New Release Review: The Bureau: XCOM Declassified

Alright, there’s no other way to start this other than with a flashback to 2010, when videogame magazines were dying, not completely dead. I remember flipping through a magazine (who knows which one) and seeing a preview for “XCOM” while thinking, “Holy ****, no way!” It was about time a sequel, or a re-imagining of one of the greatest games of all time, emerged from wherever X-COM had been lurking like a terror from the deep. Then, I quickly scanned the article, and was met with massive disappointment. My beloved X-COM was getting turned into what looked like an action game. A first person shooter/detective game. What? Why couldn’t they just remake the original? There are so many first person action games out, and no friggin’ strategy titles on consoles. Why is this happening? Three years later and that’s still true, but I have the distinct feeling that 2K heard that question enough times to throw together X-COM: Enemy Unknown for a much-celebrated 2012 release. Enemy Unknown was a game worthy of the X-COM name, and frankly it was what the fans had been wanting for years. It had just about everything but the hyphen.

A little less than a year after EU’s release, the highly questioned 2010 “XCOM” is finally being released as The Bureau: XCOM Declassified. Now it’s a 3rd person tactical shooter, and I’m here to tell you that it’s a hell of a fun ride for fans of the series and newcomers alike. But, the reason why The Bureau works as a whole is because it’s prequel to Enemy Unknown, and was released after EU. I’ll explain further after I get all of the game review formalities out of the way.

The Bureau: XCOM Declassified takes place in the year 1962 with the Cold War looming heavily over the United States military brass. You’re William Carter, a Special Agent tormented by his past, but he rocks a mean suit Mad Men style and damn it, he gets the job done — that’s why he’s been recruited to XCOM. The aliens are invading, you see, and only the best are being called to fight this alien menace and keep earth out of the clutches of these otherworldly beings. As commander of your own squad of XCOM agents, you, as William Carter, will outfit your team with weapons, gear and perhaps even give them a nice lime green dress shirt with a brown vest, because you’re deadly and stylish. 

So fear not – The Bureau is an XCOM game through and through, it’s just at the squad level instead of the omniscient God/General level. You’ll walk around the 1962 version of the XCOM base conversing with your buddy agents, scientists, superiors and other special guests of the facility gathering intel, missions and going through dialogue trees as if XCOM, Mad Men and Mass Effect had a really beautiful love child. Yes, the Bureau looks absolutely stunning, even on this ridiculously old 360 hardware, and aside from a few framerate gripes when the action gets really hot and heavy, it runs shockingly well. Thumbs up for the optimization, 2K Marin. The game has great lighting, depth of field and a solid framerate out of the action, but one thing that stuck with me throughout my playthrough was how decidedly static the levels were. 

Don’t get me wrong, the few missions in this game are gorgeous and full of immersive set design and great attention to detail, I felt like I was in 1962, man. But there is a huge omission from The Bureau that makes every other XCOM/X-COM game an XCOM game – environmental damage – The Bureau has none. This is a huge bummer. The most interesting turn in a battle was knocking out a wall with your grenades to open up a field of view, or god forbid you take cover behind a car to have the enemy blow it up. These situations can’t and won’t happen in The Bureau. Damn it, all I want to do is blow up what looks like the set of Happy Days if the Fonz was dripping black goo out of his eyes, is that so wrong?

Secondly, you know you’ll be getting into a fight when the level design shifts from organic to a well-designed area with plenty of cover options, and this kills the immersion for me, just like it did in Mass Effect. So yes, if you liked the combat in Mass Effect, you’ll love this. It’s a lot like Mass Effect’s duck and cover scheme but with some major AI and other, small improvements. In fact, it plays almost identically like the Mass Effect series outside of a few button changes. That isn’t a bad thing either, I want you to know this, and you can tell 2K had a bit of inspiration from Bioware’s opus as well as their own previous game, Bioshock 2 in the interface department which is beautiful and clean.

Handling your squad in Battle Focus works well on the gamepad, and I’m sure it would work even better on the PC (I will be adding PC thoughts by tomorrow). The controls made me feel like an expert a few hours in, and was flanking my enemies and using every tactic in the book in order to get leg and wingtip up on these grey invaders right away. Very, very rarely would I ever assign a wayward command or god forbid glitch into anything. Everything as far as the action was extremely polished. Like Enemy Unknown, however, I feel the pacing of the weapon progression moved on to the alien technology far too quickly.

