The Bureau: XCOM Declassified
Genre: Third Person Shooter
Developer: 2K Marin
Publisher: 2K Games
Release Date: 08/20/13
When it was announced that 2K Games had acquired the XCOM franchise and was planning to release what amounted to a tactical first person shooter before anything else, to say that fans were livid is probably something of an understatement. It turns out that, sometimes, delays in development and release can ultimately be the best thing for a game, however, as the numerous delays and changes in 2K Marin’s shooter allowed for Firaxis to build their own strategy release, XCOM: Enemy Unknown, which was basically a love letter to fans of the original and then some. While I might not speak for all of the fans of the franchise, I’m sure I speak for a lot of them when I say, at that point, I didn’t care what 2K Games did with the franchise so long as Firaxis kept making more strategy entries, and with the upcoming XCOM: Enemy Within, that certainly seems to be the case. This is probably for the best, as what eventually became The Bureau: XCOM Declassified had a lot working against it. After extensive delays, the game had been redesigned from a first person squad based shooter into a third person tactical shooter, which wasn’t a promising sign. Further, its developer, 2K Marin, only had Bioshock 2 to their credit, which was a game that essentially had its groundwork built by Irrational Games, which left questions about their ability to develop a new game from the ground up hanging, which the various delays didn’t help much. Still, the game had some novel ideas, as the shooter elements and potential research and mission concepts could have made for a neat shooter with some real variety to it, and the “aliens attack us in the sixties instead of today” idea had a lot of merit. Well, the good news is that The Bureau is technically sound enough, and does just enough with its noir concepts to make it worth completing for genre or franchise fans that might pick it up. That said, it doesn’t manage to do enough to make it worth playing in the first place, which is unfortunate for several reasons.
You initially take on the role of one William Carter, a CIA desk jockey whose family died while he was in deep cover who’s been drinking away his problems ever since. As the game begins, he’s been summoned to bring an artifact of some importance to one Director Faulke, who has requested that it be delivered to no one but him, and with 60’s era Cold War fears running high, Carter is about as vigilant as a damaged alcoholic can possibly be in doing so. Well, this goes poorly in the first five minutes, as Carter nearly dies when an alien shoots him and attempts to steal the artifact, only to discover that his bullet wound is healed, the artifact is gone and his attacker has been vaporized when he wakes up. He’s not given much time to think about this, though, as his attacker was part of a larger alien invasion force, which attacks at about that moment, signaling the start of a full scale invasion, complete with alien weapons and infected humans, dubbed Sleepwalkers, everywhere. It falls to Carter, as the most competent person on staff and as one of Faulke’s top picks for the newly christened XCOM operation, to lead the charge against the aliens and to save humanity or die trying. The Bureau works as a pulpy noir piece, surprisingly enough; the plot isn’t exceptionally well developed, so to say, but you can lose yourself in it easily enough if you’re familiar with the subject matter. The game has a lot of period piece exposition built into it, from people talking about radio serials and actual music from the time period to people who talk heavily about the Cold War and other thematically appropriate elements, and it sells the experience nicely. 2K Marin clearly put a lot of effort into making the plot feel like a 60’s sci-fi piece, and with that in mind, it actually becomes easy enough to care about the cast of characters and their eventual fates, such that one can almost lose themselves in the plot if they can appreciate the theme of the project.
Sadly, the game then shoots that goodwill in the foot in the last two chapters.
Basically, there’s a plot twist in the last two chapters that, were it handled mildly appropriately, might call into question the nature of player control of in-game avatars and free will, or at the very least, could have been used to bring a satisfying conclusion to the experience. None of this happens, however; instead, the plot derails in the second to last mission, between a major reveal and an incredibly stupid plan, which creates a massive change for the final mission and leaves William Carter a borderline psychopath, effectively assassinating his character in the last mission in a fashion that’s disheartening at best. Now, if you don’t appreciate the theme of The Bureau or the 60’s sci-fi concept it’s going for, you honestly probably won’t care to begin with, which is unfortunate, but if you do appreciate it, the sequence of events leading to the endgame are, frankly, slapdash and poorly thought out. The plot twist that occurs here has been done in other media (with varying results) to be sure, but here it’s done in bad form, especially since it’s done in the last chapter of the game. The vast majority of the characters in the game get no resolution to speak of in their plotlines, and the choices you make, unless they immediately kill someone, never end in a way that’s at all satisfactory. Also, of the three potential endings, while two of them are at least somewhat internally consistent to the characters, the ending involving Angela Weaver is, frankly, so absolutely out of character one has to question if the person who wrote it even read the plot of the game preceding it. For as much depth as the character is given, her ending makes her look like a horrid genocidal sociopath, and it’s not at all believable given the plot progression the character has gone through up to this point. It’s rare when one can say that not beating a game will leave you with a better opinion of the experience, but here we are and there it is.
