Review: The Bureau: XCOM Declassified
The Bureau: XCOM Declassified has had a long and twisting development period, being originally unveiled as a first person shooter back in 2006. Without any strategy elements, fans of the original were critical of the changes but 2K Marin were insisting that strategy games just weren’t contemporary. Thankfully they was well and truly proved wrong when XCOM: Enemy Unknown sneaked out and turned out to be a brilliant game. So with 2K Marin backtracking and redeveloping The Bureau into a third person strategy game, have the risks paid off?
The Bureau: XCOM Declassified is set in the USA, 1962 and sees you playing William Carter who’s been tasked to take a briefcase containing some unknown object to the top brass at Bureau of Strategic Emergency Command. Resting in a motel before containing on his journey, he’s disturbed by a female military employee who wants to take the briefcase. Carter’s mission objectives doesn’t allow this and whilst defending his stance he’s shot for his trouble, slowly losing consciousness as the lady places her hand over the now glowing briefcase.
When he comes too, the lady is now fried to a crisp and Carter’s gun shot has miraculously healed. But William doesn’t have any time to think as aliens (the Outsiders) have now started a full-blown attack.
What follows is an interesting tale set in a wonderfully created universe that takes in the birth of the XCOM organisation, but sadly it’s not as good as it could be. The characters are rather mundane which is not helped with conversation trees that on the whole are rather pointless. Unlike The Walking Dead, 90% of the time you select every option given to you and it makes the conversation very stilted, plus there are instances where you’re offered choices which sounds like you’re affecting the plot and final outcome but that fails to materialise which is a great shame.
But despite these niggles I took in the story and universe and enjoyed what it had to offer me.
At the very beginning of The Bureau I was rather disappointed. It starts like a very typical third person game, kicking off with one of those opening missions where you learn the controls as you escape a building. For example you need to vault over fallen filing cabinets and shimmy along walls as it’s being destroyed. The main reason I was concerned for those opening minutes was because the controls are a bit iffy and the animation poor – I wasn’t looking forward to playing the whole game like this. Don’t get me wrong, the controls are serviceable but they don’t have the finesse of genre leaders like Gear of War.
But thankfully it’s not long until you get your first team member and this is where the game starts to get much better. Taking all the best elements of Enemy Unknown and using it in third person mode gives you the great combination of strategy, whilst being down on the ground gives 2K Marin the chance to add in the cinematic effects.
What these changes have made is a story driven third person game akin to Gears of War or Uncharted with RTS elements, creating a cinematic strategy game with entertaining results. Now you’re on the ground as the alien gunships are firing around you, drop-pods are crashing down in front of you before the attackers come at your with their ray guns. And with an interesting backdrop (more on that later) I found myself enjoying two genres in one.
But don’t worry if you think the changes in development have created a game with split personalities as I found that it all gels together. The most unique aspect is Battle Focus. It’s the core game mechanic that when activated slows down time considerably and allows you to give your squad specific orders. These will all be very familiar if you played Enemy Unknown, with critical hit strikes, cloaking and movement all clearly mapped on the action wheel.
I found Battle Focus really quickly, easy and effective to use on the fly. I was worried that controlling two other squad members with the action still kicking off all around you would be too much, but I felt it worked a dream. I easily dictated to my team to place down a turret, cloak and run to flank the enemy, selecting critical hit targets all at the same time. It was incredibly satisfying to use my powers to lift a powerful enemy that’s behind cover and getting my sniper to kill them in one hit with their critical strike kill. It’s those times when the game shines.
But there are some problems too. The AI isn’t the best, with squad mates moving to your chosen location but sometimes taking odd routes and getting caught by enemy fire in the process. It’s particularly annoying in the opening missions where they don’t deal much damage but are easily wounded. However this does get better as you go on. The enemy too aren’t the brightest as they seemed to move in unrealistic ways.
An odd decision by 2K Marin also means you can’t move your pointer over barriers but have to navigate around doorways, cars and other obstacles. So for mine placement you could be well within the area where you’re allowed to place it but because there’s a physical gap between you and your chose location, you can’t. But once you realise this you just adapt to the game’s mechanics, so it’s hardly a big negative.
Fans will be pleased to hear that other elements from the series are present, such as perma-death present (RIP Ace Rimmer and Earthworm Jim, you served your country well), squad management and different missions you can choose to take on (or not).
The Bureau revels in its ‘60s setting. With Buddy Holly playing on the wireless, quaint towns that just scream Americana and lots of little details bring the game’s setting alive. But sadly it’s let down by poor textures, voice acting and some frame rate issues.
None of the characters are particularly interesting and are all fairly clichéd, plus they are rather monotone sounding despite the alien invasion going on around them.
Graphics wise, But the levels are generally something to enjoy and take in, well the ones in the towns are. With period posters, cars and other late ‘60s assets used very well. And it’s understandable 2K Marin are good in this area as the only other games 2K Marin have worked on are the three BioShock games. What they do need to work on though are alien environments as they’re rather generic.
They clearly needed more time to polish up the game too, as there are pop-in issue, framerate issues and some very fuzzy textures dotted around. I’m putting this down to the game’s shifting development as the reason for this.
To sum up
Considering how this game started life as a functionally very different beast, 2K Marin have done a good job turning The Bureau: XCOM Declassified into the game it is now. It’s just as well as the strategy elements are the bits that have turned this game into what would probably have been a very standard game into one that’s interesting and definitely worth playing.
It’s not genre defining as many elements have been done by others before (I’m mostly think of Mass Effect 3 here) but what I’m hoping for now is a sequel that goes into development knowing exactly what the final game will be and will get the polish and refining it deserves. As I reckon it would be brilliant.
Version reviewed: Xbox 360