The enemy AI is serviceable on higher difficulties, and your AI teammates work great together. Commanding your squaddies to do your bidding in real-time using Battle Focus is a blast, and I had no problems leaving them alone for a beat while I tactically changed positions in the fray. It’s refreshing to see AI teammates that actually help you and kill enemies, that’s why I just wish the game was a little more open for some breathing room. Within an hour, I was a stylish command-giving badass, and 9 hours after that, I had finished the game, and was wishing for more. Yes, like Mass Effect, you can replay the game with different squad members, thus giving you different combat abilities to play with, and there are branching paths, different conversation trees to go down and secrets to find, but I unlocked most of this just over ten hours of play. It’s a ballsy move for anyone to release a fairly short, single player only experience in 2013 for $60 bucks, but 2K did it, and while I’m happy that they did, my want of ‘more’ is hovering over this whole experience. Simply put: the game is linear as all hell up until a few key moments in the third act, and that’s not to take away from its fun gameplay, but it only will entice the biggest fans for repeat playthroughs.

The sound design is solid, with good voice actors doing their best to put life behind the rigid dialogue. The immersion you feel in battle as lasers zip past your head are top notch, and going into Battle Focus is always cool with its slowed time mechanism effecting the sounds of the battlefield. The voice audio seemed a little low for me, so I just went for it and turned on the subtitles.

I’m almost a thousand words in on this review, so I’m just going to lay it out on the line here: The Bureau is a gorgeous, well-made game that plays really well, but somehow it’s still underwhelming. As I said above, the release of Enemy Unknown lets me accept this release as part of the canon, and as a fun spin off, but if this were any other IP I fear it would get lost in the holiday shuffle. Is that unfair to 2K Marin, and the clearly talented team behind this game? Maybe, but the only real reason I would have ever played this game is because of my love for XCOM. Now, that doesn’t detract from the score, I’m not going to hold whether or not this game even needs to exist against it, because I really liked it at its core. What The Bureau does well it, does damn well, and if we can get a strategy XCOM followed by one of these more story-based XCOMS and on and on until the end of time, I’ll be thrilled. After a decade of no XCOM, I’m not going to look a XCOM gift horse in the mouth after enjoying two XCOM releases in two years, even if 50% of them is only XCOM on the surface aesthetically and in a few gameplay systems.

Regarding the story – it’s pretty hammy at points, but I’m willing to forego any silly exposition or poor character development because the game is fun, and ultimately, it all works as a whole. This is the best 60’s knockoff sci-fi alien invasion movie we’ve had since Mars Attacks. Trust me, that’s a good thing, even if I get the feeling they didn’t intend it. However, at coming in at just over a dozen hours for the average player, this game has some competition with the holidays looming.

The bottom line? If you are an XCOM fan buy this game. If you are a fan of 1960’s era UFOs and the X-Files, buy this game. If you’re a fan of third person shooters and have nothing to play until GTA V in three weeks, buy this game. But if you’re looking for a deep experience that will give you 30-40 hours of tactical goodness, this isn’t for you. Most will enjoy a playthrough, and then move on to the next holiday release.

The Bureau: XCOM Declassified is a drive-in movie of a game, a fun romp while it lasts, and that’s not for very long. It’s more style than substance, but what it sets out to do, it does damn well — especially the brilliant gameplay. This is one of those games that probably will be a cult hit and live on through Steam sales or the used rack, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

The PC difference:

The Bureau is an 11.5 GB download on PC, compared to the DVD, and it shows with the absolutely stunning textures and lighting effects. Tessellation, DX 11 support, PhysX support and an obviously higher framerate really add to the game, but that’s just the surface. There is somewhat destructible stuff, satisfying me slightly, and in general it’s crazy how much some bouncing sparks can add to a game. As far as controls, I think the game was developed to work perfectly with a gamepad, and after playing with the keyboard and mouse it reinforces my feelings. The keyboard and mouse works fine, but the gamepad is where it’s at. Damn this game runs well on PC.

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