The Bureau isn’t the most technically proficient game, visually speaking, but it makes up for its technical shortcomings with aesthetically interesting presentation that is evocative of the time period in a fair enough fashion. From a technical perspective, the human character models are acceptable, though your allies and the Sleepwalkers you see are often repetitive, though the aliens are far more interesting overall. The game has to introduce a new alien race, dubbed “Outsiders,” into the mix to effectively pull off the Gears of War inspired combat, but the enemies you’ll face from said alien race are actually fairly varied and interesting in design overall. There are other aliens that pop up that are more in line with what XCOM fans expect, like Grays and Mutons, and they’re also rather interesting in design and presentation. The game has some noticeable texture issues when rendering the environments, as they tend to look low quality overall in comparison to the characters and enemies, but the game works around this by creating a game world that feels like it’s the early sixties, and the end result is a game that fits the concept artistically, even if it’s not a technical marvel. Aurally, the game generally does a better job overall. The voice work is basically spot on across the board, as every performance matches the character it’s assigned to, and everyone does a good job with the material provided overall. The music alternates between period pop tunes and orchestral scores inspired by the XCOM franchise as needed, and both fit the theme of the game well. The sound effects are about what you’d expect, as gunfire and explosions sound appropriate across the board, and the game does a fine job with the ambient effect palette overall as well.
While it’s easy to call The Bureau another Gears of War inspired game, it honestly feels like it has more in common with Mass Effect 3 in terms of how it functions than anything else. You primarily play as Carter, and the controls work exactly as you’d expect them to. The left and right stick control movement and aiming respectively, A allows you to run as well as take and vault over cover, the left trigger aims your weapon while the right trigger fires it, X reloads, Y swaps weapons, and so on. You can only carry two weapons into battle at any given time, though you’re also offered the option of tossing grenades as needed, as you’d expect. As this is a third person cover-based shooter, everything works about as you’d expect; enemies take cover on one side of a field, you take cover on the other side, and you and your allies attempt to kill the enemies and move on. You’ll generally have two allies you can take into battle with you at any given time, who will commonly just shoot at enemies and follow you around when left to their own devices (as well as complain a lot about needing orders), and as you’d expect, if you or they are shot to the point where the health bar is depleted, you or they can be revived by another ally. For the most part, The Bureau feels a lot like the majority of third person cover-based shooters on the market, so you’d be forgiven for dismissing it as exactly that thing at first glance.
Where the game gets interesting is in its squad management, which is where the Mass Effect 3 comparisons come in. By pressing the B button, you bring up your Battle Focus menu, which brings up a direction overlay for you and your two partners, allowing you to give them direct orders or to use powers yourself. Directing your allies allows you to instruct them to use any of the powers at their command or to move to a specific location, which either targets an enemy directly (for targeted attacks) or brings up a cursor that can be moved around on the battlefield as needed (for movement or area techniques). Your allies can also simply be directed with the D-Pad in a pinch, as pressing Up instantly tells them to attack or move to your target, while pressing Down brings them back to you. Your allies can fall into one of four basic skillsets: Commandos, who wield heavy weapons and can hit hard or protect allies, Supporters, who wield smaller machine guns and pistols and can throw down shields and buffs, Engineers, who wield shotguns and can use turrets and mines, and Recon troops, who use sniper rifles and can hit hard while hiding from or distracting enemies. As you use these agents in battle, they gain experience points, which allows you to level them up, earning them new skills or upgrades to existing skills to make them more viable in combat.
