The long dormant XCOM franchise may have seen its proper revival last year, but the game that would reboot the series wasn’t always XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Initially 2K Marin was developing a first-person shooter set in the 1960s, however, the subsequent backlash and design changes meant that the game was almost “indefinitely delayed”. Then, fairly recently, the studio announced that the game was still in development, having changed its name to The Bureau: XCOM Declassified and was now a third-person tactical shooter. Traditionally when a game changes genres in development, the odds are stacked against it being any good, so should The Bureau: XCOM Declassified be erased from existence?
Taking on the role of Agent Carter, an alcoholic who tragically lost his wife, son, and father in a house fire whilst away on active duty, a series of unfortunate events have led him to joining the newly formed XCOM after first-contact with aliens leaves scores dead and many more turned into what are later dubbed Sleepwalkers. Their original objective was to deal with a Soviet threat, but it has been adapted to take on the extraterrestrial invasion. The premise is fantastic, but poor execution of character development aside from one or two agents you meet makes the narrative an open and shut case. Delivery is often hammed to resemble TV shows from the 1960s, giving the game a B-Movie aesthetic that feels cheap and cheerful. Unfortunately the game tries to be a little too serious at times for this to work in its favour. On consoles at least, the game isn’t exactly good looking either. Models don’t even make a proper attempt to lip-sync with the dialogue, and there are plenty of stiff animations.
If there is one thing that stands out for all the wrong reasons is the design of each mission, though the atmosphere is spot on. 1960s America looks and feels appropriate to the times, with the eerie piped in music of the times serving as the backdrop to abandoned or enslaved towns – creating an ominous setting; while on board alien ships it is apparent that your team of agents are not meant to be there, with technology that fills you with wonderment and dread at the same time. But whilst the look and diversity of the game world is solid, it’s in the structure where the most fault lies. The atmosphere is wasted with the games shooting gallery design that is so obviously telegraphed with doorway transitions, that most of the sense of impending peril is squandered. Random stragglers do occasionally surprise, but they’re few and far between.
Most will focus on the third-person shooter gameplay, since that was the subject of the grand redesign prior to the games’ release, which for the most-part is similar to the Mass Effect games by having relatively okay controls mixed with enemies with health bars and either shields or armour. Weapons range from period guns from the 1960s and alien technology, which feels appropriate and packs the punch when required. On top of that, you can also pick up backpack blueprints which grant perks to your team, such as reducing damage taken from enemy fire. But what rounds things off for gameplay is the class system. Agent Carter has his own set of skills that unlock as he raises in rank, but each of your team can gain new skills that make it easier for them to survive – such as raising a shield to block incoming fire or shatter the armour of enemies to take them out quickly. It’s basic, but it functions well.
If left at that, the XCOM name wouldn’t hold much ground however, so 2K Marin has implemented a squad-based system where you can order your fellow agents to hide behind certain cover, use both your own and other agents’ skills, and order them to fire on a particular enemy target, which is thankfully painless to do with the command wheel. It seems like a compelling idea for the most part, with the impending peril of permanent death ever looming should a downed agent be allowed to bleed out, but it feels undercooked. When left to its own devices, the companion AI is suicidal at best, running out into enemy fire at random. A lot of the gun-fights boil down to constantly babysitting your fellow bumbling agents as they fight against hordes of enemies that move continuously. It’s a great feeling when you finally get your agents in position to flank the enemy, but the ordeal of getting them to position is highly frustrating. Multiple bugs also plague the experience, including some mind-boggling cases of wobbly legs from non-hostile AI sleepwalkers, meaning that the whole game feels unfinished as a result.
You do of course get a bit of downtime, which is spent largely conversing with either other agents in XCOM HQ or with the random survivors you encounter along the way. Photos, reels and readable documents help set the tone nicely, while talking with others using Mass Effect style dialogue paths can be hit-or-miss. Conversations rarely matter a great deal, meaning that when you are presented with a choice, it can feel as if there is no other option.
The hub is a big maze with lots of things to see, but one particularly unsettling detail that sets the tone of the whole operation is in the training gallery where pressing a button throws a helpless captive enemy into the shooting range, forcing us to ask the question – Who is worse: the enemies enslaving the human populace or us using them as target practice?
While you and your team are out on away-missions, you can send a selection of your squad to deal with tasks that reap their own rewards – such as new gear or a brand new agent. It’s a helpful way of keeping your squad up to speed, in case an agent meets his untimely end. Oddly, this comes off as one of The Bureau‘s better ideas, which considering how simple it sounds is rather unfortunate.
The conspiracy theorists were right! What could have made The Bureau: XCOM Declassified great got redacted. Poor friendly AI, the shooting gallery level design, and some dodgy narrative structure ultimately makes this a forgettable experience. What’s disheartening is that there is the bare bones of a really good game here, with the actual mechanics coming off as undercooked rather than innovative. Its unsettling atmosphere is genuinely creepy, serving as the games’ sole saving grace. If The Bureau serves at least one purpose, it’s a great case study for the axiom that change isn’t always best.