Video Game Review: The Bureau: XCOM Declassified
Those agents are where they belong; in the rear with the gear.
Arguably my favourite game from 2012, and certainly one of the top two or three, was 2k’s XCOM: Enemy Unknown, which blended turn-based and developmental strategy into a compelling game where almost all of your decisions had some consequence down the road. Now BioShock developer 2k Marin has been tasked with taking things in a new direction with The Bureau: XCOM Declassified, a third-person, cover- and squad-based shooter.
There’s a Mass Effect feel to the combat as your character, Agent William Carter, serves as the leader of a three-man team. Standard third-person shooter controls (sprint, enter/exit cover, melee, etc.) are in effect most of the time with tossing grenades being a bit different than the norm — here you hold down the left bumper to plot your trajectory and then pull the right trigger to actually throw the grenade. One source of possible frustration: the same button used to reload also picks up a new gun — so expect that to happen now and then.
Pressing one of the face buttons enables “Battle Focus,” which slows time to a near standstill and allows you to issue orders to your teammates and/or employ your own allotment of abilities. Both are done via a radial menu, which you navigate with the left stick. While this system is completely functional, it does have a pair of issues that are worth mentioning.
First, using the left stick to choose commands is never as accurate as you’d like it to be, and the result is that you’ll do a fair amount of fumbling around or accidentally picking the wrong action initially. Along those same lines, many abilities involve tossing a marker onto the battleground, however for whatever reason you need to follow paths you can walk to reach your target. Neither of these things hurt you in any tangible way because of the time slowing, but they’re both clunky, and given the amount of time you spend in Focus it can become annoying.
Despite some quality art design, including nice blending of past and future technologies, and generally good looking character animations, The Bureau is plagued by visual inconsistency. The environments range from a small, 1960s town in middle America to vast alien structures, but everything is so linear and repetitive (count the number of ledges you fall off before fights to prevent backtracking) that it loses its impact. Plus, even when installed to the hard drive, textures are slow to load.
How you feel about the overall audio experience could boil down to your feelings about Carter’s gravely delivery (along with his abrasive demeanour). I went back and forth on him initially, but by the end of the game I had grown weary of his perpetual tough talk that seemed out of touch with the events that were going on around him. The quality of the voice acting is solid, though, and nobody came across as a weak link. The soundtrack is passable is well, and it does include a handful of familiar oldies worked into the equation to good effect.
Perhaps more than anything else, The Bureau feels unpolished. I saw cut scenes that were missing dialogue and one that lacked what was supposed to be the reveal of a major technological advancement on your ship. However, it just went from “watch this” to “wow, that’s great” without ever showing me the moment. I also had to reload checkpoints a few times because the A.I. agents would get caught up on some piece of the environment and wouldn’t respond to orders. None of these are huge things, but collectively they make the game feel rough around the edges.
An origin story of sorts, The Bureau: XCOM Declassified turns back the clock to the early 1960s and covers first contact between an alien race (known primarily as outsiders) and humanity. As noted, you play as Agent Carter, who happens to be at the base delivering a secret briefcase when all hell breaks loose. After leading a harrowing escape you latch on with XCOM, a force comprised of the United States’ best and brightest as you try to fend off this invasion while preventing nationwide panic.
It’s not a bad idea nor poorly written per se, but in spite of listening to all the available exposition I never felt like it came together as a cohesive tale. It doesn’t help that Carter is pretty unlikeable, and his acerbic attitude toward pretty much everyone and everything else wears thin. It’s as though he lives to chide others and, in essence, plays a perpetual devil’s advocate — “oh, you think the loss of one man is meaningful, this is war!,” or “you think casualties are acceptable, you’ve lost your perspective!” And no, those aren’t direct quotes, but they pretty much encapsulate his persona.
Things pick up steam later on, and you’re able to make some meatier decisions as to who lives and dies. Even then, though, the climactic confrontation is followed up by a short debriefing that explains how the aftermath was handled and why no one has any idea we were invaded. It covers all the bases but still feels thin to have an 10-hour campaign tied up in two minutes.
Moving past the story, The Bureau employs a squad-based approach to combat in which you’re flanked by two agents that you command in the field. As mentioned, the system is very similar to Mass Effect, though you have a bit more control over your subordinates’ actions. That turns out to be both a blessing and a curse because, unlike ME, your fellow agents will bleed out when downed, and if you don’t revive them in time they will die… permanently.
What this means is that micro management is an absolute necessity if you’re going to be playing on the higher difficulty settings. Without constant supervision they’re toast. Some may like that level of tactical immersion, but I eventually tired of seeing them do their own thing to predictably disastrous results and finished my playthrough on the second difficulty tier.
Whichever setting you choose to go with, the game uses an upgrade system for both you and your agents. Experience is rewarded based on the enemy killed and how efficient you are in killing them. For example, headshots earn more than body shots, and combining abilities earns more than just shooting them. Each rank unlocks passive abilities and/or new perks that can be used in the field. Agents cap out at Rank 5 while Carter maxes out at 10.
Agents fall into one of four categories: commando, engineer, recon and support. Each has access to role-specific weaponry and perks, and it’s up to you to determine which you want on your six. Any further buffs are applied in the form of your backpack as throughout the game you’ll locate schematics that unlock new options. It’s not a particularly deep system, and the customization level is disappointing, but it does enough to get the job done.
Although not a short game, there isn’t a ton of content in The Bureau, which is offline only and contains a relative smattering of side and dispatch missions to augment the main storyline. For clarification, side missions are led by you while dispatches involve sending agents on their own to gain experience — each dispatch is rated by complexity, which must be matched by the combined rank of your agents (i.e., two Rank 3 agents could complete a Level 6 complexity mission).
I’m a big XCOM fan, and while The Bureau: XCOM Declassified doesn’t measure up to Enemy Unknown, it’s still a solid experience that finishes stronger than it starts. Just be ready to babysit your fellow agents.