You also earn experience as you play, of course, which allows you to choose your own skills, though none of what you can earn is available to agents and vice-versa. You can basically carry any weapon into battle and swap weapons on the fly, as you’d expect, and your skills are a lot more involved, allowing you to heal injured troops, summon a friendly Silicoid (liquid alien thing) to harass enemies, summon a drone to heal or do damage, and even control the minds of enemies. You’re also the character who has to discover new weapons in order to make them available to the rest of the squad; guns must first be found out in the environment to be available, at which point they’re able to be attached to squad members as if you’d always had them and you can pick up dropped guns to replenish ammo at that point as normal. Normal ballistic weapons are available early on and aren’t inherently worse than the alien tech, interestingly enough, but as you play you’ll find a wide variety of guns to equip to you and yours, from laser pistols and shotguns to plasma chainguns, rocket launchers, and even a lightning cannon (if you search around well). The game tends to lean toward encouraging reliance on energy weapons, as you’re more likely to find ammunition for these late into the game, but you can make use of basically any gun you find and, for the most part, the guns are all reasonably balanced amongst one another. If you find a favorite, in other words, you’re not forced to swap it out based on the sliding scale of weapon power, and you’ll honestly only find yourself changing guns because of the availability of ammo over anything else, as the game allows you to work with whatever you want as needed.
You’ll welcome that variety, because the game has a few tricks of its own that show it’s clearly not messing around. The biggest thing to keep in mind is that, on any difficulty level, if an agent bleeds out, that’s it, they’re dead and gone, never coming back, the end. From an emotional investment level, if you liked that agent, that’s a sad loss (though not to the same extent as in XCOM: Enemy Unknown for various reasons), but from a tactical perspective, they’re also taking all their experience and skills with them, so keeping them alive is always a big deal. Depending on the difficulty level, this can also impact when you can bring in a new squad member; while Rookie lets you draft a new squad member instantly, other difficulty levels restrict when you can draft a new agent if one dies, and Commander, the worst, removes your current agent if they drop whether they die or not from battle. As such, you’ll want to keep a good supply of agents on file, and the game gives you opportunities to do just that. Aside from the main storyline missions, you can take on side missions that are often less involved (and usually less lethal) than the storyline missions to find new toys and backpacks (which improve your performance in various ways) while also earning experience points. There are also smaller missions that you can simply send your troops on alone (similar to the assassin missions in later Assassin’s Creed titles), which allow them to level up and earn new gear without your direct involvement. This can allow you to keep a stock of trained agents on file as needed, so long as you routinely talk to everyone at the XCOM base for intel on said missions and take on every mission available to you.
You can complete The Bureau in six to twelve hours, depending on how many side missions you undertake, though once you’re done you’ll still have some reasons to come back if you’re so inclined. The multiple difficulty levels change more than just the enemy health level and damage output, as noted above, so there can be some notable challenge to taking on the game in higher difficulties if you’re so inclined. There are also three different endings to see, and while they’re only mildly varied from one another, that’s an option for those who are so inclined. The game also has a fairly large compliment of Achievements to earn, of which only one is difficulty based, so if you put in some effort you can clear out the game if such a thing appeals to you. Finally, since there are different skill trees for your agents and different enhancements you can acquire, you can play through multiple times to see all the different options available to you if you’re interested in doing so.
That said, the three endings are literally almost identical to one another, and you can essentially see all three endings by loading up the auto-save the game will make that’s some point or another prior to the choice you make to decide the ending you get, so you can essentially see all three endings in one playthrough, and aside from the difficulty based Achievement, you can unlock every other Achievement in one playthrough (and maybe even THAT Achievement if you’re somewhat skilled as a player). The game isn’t especially good about motivating you to come back to it, as none of your choices save one matter in the grand scheme of things, so whether you’re a saint or a jerk it makes no difference. That’s the biggest issue here, really; the concept has so much promise, between the XCOM brand name, the setting, and the heavy borrowing from Mass Effect, but the end result is basically a third person squad-based shooter with some talking in-between missions. There’s no variety to the game, no research, no impact to your decisions, nothing but you leveling up (and instantly learning new skills which is kind of silly in practice), finding backpacks you’ll never use, and killing aliens forever.
