Up until Enemy Unknown, I had never heard of the XCOM series. After playing and absolutely loving that entry, I started to pay more attention to the series overall. Even before Enemy Unknown released, 2K stated a new XCOM game was coming and was going to be a first person shooter. It has been in development for a what seems like forever and has evolved from what it was originally set out to be, but finally, The Bureau: XCOM Declassified released. The game has some substantial changes compared to Enemy Unknown, but still tries to keep some of that XCOM feel. It works in some ways, but in others it falls short.
The Bureau is a third person tactical shooter set in the United States in 1962. Players take on the role of a CIA agent named William Carter who experiences first-hand an alien invasion of Earth. After a total communications blackout with the White House, he and numerous other agents along with scientists form the alien defense force called XCOM. Carter and other agents will defend their country and planet by striking the alien’s make-shift bases, researching their technology and sabotaging their plans.
The game breaks down into two main aspects: base operations and missions. The base operations are where most of the story comes into play. The Bureau places a bigger emphasis on the story over Enemy Unknown. Carter can talk to other agents in the base as well as interact with other people. Dialog is handled with an option tree much like the Mass Effect series. Unlike BioWare’s space opera, these dialog options don’t really affect the overall story, although some may unlock new missions to complete. At the base, players can form their squad and equip them with available weapons and materials. Here they can also recruit new agents and solders that they can take with them on the missions, or send them to special missions on their own or with other recruited agents.
The missions come in the form of main story quests that progress the storyline, and side missions that may offer up new items and weapons that players can equip to their squad. During missions, the game plays out like a standard third-person shooter where players control Carter. Carter can carry two weapons at a time and can switch them on the fly. The big feature of The Bureau is the command mechanic. Much like other tactical shooters, players can tell their squad mates where to move and what to do during battle. When going into the tactical command menu, the game slows down and a radial menu pops up that represents the entire squad.
Here, the player can choose a squad member, tell them exactly where to go using a cursor, and what abilities to use and who to attack. Carter himself will learn new abilities that he can use in the radial menu as well. He serves as a large party healer, so utilizing his abilities is very important for survival. Both Carter and his squad earn experience points after each skirmish. These go to new levels and with each level, characters can learn new perks and abilities.
To give it that XCOM feeling, the command menus and the way the game handles flanking and stat tracking depending on multiple factors is really where it shines. If a squad member is able to flank an enemy, their attacks will do more damage, and when combined with another special ability, it may become a combo attack that can inflict critical strikes. In this sense, it really felt like Mass Effect’s combat. Carter could lift an alien using a psychic wave, and while it was suspended in the air, he could order his sniper to perform critical shot on the enemy. Unfortunately, if I didn’t tell my squad what to do every 30-45 seconds, they were pretty much useless. It seemed like they really enjoyed getting shot up by the alien opposition because more times then not, they would go down. Another XCOM staple, if my squad mate went down in combat and I didn’t revive him or have my other member revive him, he’s dead for good. Yes, permadeath is back once again, and losing a level five character and having to replace him with a level one is just making the game that much more difficult.
One big flaw that hindered me while playing was the bad slow down and drops in frame rate. When a lot of action was going on with multiple enemies on the screen, the game would sometimes become downright blurry due to how slow the game was chugging along. Even on my high-powered PC, it would sometimes slow down to a crawl and when trying to shoot aliens without getting blasted myself, it became a bothersome challenge.
The game has multiple story beats in the action as well, and some of them can be rather entertaining, but for the most part, the story fell flat. Most of the characters are so two dimensional that I never really cared for them, and William Carter, even with his mysterious past, still felt like average military/cop guy. The set pieces were really the star of the entire game. Seeing an alien structure rise up from the ground in a 1960’s suburb while Carter and company are shooting Sectoids really impressed me at times, even when the visuals were rather bland.
The voice acting and presentation are handled nicely, and even the action, while difficult at times, worked very well. Unfortunately, the game just feels rather standard. The story is there but it feels lifeless more often than not, the combat works but the battles take too long to finish, and while some of the presentation is enjoyable, it all feels like there is no heart to go along with it. For most of my play through, I felt like I was just going through the motions. In many games, players want to get the story pieces over with to get to the action while others want to get to the story by going through the combat quickly. In the Bureau, both felt tedious and rushing to get to the next bit was not doing me any favors.
Don’t get me wrong, The Bureau is not a bad game by any means. Sure the squad AI is rather dumb, but the shooting feels fine and even though the story may fall flat, it is there and is paced decently well. The abilities and combo attacks are what make the game fun, and they work really well. It just feels all too standard throughout the rest of the game. Third-person shooter fans will find some fun, and XCOM fans that don’t mind some real-time action can get their fill as well. Just don’t expect anything revolutionary or mind blowing when playing it.
Review copy of game provided by publisher. Primary play on PC.