STAFF REVIEW of The Bureau: XCOM Declassified (Xbox 360)

Thursday, August 29, 2013.
by Khari Taylor

The Bureau: XCOM Declassified Box art It's difficult to play The Bureau: XCOM without wondering what kind of game it could have been. Originally intended in 2010 as 2K Games’ first de facto entry in the storied XCOM franchise as well as the first XCOM game to be released on consoles since the original PlayStation, The Bureau (originally known as just “XCOM”) has weathered several changes in title, genre and gameplay over the past three years (and perhaps just as many from its original inception three years prior). The game's development was also the subject of much criticism from XCOM fans, many of whom were immediately turned off by the game's E3 2010 re-envisioning as an FPS, feeling that it ran counter to the franchise's isometric, turn-based strategic roots. Now re-envisioned once again as a tactical first person shooter close to a year after 2K’s Firaxis Games has stolen much of its pre-release thunder with their own franchise entry XCOM: Enemy Unknown, gamers finally get to discover whether The Bureau was actually worth the three-year wait.

Although the story of The Bureau: XCOM Declassified technically takes place in an alternate universe to that of Enemy Unknown, the game serves as a spiritual origin story to the franchise, so fans Firaxis’ sleeper hit will no doubt find the plot of The Bureau interesting despite the inevitable inconsistencies. In The Bureau, players put on the fedora and wing-tipped shoes of Special Agent William Carter, a former CIA field operative who in 1962 is re-enlisted into active duty in order to deliver a mysterious artifact to Myron Faulke, the Director of a top-secret US Military branch. From his trademark graveled voice to his no-nonsense manner of dress, Carter seems like he would be more at home as a gumshoe detective in a Film Noir than as a special agent, and after being ambushed and shot by an alien mole who attempts to steal the artifact (which explodes, killing the alien and inexplicably saves Carter's life), it becomes clear that Carter is well out of practice. The lost artifact quickly becomes a moot point however, as by the time Carter is able to report to Faulke empty-handed, a full-scale Alien invasion has begun, and Carter is hastily placed in charge of a crack team of uniquely-skilled Special Agents tasked not only with fighting back against the aliens but also doing so covertly, as to not send the United States into a mass panic.

Gameplay in The Bureau is essentially divided into two modes of play, largely echoing that of the Mass Effect games. The Bureau itself is the equivalent of Mass Effect's The Normandy, where players walk around as Carter and interact with NPCs in order to advance the story, learn more about the game's principal characters through talking to them or their colleagues, unlock new field operations and complete non-combat missions around the base. It is also here that players will gradually uncover more and more information as to why the alien invasion is taking place, a genuine mystery that serves as a strong narrative hook in the game and encourages players to keep on playing and interacting even when the gameplay itself gets a bit redundant. Finally, players can customize their squads from either the facility's Ready Room or Command Centre and can initiate missions from the latter (much like The Normandy's CIC), and as an added plus players can also send lone operatives or squads out on "Dispatch Missions" provided that their skill and collective strength meet the selected mission's requirements.

Naturally, the second mode of play are the main missions themselves, which play out much like Mass Effect's away missions. In the field, players control Carter directly and command two other operatives via simple commands using the D-pad and can issue more complex orders such as movement in a specific direction or using offensive and defensive powers via the Battle Focus wheel (The Bureau's answer to Mass Effect's radial command wheels). Both Carter and his squadmates receive XP for the damage they do in battle, allowing them to level up and gain new abilities and powers that can be put to immediate use, but as each ability has a required cooldown period once activated, it is best to use each one sparingly and to its best strategic advantage whenever possible. The similarities don't end there however.

It's hard to believe that a game depicting an alien invasion in 1962's America could borrow so many elements from the Mass Effect games yet manage to stretch the player's suspension of disbelief so far beyond them that it approaches the breaking point, but The Bureau manages to accomplish it quite easily. For example, one of Carter's most useful abilities (that the game never explains how he acquired it or learned how to use it) is the telekinetic power called "Lift", which allows Carter to raise and suspend any average-sized humanoid enemy on the field into the air, leaving it vulnerable to gunfire projectiles from Carter and his allies. Even if the ability could be explained away by Carter's exposure to the alien artifact at the beginning of the game however, the ability for any Commando-class squadmate to "force push" enemies within a certain radius is a much harder sell, and if either of these two abilities sound analogous to the Biotic powers "Pull" and "Shockwave" in Mass Effect, you'd be absolutely right to think so.

Meanwhile, Engineer squadmates eventually become capable of "materializing" automated turrets capable of firing lasers or missiles out of thin air, while the tior Grays have to place them in strategic areas in advance of a conflict (just like we humans do in real life combat). Faulty logic notwithstanding, the way in which The Bureau allows players to combine these abilities is sometimes novel. For instance, if an Engineer places a turret anywhere in the field, Carter can use his Lift ability to raise it, giving the turret an even more lethal vantage point to rain death down upon entrenched foes in exchange for exposing it to increased enemy fire.

Outside of these differences, The Bureau plays like a standard third-person shooter, allowing Carter to take and move fluidly from cover to cover, use blind fire over or around obstacles and melee enemies as best he can when encountering them in close quarters. Carter can revive a fallen ally by running up to him and administering a stimulant spray, and likewise he can command his squadmates to revive him or the other squadmate should they fall to enemy fire. Unlike Mass Effect however, when a squadmate dies in the field, it's perma-death, meaning that players will have to recruit a new squadmate at the next checkpoint or revert to the last checkpoint autosave to undo the damage and replay that section of the game again. Higher difficulties prevent recruiting at checkpoints, so players seeking greater challenges can choose to press on and attempt to complete the mission shorthanded, but even at the game's second easiest difficulty players will likely find themselves dying shortly after their team becomes a man short, which will prompt a checkpoint reload and fully restore the fallen squad members alongside Carter in any event. In other words, if you really want a squad member to stay dead, you’re going to have to work at it.

