions chosen from a world map punctuated by trips back to the XCOM base. The structure is remarkably similar to the recent Splinter Cell: Blacklist which stood out even more since I played both games side to side. While in the base you are free to roam around and talk to NPCs most of whom serve no real purpose other than sporting extensive dialog trees to wade through. Still, the writing and voice acting is a notch above your average videogame with the exception of Carter himself who is permanently stuck with his raspy growl.
Fortunately, most of your time will be spent on the field and in combat. This is where The Bureau starts to become interesting. On the surface it’s a simple system, you and a couple of squadmates take on a variety of enemies in levels designed for third-person combat (read lots of low objects and debris). Playing it as a pure shooter will not get you far though. The enemies can be pretty relentless even on the normal difficulty and this is where tactics come into play. Firefights often take place in large open areas where positioning is important. At the core of the combat is the command wheel using which you can slow down the action to a crawl and issue orders to your squadmates. Commands range from moving, using special abilities like calling in artillery strikes, laying down turrets to revive squadmates.
The system is well designed but doesn’t quite make a good first impression. A lot of the early fights left me fumbling. This was mainly because of the overly aggressive enemy AI pitted against my low level agents. They went down frequently, cried for help non-stop and didn’t offer much help in combat. All the while I was busy saving Carter himself. It wasn’t until I leveled up a few of my agents (and Carter himself) that I was able to fully realize the potential of my team. Agents come in different classes such as soldiers, engineers and snipers, and have a range of unlockable skills tailored to their specializations. This isn’t too different from Enemy Unknown’s short but focused skill trees. New weapons and gear are found in levels which can in turn be used to outfit your agents before going on a mission.
The Bureau is definitely a game which rewards patience. It was a good three to four hours into the game when I actually started to enjoy it. There are some truly satisfying moments when you can perfectly execute a combined assault by chaining your squadmates and Carters abilities. However the AI, both friendly and otherwise, continues be an annoyance. Squadmates frequently walk into line of fire, take cover in the worst of places and enemies love to spam grenades. All of this requires you to constantly make use of the command wheel making the whole tactical element feel a bit forced at times. Most of these problems begin to disappear the further you get into the game. Once leveled up sufficiently the agents are quite capable of holding their own but the first few hours can be frustrating.
In true XCOM tradition there is permanent death for agents, but its a minor inconvenience as you can always reload a checkpoint if you lose one. Besides, Carter’s death sets you back to the latest checkpoint anyway. The Bureau features no multiplayer but the campaign is sufficiently lengthy with the main missions taking anywhere between 40 minutes to an hour and shorter side missions which can be completed in 15 to 20 minutes. Pretty much all missions play out the same way, fight waves of enemies, walk around a bit, maybe push a button, walk some more and repeat. The moment-to-moment action however keeps things interesting.
I must also mention the game doesn’t seem to be well optimized for AMD cards. On my i5 4670K/7970-equipped rig I couldn’t hold a smooth 60 fps maxed on DX 11 and eventually had to switch to DX 9 to get acceptable performance. There isn’t much difference in quality of the visuals between the two modes and overall the game is rather mediocre when it comes to graphical fidelity. Texture and grass pop-in is common, most of the textures are low-res and in-game cutscenes have weird cropping. Yet the game manages to look decent thanks to good art direction and a consistent visual style.
Delays and design changes never bode well for most games especially ones attached to classic franchises. Fortunately, The Bureau manages to steer clear of being thrown next to Duke Nukem Forever and Aliens: Colonial Marines. I had fun playing it but it’s also a difficult game to wholeheartedly recommend. If you’re a fan of third person action games there are better options available, if you love classic XCOM, theres Enemy Unknown and its upcoming expansion. This puts The Bureau in a rather awkward position. As it stands now, The Bureau is an interesting companion piece to the other line of XCOM games but not something you need to rush out and buy.