Platforms: PC, Playstation 3, and Xbox 360 (reviewed)
You really do have to feel for The Bureau: XCOM Declassified. It suffered through such a tumultuous development, that it’s almost amazing it made it into the wild at all. Chris Plante over at Polygon wrote a really interesting piece about how it came to be in the shape it is today. Seeing the initial idea change to what is today was affected by changing of hands and the surprising success of last year’s XCOM: Enemy Unknown. If you’re interested in that, please give it a read. Alas, I’m not here to talk about the game this started out being or even what the game might have been. I’m here to talk about what The Bureau actually is.
The Bureau is set in the United States in the 1960’s and puts you in the scenario of knocking back the spearhead of an alien invasion. Humanity is woefully unprepared to repel this sort of the attack, as the opening sequence of events will make very clear. Vastly outmatched in terms of technology and sheer numbers, you take control of the Bureau agent William Carter. Carter’s obviously not on the top of his game psychologically, so of course he’s selected as to handle some of the most difficult missions that could decide the fate of humanity. If you think it sounds like the typical “rogue agent who gets results” setup, you’d be spot on.
Borrowing from XCOM: Enemy Unknown, The Bureau allows you to pick the team you go out with. The biggest difference is the size of your squad is three members, instead of five. The three is including Carter, which effectively limits you to actually only choosing two. These agents you select are upgradeable and expendable, able to die in a mission and then be memorialized on a wall at your base (like your soldiers in Enemy Unknown), never to be usable again. They’re also categorized into classes that affect what weapon they’re able to go out with. As they level up, you’ll be able to pick from one or two skills per level to assign the character, giving a bit of variety of use among characters that are the same class (…Enemy Unknown…).
If you’re starting to think there are some similarities between the two, you’d be spot on. After the success of Enemy Unknown, it’s hard to imagine that a lot of ideas weren’t adapted for use in The Bureau, trying to lure players into some sense of familiarity and connectivity between the two.
Between missions, there’s some exploring of your base to be done that tries, and largely doesn’t succeed, to make the world a bit more interesting and fleshed out. By going through it, you pick up some side missions to undertake. These will take place both in the base itself and outside of the base. Any of the side missions occurring outside of the base are called minor operations, and they live up to that name fairly well. Most won’t take more than 20 minutes of your time and you’ll get access to some equipment slightly earlier than you would by not undertaking them. It’s not much of a reward, but they’ll also help level up Carter and whatever team you’ve selected for that mission.
You can also build up a large stock of back up agents to use, but leveling them up properly would prove difficult as there’s a limited number of missions, both critical and minor, to go around. Thankfully, you can send agents currently not on your team out on their missions, not only netting them experience, but also getting some other after-action rewards like new backpack schematics (which add buffs to your characters) or higher-level agents. A difficulty rating corresponds to the minimum level the assigned agents have to add up to to undertake the mission.
Get out onto field and you might notice that The Bureau has taken cues from another successful sci-fi series – Mass Effect. Grabbing cover, issuing movement orders to your team, and selecting abilities to use with a wheel will feel remarkably familiar, if not totally similar, to veterans of the Mass Effect series. You can even combine certain abilities together for more effective attacks (setting up a turret and then throwing down a shield on top of it). You’ll need to be moving your fellow agents around a lot more than you would in Mass Effect, as enemies will be constantly moving around trying to expose weak points in your team’s cover. You and your teammates are also far more susceptible damage than Commander Shepard and his crew. Cover is something noted by a half-shield icon for partial coverage and a full-shield for full coverage, like in Enemy Unknown (adding more to the theory of just how much that influenced the direction of The Bureau). See either of those icons in blue and you’re set for the implied amount of protection, but seeing them in red means you’re exposed and can expect to get chewed up pretty badly.
When a teammate goes down, you’ll have a few moments to get to them and either bring them back into the fight on easier difficulties or stabilize them so they don’t die but are no longer accessible for that mission on harder difficulties. You won’t find yourself in those situations too often if you’re more careful, but place-and-forget play might find you scrambling to revive a teammate (or them to you). The Bureau, in that sense, is definitely an XCOM game, encouraging you to think about your movements and the placement and use of your fellow agents.
The parts of The Bureau are definitely a good foundation to build a game on, but the narrative weighs it down a bit. It’s nothing incredible in either direction, but the final act of the story is almost so absurd, I wish the game had ended differently or just ended on a cliffhanger. That last bit of the game feels so much in contrast to the story laid out up until then, it feels like more of an afterthought or a “what-if” piece of downloadable content. It bothered me so much, in fact, that it took a lot of the enjoyment I was having with it up until that point (which is why we finish games when we review them).
The Bureau is actually quite fun when on a mission, but it’s those moments in between shooting aliens that dampens the experience. Save for the aforementioned final act, the story isn’t terrible, but certainly won’t win any awards. As absurd as it may seem to say this about a game so heavily delayed, I can’t help but think if this game had another year or eighteen months in the tank, it could have been something great. As it exists today though, The Bureau is a fun, but forgettable romp through the XCOM universe that’s likely to be written off and looked at as more of a footnote in troubled development history than a notable entry in the reinvigorated series.