The Bureau: XCOM Declassified Preview (Xbox360)

In 2010 what should have been celebration for X-Com fans turned to bitterness as they saw their classic strategy series turned into “yet another” first-person shooter. I must’ve been one of the few who thought the new XCOM looked incredibly cool, with its ‘50s setting and weird X-Files vibe. 2012 however turned the tables - Civilization creators Firaxis faithfully rebooted the strategy series with XCOM: Enemy Unknown and the shooter disappeared. Six months later and it’s back with a new title, and we get a hands-on with the rechristened The Bureau: XCOM Declassified.

In the preview event we attended we watched a short playthrough as a general introduction to the game followed by a hands-on of the same demo. Now set in the 1960s, the story goes that The Bureau was set up in secret by John F Kennedy to detect and counter hostile UFO incursions into American soil. They expected the Russians to be behind it, but instead The Bureau quickly discovered that the threat was decidedly more extraterrestrial in nature. The Bureau was then rechristened “XCOM”, making the game’s new title slightly pointless but hey ho.

Welcome to XCOM, Agent Carter

We first got a look at the base. It’s gloriously officiously ‘60s in design, all washed-out colours, cheesy definitely-not-propaganda posters, and has all the agents wearing fedoras. The main player character is Agent William Carter, and you can wander around the XCOM base at will. We got shown his office, the lab, and Operations, all while tannoy announcements played to inform us of the situation. As the opening pointed out that we were +47 days into the invasion clearly things are not good right now (2K wanted to show us a mid-point mission in the game). Weapons can be researched and upgraded in the laboratory through the regular XCOM progression (bullets, lasers, plasma) along with armour and things.

Heading over to the big map of the US in the NASA Mission Control-style Operations we got a look at the various missions to choose from. I don’t know if like Enemy Unknown we’ll have to choose one mission at the expense of another, but it seems more a case of optional side-missions of different varieties (to get XP, intel, weapons etc) and main missions to choose from. You can also order Agents under your command to take on certain missions without you, much like how the Brotherhood work in the Assassin’s Creed games. The downside then is that those Agents will be unavailable to you during your own mission, and if they fail they’re dead forever.

Yep, permadeath for your soldiers has always been a major part of the tension in XCOM games and it’s here too, not just from these optional missions but during missions under your command as well. Much like in Enemy Unknown team members won’t have much of a voice but by leading them through battles and spending so much time customizing and upgrading them you find yourself getting attached to your expendable soldiers. There are several different types of Agents as well, including Engineer (can make turrets), Commando (offensively powerful), Recon (sniper) and Support (healer/buffer). We took along an Engineer and Commando for this mission, Agents Boswell and Elegin. Yep, I remembered their names.

The demo mission took place in Pima, New Mexico. XCOM had reports of the town being taken over by the aliens and the people being infected by an extraterrestrial virus. They’d already sent in a team lead by Agent DaSilva, a friend of Carter’s, but had lost contact with them. Carter and his team are being sent in to take over the mission and find the others. After a CGI cutscene explaining this situation as the team touch down in the ’60s equivalent of a dropship two things are obvious – firstly the civilians are definitely infected, with some sort of oily substance pouring from their eyes, secondly there’s a huge blue alien tower that looks like the Citadel from Half-Life 2 sticking out of Pima and which rather makes a mockery of the idea that the government could cover this up (you’d be able to see the damn thing from Russia).

On the ground the town seems deserted at first. After checking in with the base via a gigantic phone Carter and co press forward through the empty streets of Pima. Unreal Engine 3 may be getting retired soon but the ‘60s setting allows for a nice unique style that compensates for the engine’s age. The towering alien structure in the background may be the only really impressive bit of graphics on display but it all generally looks good. Then we meet the first few aliens and it starts to look like XCOM.

The Battle Focus mode offers a range of tactical options, making the game feel like proper XCOM

Previously the aliens in the shooter were very different from anything in other games, from creepy floating abstract shapes to sentient possessing oil. Those things are still in The Bureau but the main threat is from the Outsiders, a decidedly more humanoid threat that have enslaved members of other races (and seemingly very different from the energy-based variety in Enemy Unknown, presumably they were in charge until the Ethereals turned up). Alongside various varieties of Outsiders we also saw the reappearance of XCOM’s classic Sectoids and Mutons. No word yet if other familiar races will appear, and I didn’t get to see any use of psychic powers in the demo from the Sectoids, but I wouldn’t be surprised. There were also occasional attacks from carnivorous oily blobs called Silacoids who were hard to spot during combat.