It also doesn’t help that the game has issues outside of this lack of inspiration and variety. The difficulty ramps up a bit more than it should toward the end in comparison to how it progresses up to that point, and to be honest, the second to last mission is completely inane (why yes, I do keep my guns right by the prisoners who shouldn’t have access to them) and exists simply as a way of forcing the player to delay their mission at the moment. Further, pathfinding with the cursor when dictating actions is finicky at the best of times, as the cursor has to make a path to the objective more often than not, which often means moving around walls that mean nothing to your order itself. Also, your agents need to be babysat to accomplish anything beyond whining all day, as they’ll literally do nothing but take cover and shoot unless you tell them to, something Mass Effect 3 didn’t require; even being able to assign a basic behavioral template would have been better than nothing. Finally, the game has an issue with multi-mapping directions to inputs, so, for instance, pressing Up to direct your allies to shoot a target might make them run into their death or pressing X to reload might instead pick up a gun you don’t want, due to the multiple assignments of inputs to the same basic actions. Still, these are problems, to be sure, but if attached to a strong main game, even this silliness could be forgiven. The biggest problem is that the game doesn’t do something with all of its promise; it’s just a shooter, and even then, it’s only an adequate one at the best of times.
The Bureau had the potential to be the game that justified 2K’s interest in making a shooter in the XCOM universe, but instead it’s an adequate game plagued by unfulfilled potential, a lack of variety and a plot that actively offends in its last act, making it hard to recommend to anyone. The plot tries to be interesting through its callbacks to the time period but fails due to the last two chapters and all of the colossally bad ideas therein, the visuals combine an artistic effort to create varied enemies and thematically appropriate environments with technically mediocre backdrops, and the audio, at least, is generally strong throughout. Those who have played Mass Effect 3 or similar titles will be able to appreciate the standard third person cover-based shooting mechanics here, as the game combines normal combat elements from this sort of game with squad-based elements that ask you to dictate the actions of your crew to ensure survival and can cost you dearly if you fail. There’s some motivation to come back, between multiple difficulty levels, multiple character build options, multiple endings and a decent amount of Achievements, so if you’re looking for that replay value you might find it here. However, the game becomes unbalanced towards the end in its difficulty unless you’re very well prepared, the second to last mission feels poorly thought out and like a time waster, pathfinding when dictating actions can be wonky and your allies are completely lost without you. Worst of all, however, is that the game never does anything but ask you to shoot dudes forever; none of your choices matter, you’re never given any options to research or do anything beyond simple shooting and taking cover, and the game squanders a lot of its potential promise, boiling down the elements it borrows from better games into a mundane experience. The Bureau is a fine framework for a sequel that actually does all of the neat things one walks away wishing this game actually did, but as a first shot at bringing the XCOM franchise into a medium other than turn based strategy, it’s a mediocre one at best.
Short Attention Span Summary:
To make a tired joke, The Bureau: XCOM Declassified probably should have been redacted, as it’s the sort of game that fails to be even as good as the sum of its parts, let alone better. It takes a neat concept (aliens attacking in the sixties), combines it with the gameplay and behind the scenes elements of Mass Effect 3 and the universe of XCOM, and mashes that together into a game that had the potential to prove everyone wrong and be outright awesome. In fairness, the plot has potential throughout the majority of the game, the character models are interesting, the audio is basically top notch, and the gameplay is simple for third person cover-based shooter fans to get into while also offering strategy and depth for them to really get into. Further, there’s some minor depth to the experience, between the extra missions to take on and send agents on, the balanced weapons, and the replay value inspired options like multiple difficulties and character evolution trees, so it’s easy to see how the game could have been a winner given the right tools. However, the plot falls apart in the last two acts in spectacularly abysmal fashion, the environments are of lower quality than anything that populates them, you can basically see everything the game has to offer in one playthrough, the balance is spotty towards the end, the second to last mission feels poorly implemented, pathfinding when dictating orders is wonky at best, and your allies are basically useless on their own. Even beyond that, however, the game never does anything with the promise it shows, as it borrows the bare minimum from the games and concepts that inspired it but never does anything interesting with those concepts, leaving the game a limited, also-ran shooter that never bothers to try to do more than simply exist. The Bureau could be a solid framework for a sequel if more effort is put into expanding the framework into something more involved than a simple shooter, but as an actual game, it’s limited at best, infuriating at worst, and honestly hard to recommend to all but diehard genre or franchise fans.