Set in 1962, the main thrust of The Bureau: XCOM Declassified follows Agent William Carter, a new recruit to the shadowy organisation created in the wake of the botched Bay of Pigs incident. It’s the height of the Cold War, and The Bureau is set up to keep a watchful eye on Communist activity within the US. However, it’s not long before alien contact occurs and they’re hurriedly reassigned to combat this new threat and embark on one of the largest cover-ups in history.
It’s an excellent choice of setting, I must say. The 50s and 60s saw a massive increase in claims of UFO sightings and alien abductions in the real world. The CIA hid secret projects, such as the Lockheed A-12, behind the veil of UFOs to obscure them from the Russians. Set against this backdrop, The Bureau drops you in to have a crack at the actual aliens, as you see the beginnings of the organisation that would become XCOM.
After the announcement of the game a few years back, there were fears that this would sully the XCOM brand once more. A straight up action shooter which misses a lot of the soul of the turn based games was not what people wanted. It’s not the first time a third person XCOM game has been attempted either, although the less said about X-COM: Enforcer, the better.
Granted, it is a third person cover-based shooter, but 2K Marin have combined it with another experiment from XCOM’s past, that of real time tactical play which was first seen in Apocalypse, to create something which will use your brain too.
In mission you will primarily be in control of Agent Carter, but you will also have two team mates along for the ride who you can order around. While this can be done on the fly by, for example, looking at a car or a wall and ordering your troops to quickly take cover, I much preferred to open up the Battle Focus command wheel.
Doing so doesn’t quite pause the gameplay, but rather slows it down to a crawl, giving you the time to better assess the battlefield. You can switch to the third person view of your team mates during this, allowing you to really see their situation, but you shouldn’t dawdle because the game is still in motion. If Carter isn’t ducked into cover, for example, he’ll be taking bullets.
Pino, New Mexico
The level I played was set in Pino, New Mexico and saw Carter and his team heading into a town which had been infected with an alien virus, causing all those who didn’t escape to endlessly loop the final few seconds of their life. The real goal here is to find the team that went before, and then to infiltrate and destroy a huge tower which has sprung up nearby.
Did I mention how big of a cover-up job this was?
The level occasionally mixed things up with more defensive points, but most of it was about more attacking play. You want to use the plentiful cover and have your soldiers pushing up the field to really dominate your opposition, taking use of any high ground available, so that Carter can take the opportunity to flank the aliens and quickly end an engagement.
It’s a particularly simplistic tactic, and one I think might get a bit old eventually, but it’s helped by several things. Firstly you and your troops all have extra abilities beyond just shooting guns, thanks to somewhat Ghostbusters-esque backpacks. These abilities come down to a combination of their class (Engineer, Commando, Recon or Support) and how experienced they are, with more experienced team members unlocking new abilities.
Just as in last year’s XCOM: Enemy Unknown, you will want to keep your guys alive, level them up further, give them newer weaponry, armour and so on. Of course, they’ll die you take the wrong class into the wrong situation, or just get your tactics wrong, and, as in Enemy Unknown, there will be permadeath.
If you feel that one soldier isn’t enough to get the job done, you can combine powers from different classes. For example, you could throw a mine with the engineer, and then have the commando taunt a particularly tough enemy into coming at him, which triggers the mine. If the recon class gets stranded in a sea of enemies, have him call an artillery barrage right on himself, and get the support class to pop a shield over his head.
It’s important to get comfortable with these abilities, as bigger aliens quickly show up. It might all start out as the franchise’s traditional Sectoids, but before long you’ll be battling other returning enemies like the Muton, or new creations that might have their own battlefield abilities.
Brothers in Arms x Mass Effect
The core gameplay will probably remind a few people of games like Brothers in Arms, or, since there are RPG-like abilities, the Mass Effect series. In fact, even the in-game dialogue system feels like Mass Effect, letting you pick from a few topics to follow up on. I did find that a little at odds with my expectations, having assumed there would just be a straight up cutscene when I found the survivors of the previous team, but it does make sense in the context of the wider game.
There are also some of the traditional trappings of the XCOM series. Your home base has several areas like the research lab, somewhere to recruit and customise your team, and even the big map of the USA (not a globe just yet) where you can choose your missions.
You have little side missions, where you’ll take your team into a town and clear out an alien threat, akin to the randomised instances from XCOM: Enemy Unknown. However, with only two slots on your team, and your natural preferences with classes, you’ll also want to take advantage of the AI-only missions, where you can send out a team to take on a threat without you, gaining them more experience, and bolstering up the B-team for the times when it all goes belly up and you lose a soldier.
Everything adds up to a game that feels like it knows what it wants to be. The title says it all, with “The Bureau” at the forefront with “XCOM” relegated to the subtitle. It still takes all the main hallmarks and trappings of a traditional XCOM game, but wraps it up into a fresh experience for the series, one which will hopefully broaden the reach of the franchise in the years to come.
The Bureau: XCOM Declassified is set for launch on PS3, Xbox 360 and PC on 20th August 2013.