The Bureau: XCOM Declassified Review (Xbox360)

I really, really feel sorry for 2K Marin (a load of ex-Irrational guys who made Bioshock 2 if you didn’t know). They had this bold new idea for a ‘50s-set alien invasion investigation FPS, which looked interesting and was full of intriguing ideas such as needing to retreat from missions if the odds were against you and truly alien extraterrestial designs. It would be intended to revive interest in the forgotten XCOM brand for the action crowd while Firaxis created the proper strategy game for fans. Then the game got delayed, XCOM: Enemy Unknown hoovered up the plaudits and the sales, and XCOM as a strategy series suddenly became popular again… so 2K Marin’s title suddenly looked far too different for all the new fans to cope with, supposedly. XCOM slowly morphed into action-strategy title The Bureau: XCOM Declassified, and it’s now here to face judgment from the alien overlords, i.e. us.

Agent William Carter tries to wake an oily Sleepwalker. I get sweaty when I sleep too.
Now set in the 1960s The Bureau follows Agent William Carter as he faces the initial assault by the Outsider forces on a US army base, his induction into XCOM and the slow fight back against the alien invaders. The story, Carter’s backstory and his chats with people around the XCOM base are some of the strongest moments in The Bureau, even if it goes kind of crazy later on. Or indeed, right at the very beginning with a sneaky careful alien infiltration followed by an entire alien assault force rendering the infiltrator’s wonderful spying skills slightly pointless.

The most important point to note is that although billed as a prequel to Enemy Unknown set during a covered-up alien invasion, The Bureau utterly fails to do a convincing job of this. Unless the US government is capable of hiding blue alien skyscrapers thrice the size of the Empire State Building, towns and army bases disappearing, and tens of thousands of people being infected by a conspicuous alien virus of course, plus XCOM just forgetting that they had alien spacecraft, files on several species like Sectoids and Mutons and stacks of plasma weapons in stock. Nevertheless if you’re prepared to throw continuity with Enemy Unknown out the window and suspend your disbelief as I did you’ll hopefully enjoy the story, like I did. It’s silly but very pulpy too, appropriately straight out of a 1960s science fiction story, so I’m prepared to accept the eccentricities.

2K were probably wise to not call the game something like “XCOM: The Bureau” since while certainly strategic gameplay is wildly different from Enemy Unknown (which is of course getting an expansion now so confusion was possible). Instead the action takes place on the ground with the player as Agent Carter, commanding two other agents to move, shoot, and use their abilities around the battlefield in a manner similar to the Mass Effect series. Carter himself is played as a typical third-person cover shooter character, but if you just ignore the ‘Battle Focus’ button (that allows you to slow time and issue orders, including for Carter’s abilities) you’ll find yourself struggling. The secret to getting anywhere is to know how and when to use your two partner agents, and to manage their movements and shots effectively. It’s not exactly Enemy Unknown levels of tactical management but it’s slightly more involved than Mass Effect 3’s at least.

The Bureau is an Action Strategy game then, and I’m fine with that. You’ll be pressing the Battle Focus button every few seconds, definitely once you’ve levelled Carter and several other agents up enough to gain access to decent abilities like Spawn Turret, Critical Shot and Bombard (basically an airstrike… that somehow gets inside a building). Apart from strategy building however the other reason to continually manage your agents is that they’re as thick as Muton s**t. They regularly leave cover, will follow you whether you want them to or not, and show no regard for their own safety while moving. Also while attempts are made to give your recruits some chatter and personality there just isn’t enough. The reason for this is that there’s proper XCOM-style permadeath for any agent other than Carter – if an agent bleeds out in the field they’re gone forever. The trouble if this happens it makes the level much, much harder and with 50% less ordering it’s not as fun too, so you’ll undoubtedly just reload the checkpoint. 2K Marin might as well have just given each agent a personality.
Amazingly, this is one of the early enemies you face in The Bureau...
The enemies you face could’ve probably done with the same, but at least there’s a decent amount of variety. The primary race of Outsiders come in a number of different forms and fight alongside cannon fodder like Sectoids and Silacoids, heavies like the Mutons and Sectopods, flying robot Drones, and the odd surprise here and there. The game could perhaps have done with a few more, but all are a challenge, use cover and grenades effectively, flank together, and cleverly rally around the heavy-hitters. Combat’s tough in the early stages of the game before you get access to decent abilities and weapons, but once you start unlocking the cool stuff it remains rather fun.

I was worried the fighting would get repetitive but with the range of locations, battlefield layouts, surprise heavy enemy appearances, and well-managed moments of down-time between battles I can’t say it ever did for me. Sadly levels are decidedly linear, complete with painted-on doors and small piles of rubble blocking your way, and while mostly checkpoints are fine sometimes they’re just pigheaded, like before a cutscene and a long walk. Fortunately I did notice reading my review notes as I went along my comments became obviously more positive, starting off by criticising the obvious detour from prequel common sense (entire army routed!) and ending with “this is actually fun!”.

Sadly there’s no base management but you can at least explore XCOM HQ and see just how much detail 2K Marin have put into it. Conversations happen all over the place and chatting to the right person can open up side-quests, both in the base and in the mission map. Missions are divided into three types: story, minor, and Agent Operations (where you can assign recruits to go on a mission for rewards and experience, like the Brotherhood in Assassin’s Creed). You can listen to audio logs, read notes, or play with new equipment in the Firing Range or Laboratory (testing a plasma weapon for the first time yields hilariously explosive results). It’s a chance to relax and explore between missions, and while in-mission exploration is a bit half-heartedly implemented doing so in the base is strongly encouraged – although admittedly could have gone even further, especially when it comes to character relationships.

I played The Bureau on both 360 and PC and have to say, I strongly recommend the PC version. I was pleased to discover that 2K haven’t just done a quick port, as graphics, controls, UI and Battle Focus have been fully optimised for PC users. Hooray. On starting you can choose between the DirectX9 and DirectX11 versions of the game, and the DX11 version allows options for Tessellation, PhysX, better particle effects etc. All of which make The Bureau look pretty darn lovely really, at least as much as a current-gen small-area third-person title can be. While I’m talking graphics I have to say that facial animation is pretty nice too, and I don’t believe it’s motion captured so well done to the animators. As for the Battle Focus, with a gamepad orders are made via a radial menu while with mouse and keyboard there’s a nice line of mouse-clickable options that are all additionally assigned to number keys. Both work well but I have to say I prefer the PC option.
"Honey, I have a perfectly normal job! I gotta go, I have to shoot some aliens with my psyshic-powered backpack gun."
In terms of length the campaign with all the side-missions done clocks in at around 12-14 hours, depending on how much you explore or how well you do. While not game of the year or anything and containing many features found in other games, along with a plot that utterly fails to sensibly connect to XCOM: Enemy Unknown despite 2K Marin’s best efforts, The Bureau: XCOM Declassified is nonetheless entertaining. If you ignore the massive series continuity faults and just take the story as a pulpy ‘60s sci-fi you’ll enjoy it, and the Action Strategy-style combat just about remains fun all the way through with just the right amount of challenge. More could’ve been done to flesh out your companions, or just give them more of a brain, but that’s the XCOM trappings at fault there really. All in all I believe if you pick up The Bureau I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. Unless you still think it’s an investigative ‘50s-set FPS. Or a proper strategy game. Then you might be.

Top Game Moment: After I started unlocking decent abilities and it finally started getting properly tactical.

Version Reviewed: PC