The Bureau: XCOM Declassified has suffered from a development hell of sorts and the fact it made it to release is a test of perseverance. Originally announced back in 2006 as a spiritual sequel to the original XCOM of the late 90s, the working title was apparently in the capable hands of BioShock developer Irrational Games. Years later at the 2010 E3 Expo, the title was revealed to be a first-person shooter and now under development by 2K Marin. Given XCOM‘s strategic heritage, the change in genre didn’t go down well with fans and as a result was again overhauled in 2011 to feature more strategic elements but at its core remained a first-person shooter.
Developer: 2K Marin
Publisher: 2K Games
Platform: Xbox 360 (Reviewed), PlayStation 3, Windows PC
Genre: Tactical Shooter
Release: (NA) August 20, 2013, (PAL) August 23, 2013
Reportedly coming close to cancellation, the project may have been given a life-line when Firaxis’ XCOM: Enemy Unknown achieved critical success upon launch in 2012. The title began taking shape in April 2013 as The Bureau, a tactical squad-based third-person shooter which retained strategy elements. Given how close The Bureau came to becoming non-existent, it’s quite a surprise it turned out to be a competent little shooter at the end of the day.
Unlike Enemy Unknown, The Bureau is set in 1962, during a time where G-men wore suits, hats, vests and suspenders. These disenchanted middle-aged, average fellas are stereotypical as they come, right down to their gruff exterior and permanent scowls. It’s here where we take on the role of William Carter, a CIA agent who’s been with the organisation far too long. Once the CIA’s brightest talent, the death of his family has left him a shadow of his former self, drinking away his blues while running mind-numbing courier missions. On another routine job, William is confronted by a mysterious woman who shoots him while attempting to steal a briefcase he was tasked with safeguarding. William wakes up in a military base under attack by an alien force known as the “Outsiders” where he must fight his way out. Upon his escape, William is recruited by “The Bureau”, a mysterious government organisation created to tackle such hostile situations. As the last hope for humanity, William and The Bureau need to eliminate the alien threat and possibly find some answers along the way.
Shooters aren’t usually renowned for being story-driven, with some exceptions such as the Mass Effect series which The Bureau appears to use as a source of inspiration. The plot is a deep, perplexing blend of mystery and intrigue that fans of the XCOM series will surely appreciate as details on the organisation and where the Outsiders came from are all questioned and answered throughout the game. By utilising a selector wheel with branching conversations, players can opt to learn more about characters and the situation at hand; if they choose so, or simply drive the story forward. Given The Bureau‘s chequered history, it’s refreshing to see the story and conversational dialogue didn’t succumb to mediocrity. Certain in-game characters are interactive and provide plenty of information, as are the audio recordings and notes littered throughout the game for those wanting to dig a little deeper. Much like the BioShock series, the story pieces offer plenty of insight into the back-story without infringing on pacing.
The Bureau‘s game play is less than orthodox. It’s a strange mix of third-person shooter mechanics with strategic elements that may not please everyone. If you take away all the layered features, The Bureau is a fairly typical third-person shooter at best. Environments are plentiful, ranging from sparse outdoor locations, to in-door locales which have plenty of objects to cover and shoot from. Add a strategy layer on top and William can now co-ordinate and direct his subordinates out on the field as a true leader should.
Orders are issued via Battle Focus mode, where time is slowed to a crawl allowing William to bark out instructions. Your team can be ordered to move into position, make use of special strike attacks, and even deploy turrets and perform mind control on enemies; among many other things. Once Battle Focus is disengaged, time returns to normal and all issued orders are carried out. Battle Focus isn’t so important early on as you grasp with the controls but later in the game become essential for tackling flanking enemies and more brutal encounters. Don’t worry too much if you lose a few squad mates here and there as more field agents can be recruited later on via character creation where you can name, alter and cloth each of team according to your own personal taste.
Each agent can be assigned one of four classes to add extra expertise to their arsenal. “Support” classes can tend to wounded squad members, “Recon” provides ranged support with sniping abilities, “Engineer” is able to deploy devices on the field such as drones and turrets, and “Commando” class agents are better suited for close-up attacks. Backgrounds can also be given to each character for further customisation. Select between “Gunsmith”, “Grease Monkey”, “Technical Training”, “Combat Training”, “Endurance Training” and “Adrenal Training”. Gunsmiths are adept at weapons, Grease Monkeys have longer-lasting weapons, Technical Training gives agents access to abilities more frequently, Combat Training confers more damage with weapons, Endurance Training helps agents to survive longer in combat and Adrenal Conditioning helps with recovery from injury.
As deeply complex as this may seem, things can get a spot hazy at times. Despite the strategy adding uniqueness to distinguish The Bureau as an individual among the sea of many shooters already out there, it in turn affects the pace of what should be a dynamic third-person shooting experience. Whereas conventional shooters only require the player to line-up their reticule and fire, having to intermittently pause to assign targets for the AI, and co-ordinate their movements can wear thin later in the game. The stagger as orders are being carried out also adversely affects the momentum during tense encounters. I can see where developers 2K Marin were going with the mash-up idea however the synergy between the two doesn’t always work. There are moments when your team work together like a well-oiled machine and that satisfaction could almost make all the foibles acceptable… almost.
The Bureau makes use of washed out colours and grainy textures to perfectly capture the 1960s feel which is an endearing quality. It’s a shame assets are reused so heavily that it feels generic and underdone. The odd technical issues with dialogue being off-sync with what’s happening on screen, rendering problems, occasional freezing and the odd slow down during cut scenes sadly compounds, leaving an unrefined aftertaste in your mouth. Better time spent ironing out these underlining issues would have helped but as it stands, The Bureau can feel rushed and under polished as a result.
There are moments in The Bureau: XCOM Declassified which are pure brilliance, but frustration is just as plentiful. The storyline is rich, deeply engaging and fleshed-out well enough that it provides plenty of motivation to press on through some of the less inspiring aspects. Control freaks and those who enjoy multi-tasking will find plenty to do as The Bureau is far from a simple man’s third-person shooter. Despite the technical flaws and mismatch between a strategy genre with a third-person shooter, The Bureau: XCOM Declassified is an immersive XCOM gaming experience, if a little different than what we’re use to.
7.0 – Good. Entertaining but is held back by a couple of flaws. It will certainly capture its intended audience but it won’t appeal to everyone.