One of the few ways in which The Bureau attempts to mix up the formula is with squad creation. The game starts players off with a handful of default agents from which Carter can select two to take on a mission with him, each representing one of four different classes (Commando, Scout, Engineer and Recon), and as each agent follows Carter on missions they gain XP and can be leveled up in the direction that the player desires via their respective class-progression tree, but players can and will eventually want to recruit additional agents, either to replace those lost or seriously injured in the field or to temporarily fill in for those that are currently on dispatch assignment. Any pre-existing agent's name can be changed and his appearance tweaked to the player's preference, right down to his ethnicity, and the player can also choose the innate skill of any new recruit he or she creates. It's 1962 however, so while Carter quickly finds himself working alongside high-ranking females at The Bureau, players neither have access to nor can create female agents. Pity.

Visually, The Bureau has come a long way since its initial reveal in 2010, with far more realized and detailed characters than what had been previously shown in other demos (just compare a screenshot of Carter now to any of the generic, Fedora-sporting look-alikes from past previews for the evidence). There's no doubt that the finished product could have benefited from a bit more polish along with all the changes it endured, but thankfully one element that has remained intact from the very beginning is the game's distinct 1962 Cold War America setting. It's all still here: The destroyed Middle-American streets whose sweet-as-apple-pie innocence has been forever lost to the brutal carnage of an alien invasion; the staid shirts, vests, ties, lab coats and military uniforms worn by Carter and his colleagues, with the only break in formality being when Carter swaps out his fedora and suit for a more casual turtleneck; the game's hard shadows and film-grain suggestive of the anti-communist propaganda films of the period thinly disguised as Sci-Fi and Horror flicks; and lastly the decidedly retro-design of the Greys themselves, clearly modeled after the countless images of "Roswell Grey aliens" reported by conspiracy theorists and seen in numerous Sci-Fi films.

Loading textures tend to pop-in now and again during cutscenes, making objects and weapons first appear blurry and then suddenly sharpen, but they are far from the worst examples of the generation. The Bureau may not be the Belle of the Ball, but she makes up nice. The game's sound effects and music on the other hand strike a perfect balance between the game's 1962 setting and that of a more modern Sci-Fi movie, relying on a traditional orchestral soundtrack and random licensed hits from the 50's to elicit the mood of the era while the electronic hums, deafening high-pitched screeches, mechanical whirs and resonating thumps of the Greys' shape-shifting weapons and technologies assert their fearsome supremacy to disruptive effect, suggesting that humanity would be severely outclassed regardless of what era in which the invasion took place.

Aside from the game's liberal borrowing of gameplay elements from Mass Effect, The Bureau's only real crime is that of being “just average”. While the story is certainly engaging, the characters, Carter included, are merely serviceable. They’re more than capable of throwing around mildly entertaining dialogue, but there's never really a desire to get to know more about them, and it isn't long into the game before you discover that the supporting characters that you would most want to have at your side in the battle for humanity are actually inaccessible to you, reserved for the most part to filling talking-head roles at The Bureau to move the plot along. Thus players will largely have to make due with generic squaddies for company, and with their stock voices, stock faces and interchangeable names, the only attachment that players are likely to form with them is through their value as skilled teammates, as every squad member must be leveled up from scratch by the player until they are high enough in level to go out on dispatch missions and earn XP by themselves. Sadly, the initial dispatch missions on offer in the early parts of the game are so high in level (the lowest is Level 5) that players will feel like they are already halfway through the game before they even have one member of their squad that can go on these missions, and that it will be much longer still before they can send a 3-man squad. This isn't to say that there aren't enough dispatch missions, but it seems as though this particular element of the game takes an extremely long time to get going and requires the player to babysit low-level squaddies for far too long before they can become useful.

Shockingly, a major missed opportunity of the game is actually a gameplay element that has been part of The Bureau's identity since its E3 reveal in 2010; the idea of players capturing Grey technologies (i.e. weapons), researching them and using them against the Greys via reverse-engineering. Ultimately, this idea has survived in concept only, a couple of examples being how Carter and his squadmates automatically develop alien-like powers via their wrist modules and backpacks, or just happen to come across new alien weapons lying on the ground or sitting on a weapon rack just waiting to be taken. At the game’s outset, players are given the impression that they'll be taking a more active role in acquiring and researching these technologies, but in the end the mechanic only amounts to the equivalent of picking up a lucky quarter from the sidewalk.

To wrap up, The Bureau: XCOM Declassified delivers a solid but decidedly average third-person shooter experience when compared to its contemporaries, but as an introduction to the world of XCOM, it might still serve as the perfect popcorn movie primer for those curious to see what all the fuss is about. The only question those players should ask themselves before jumping in is whether they should play full price for this B-level flick or wait a week or two and watch the less expensive matinee, especially when they can still catch the far more entertaining Enemy Unknown for half the price at the repertoire theatre.

Overall: 7.0 / 10
Gameplay: 6.0 / 10
Visuals: 7.0 / 10
Sound: 8.0 / 10


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