While generally speaking you play The Bureau just like any other cover-based shooter (there are even glowing weapons scattered about), which is fun enough as a starting point, the big XCOM-shaped hook here is the simple but deep squad control system. Press ‘B’ on the Xbox pad (I was playing on a PC with one) and a three-coloured radial menu called ‘Battle Focus’ appears while the action slows down. The bottom third (in orange) is where you can activate Carter’s special abilities, and the other two thirds are used to order his two teammates to move to a certain location, attack a certain enemy, or use one of their abilities. Orders can be stacked, and each order is followed by a marker that can be placed freely around the battlefield to simply make the Agents move or attack there. It’s very simple to get to grips with and definitely an elegant way of sprucing up the normally quite dry squad commands in shooters into something more XCOM-y.

Special abilities can be learned through the game as Carter and his Agents level up, although the different classes of Agent are only allowed to learn skills in certain areas. Carter has more of a range though. In the demo his main powers were Heal and Lift, a telekinesis skill that can either pick up an enemy or, in one cool moment, a friendly turret – which allowed it to have a higher vantage point and shoot enemies over their cover. Commandoes have Mines (which can be thrown), Scatter (which disorientates and scatters a group of aliens), and Taunt (makes an enemy focus on him) abilities. Engineers can make the aforementioned turrets or fire a cool Pulse Wave that sends enemies flying. All of which have to be researched and unlocked over the course of the game.

After fighting through several groups of aliens we discovered DaSilva under assault. Fortunately he’d set explosive traps all around the area that we could blow up via the Battle Focus menu, which became very necessary once reinforcements turned up. First a powerful Outsider Engineer arrived along with his ability to create and repair turrets, then once we’d despatched him a goddamned powerful Muton jumped in. The 2K player handled it a lot more efficiently than I did, sending his Commando to taunt the Muton through the minefield, past a friendly turret, and then slowly fell back and around while Carter and the Engineer blasted him in the back. I on the other hand lifted the Muton in the air, ran around like a headless Chryssalid, and got promptly downed by a gooey Silacoid I hadn’t noticed. I ordered my Commando to keep the Muton’s attention while my Engineer snuck around to heal me. If someone doesn’t get healed in time they’re dead, and if it’s Carter then it’s game over. On Hard you can only stabilise your Agents, making an extra tough challenge.

After defeating the Muton and discovering that DaSilva was infected that was the end of the 2K showing, but I was relieved to see not the end of the hands-on demo. After a quick chat with the infected and deteriorating DaSilva (highlighting The Bureau’s Mass Effect-style dialogue system, as the narrative will be more important here than in Enemy Unknown) I wandered to the edge of town, where huge glowing floating vertical Toblerones hung above the area in exactly the same way that bricks don’t. Then further horrifying mini-towers jutted out of the town below me to the absolute indifference of the zombified townspeople, the one moment where I uttered a ‘wow’ purely at graphical spectacle. It ain’t the engine, it’s how you use it.

Another couple of fights in some poor bugger’s barbeque-strewn back garden and the demo was all over. I did however sneakily take a look through the game’s various options before I finished. On PC I was relieved to see an FOV slider as well as a few other general video settings, like Texture Quality, Effects Quality etc, so The Bureau at least has the basics intact. There doesn’t seem to be multiplayer, but there was a DLC menu. I was more impressed though with the in-game customization options. While most special abilities seem to be activated through Carter’s Ghostbusters-style backpack (I found blueprints for backpack upgrades at one point in the demo) there definitely seemed to be psychic powers involved, including the dreaded Mind Control. Most exciting for me though is the ability to completely change the colour of the clothes of all of your Agents including Carter. I of course put them all in bright pink, just because.

Agent DaSilva. He's a weepy fellow.

While at first glance The Bureau: XCOM Declassified seems to be a regular ol’ linear cover-based shooter with a neat ‘60s setting, the narrative and Battle Focus squad command system make it so much more. The story already has me intrigued, with the government cover-up, aliens tearing up suburbia, and rather disturbing scenes of people with black oil pouring from their eyes endlessly repeating the same few seconds over and over again. If told well (and this is Bioshock 2 developer 2K Marin so I hope so) this’ll be hook one, but the Battle Focus is already powerful and easy to use, giving the player full access to a range of strategic options and making The Bureau feel like a proper XCOM game from a ground level.

The Bureau: XCOM Declassified will be available August 20th for PC, 360, and PS3. It will be Steam powered on PC. We are already quite excited by it, but we’ll find out in August whether it’s truly worthy of the name XCOM. I’m sure it’ll be better than Enforcer at least.

Most Anticipated Feature/Element: Seeing where the story goes, but also how complex the Battle Focus menu can allow my strategies to be.

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