Like a farmer plucked from his cornfield by probe-happy aliens, The Bureau: XCOM Declassified was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Arriving less than a year after Firaxis Games’ XCOM: Enemy Unknown, 2K Marin’s take on the classic strategy series couldn’t help but be compared to 2012’s acclaimed franchise reboot.
Toss in a lengthy, fractured development cycle that saw it go from first-person fragger to tactical squad-based shooter, and it’s no wonder XCOM fans have buzzed more about what The Bureau could’ve and should’ve been rather than what it turned out to be. Of course, misplaced expectations don’t excuse its shortcomings—of which it has its fair share—but it does make it a title best appreciated by new XCOM recruits or seasoned strategists capable of checking any existing baggage at the door.
As a longtime franchise fan, the first thing that hit me in The Bureau wasn’t a Sectoid’s plasma blast, but the game’s early 1960’s setting. Sporting suspenders, horn-rimmed glasses, and fedora hats, XCOM’s G-men look sharp while spouting just-the-facts-ma’am intel between puffs of cigarette smoke. It’s a lot like Mad Men…with alien autopsies. Protagonist William Carter complements these straight-laced traits with a Clint Eastwood-like growl and a fragile psyche fueled by family tragedy.
The Middle America environments are similarly affective; whether thwarting an extraterrestrial threat outside a car dealership advertising “NEW” vehicles for “$2439.00” or bloodying the blacktop of a college town’s homecoming parade route, there’s often a striking juxtaposition between Cold War-era America and its infiltration by invaders that make the Russians look like Mr. Rogers. Sadly, late game encounters unfolding in uninspired alien settings feel more familiar; if you’ve saved civilization from evil-doing E.T.s before, you’ve likely trekked through these generic sci-fi scenes. That said, The Bureau’s absorbing art style and supporting XCOM origin story are some of its most appealing elements.
While it’s tempting to take in the surroundings like a first-time tourist, doing so will see you reduced to a pulpy puddle. Despite its third-person perspective, The Bureau’s a punishing tactical affair rewarding quick wits as much as swift reflexes. As agent Carter, players take cover, stop-and-pop, combat roll, and execute all the other flashy moves they’ve learned from past gaming grunts. The difference, though, is monitoring your squad is just as important as managing Carter’s ammo and health. Unlike the squad-based tactics in Gears of War or even Ghost Recon, The Bureau’s aren’t a friendly suggestion but rather a do-or-die requirement.
Using the game’s “Combat Focus” wheel, which slows the action to a crawl, players issue commands to a pair of field agents while also managing Carter’s abilities. More than just a helpful option, however, the mechanic is an integral tool if you wish to keep your blood from pooling on the pavement. Whether sending squaddies to safety or ordering them to unleash their class-based skills—like the Engineer’s screen-clearing Rocket Turret—you’re constantly keeping one eye on their actions. Add to this a cool-down meter for most abilities and a number of table-turning skills (such as those that mess with enemies’ minds, force them out of cover, and consume them in a sickening goo) and mastering the squad mechanics soon becomes as satisfying as landing headshots.
Long after finishing The Bureau’s fight, I still recall numerous pulse-pounding encounters; from focusing my entire team’s resources on hulking Mutons until they fell like slabs of concrete to finishing missions surrounded by corpses—including my own squads’—by the skin of my teeth, battles frequently drove my adrenaline well above any doctor-recommended levels. The gradual introduction of new powers and weapons, as well as a steep but satisfying learning curve, further contribute to the combat’s seat-of-the-pants pacing.
While my brain and trigger finger appreciated the solid mix of cerebral strategizing and twitchy gunplay, questionable A.I. behavior occasionally sullied the experience. Squaddies sometimes felt the need to evacuate cover spots they had just been ordered to occupy; or, worse, they’d run toward live grenades seconds before detonation. Such annoyances didn’t happen often, but still undermined the immersion at the most inopportune times.
Witnessing one of your best men intentionally march to their demise isn’t a common occurrence, thankfully, because The Bureau also incorporates character-building depth as well as permadeath; the former allows you to personalize recruits down to class, name, and necktie color, while the latter makes you feel terrible when their innards are unceremoniously spilled in the field. On top of increasingly upping the ante as you bond with these customized characters, both elements effectively tap into XCOM’s decades-old DNA. Aside from this life-taking feature oddly not applying to Carter, it’s a welcome inclusion that frequently saw me following my heart over my mind during life-or-death scenarios.
While battling The Bureau’s little grey men is generally a blast, interacting with its humans back at HQ isn’t so thrilling. It’s here, back at XCOM home base, that it’s especially difficult not to compare The Bureau to Enemy Unknown. As in the latter, the former allows you to recruit new agents, select missions, and engage in plenty of appealing RPG-flavored activities. Sadly though, most of this good stuff’s buried beneath tedious tasks, exposition-heavy NPC interactions, and long, uneventful strolls through the labyrinthine base. The stronghold’s smoking ashtrays and JFK portraits nicely support the era-specific narrative, but its appeal’s only as deep as these aesthetic touches.
When measured against previous XCOM entries, The Bureau struggles to find its identity. When weighed against other squad-based shooters, however, it actually exceeds expectations. Coupled with an origin story that sheds fresh light on XCOM’s previously redacted roots, its 1960’s setting and satisfying tactical combat allow it to stand apart from the Call of Duty crowd. It’s far from perfect, but if you’re a newcomer who enjoys cracking alien conspiracies—and skulls—or an XCOM enthusiast with an open mind, you might find yourself enjoying the next Spec Ops: The Line-like sleeper.
- Visuals: The Bureau is far from this generation’s best looking game, but its 1960’s setting—complete with the cars, clothes, and cigarette smoke of the era—allow it to stand out from its graphically superior contemporaries.
- Audio: Nothing especially memorable, but the gunfire pops appropriately and the NPCs do a decent job with their no-nonsense G-men delivery.
- Interface: Thanks to the intuitive “Combat Focus” wheel, commanding your squad is a frustration-free affair. Other controls competently crib from the third-person shooter playbook.
- Lasting Appeal: Base activities are a gameplay-padding slog, but the engaging, tactical combat makes this a 12-15 hour alien invasion worth surviving.
The Bureau isn’t nearly as good as Enemy Unknown. Muddle through that initial disappointment though, and you’ll discover a fun third-person shooter/strategy hybrid that, while flawed, refreshingly taxes the brain cells and trigger finger in equal measure.