Selling XCOM fans on the idea of a third person, cover based shooter hasn’t been an easy task for 2K. It has been apparent since the very first rumours of its existence that there would be some resistance to the idea. The occasional change to nomenclature or confused explanation (or understanding, at least) of the game’s purpose and aim haven’t helped matters at all.
The huge and, it appeared, somewhat surprising success of last year’s XCOM: Enemy Unknown (just Enemy Unknown from here on) might have unwittingly added to the struggles that 2K Marin faced in getting people to understand quite why they were sticking their development wands into this particular bubbling cauldron, just as that modernised branding became popular again.
So what’s the end result, a confused shooter that wears a strategy game’s name badge and pretends to know more than it does or a sublime step across genres which confounds the doubters and provides even more depth to the modern XCOM universe? You might be surprised.
The Bureau: XCOM Declassified (henceforth simply: The Bureau) owes its fiction and setting to its turn-based older brother, although this is something of a prequel – looking at how the fully fledged XCOM was born. In terms of gameplay inspiration, 2K Marin have obviously had to look elsewhere. The easy choice for developers in this genre is to mimic Gears of War fairly closely, tweaking what might better suit your fiction and retaining what has made Epic’s series so immensely playable.
But The Bureau isn’t a good fit for that kind of sweat-smeared, Bay-esque visual grandiloquence. A more subtle approach was needed and the result is a game that plays in quite a similar fashion to Mass Effect 3 (the numbering of that series is important for this kind of comparison).
That similarity persists in the way special abilities are used and selected in combat. The action is slowed to a crawl with a face button while you left-stick around a wheel that shows all available actions for you and your two team members. This ranges from movement between cover and instructions for the revival of fallen comrades to the full range of special abilities that can be used in conjunction with each other to make combat go more favourably. You might drop a laser turret with an engineer and then raise it up with your special alien tech vambrace so that it can see over the enemy’s cover. You might taunt an opponent to run from cover and use your recon squad mate’s critical hit ability to headshot him out of your immediate concern.
During combat, the movement as agile and light with a healthy sprint and snap-to-cover mechanic that never gets in the way. You’ll pop out of cover to aim and shoot, vault the multitudinous waist-height obstructions and navigate the combat arenas that make up the bulk of the entertainment to be had in the campaign. Enemy AI is reasonably smart too, flanking when it can, making use of its healers and rushing you when you’re starting to feel comfortable. Those combat arenas are linked by quite narrow corridors of terrain to navigate so it’s an entirely linear experience until you’re in the cover-strewn regions that obviously take their inspiration from Enemy Unknown’s maps.
Once you’re in those areas, though, the method of assault and defence is entirely up to you. You’ll have another two squad mates alongside you, each with their own abilities, equipment and experience levels. That’s the other aspect of The Bureau that takes its queues from Enemy Unknown: meaningful loss or, as the game itself puts it, combat with consequences. If one of your accompanying squad mates is gunned down in battle, you’ll have a brief window of opportunity to revive them (the higher the difficulty setting, the more brief the window). If you miss that opportunity, they bleed out, die and are lost forever. So you could have an engineer levelled up to a respectable state, encounter stiff opposition and lose him – and all of his talents – forever. If you lose all of your agents, you lose the game.
You’re encouraged to keep a fully stocked roster of agents with which to populate your in-mission team and it makes sense to try to keep them all levelled up as much as possible. On easier difficulty settings, you can switch them out at certain resupply points along the mission path so one mission could gently level several of your compatriots. On tougher settings, that luxury is removed and you’ll, sensibly, only be able to change your team from the XCOM home base.
Keeping well levelled agents is not just beneficial in you own team selection for playable missions, you can also send them out on their own. These Dispatch Missions require a certain collective ability so they might need a level of 10 but you could send two level 5 agents to complete the mission. They come with the potential risk of losing an agent but they also yield new technology and assistance in the form of personnel to work on the home base.
Base building was another key strategic element in Enemy Unknown that has bled slightly into The Bureau. It’s certainly not as deep or as integral to the success of a mission – more a tool of the narrative – but between missions you’ll wander around the clandestine complex, picking up hints and gathering new direction from various personnel you encounter.
The conversations you have can offer pertinent information for later missions or simply offer cute little diversions as you come to know the people around you. Again, the conversation selection tool is reminiscent of Mass Effect, with a wheel to select your responses as you interact with others and probe for information down branching conversation paths. It’s not exactly deep but it does offer a more thoughtful aspect to the action – tying up back stories and motivations – than most other third person shooters can be bothered to muster.
The atmosphere makes The Bureau truly unique. While most sci-fi shooters stretch for futuristic industrialism or fantastical alien settings, The Bureau is set very much in a horn-rimmed, nicotine-stained 1962 that feels oddly familiar while allowing enough alien technology and presence that the rigidity and starched shirts of the burgeoning anti-Soviet military-industrial complex has a colourful foil against which to juxtapose.
The music plays a big part in this, its sinister tones and light-hearted pizzicato melodies recalling similar pieces from other media in this genre and time setting. It’s beautifully mixed with some nice period references to really create an evocative, believable world in spite of the extraterrestrial influences. Even when the setting for the action does become a little more other-worldly at times, there’s a resilient strand of 1960s American DNA mutating to the fore.
The Bureau comes as a very pleasant surprise. It’s not a cynical cash-in on Enemy Unknown’s success, it’s not a forgettable me-too third person cover-based shooter and it’s not a clunky shoe-horning of familiar ideas into a new set of mechanics. The Bureau has occasional problems with pacing, it could do with a little more polish and it doesn’t revolutionise shooters but it does adroitly step sideways into a totally unfamiliar genre and it expands the greater fiction while doing so. Another successful XCOM mission.