The Bureau: XCOM Declassified
October 18, 2013, Author: Jesper Hauerslev
The Bureau: XCOM Declassified tells a story of survival. Not only of mankind’s survival in the onslaught of an alien invasion, but also of the survival of a game that went in and out of development hell for years. Bouncing from studio to studio and surviving numerous iterations, it finally escaped this vicious cycle; but the question now is, has it escaped unscathed or does it carry too much emotional baggage?
Another day at the office
This was supposed to have been a regular day at the office for special agent William Carter. Just go to a secret military base, drop off a sinister-looking briefcase and be home in time for Howdy Doody. What could go wrong? Well, plenty as it turns out. All of Carter’s carefully laid plans for the evening are side-swiped from one minute to the next when the militant he was supposed to meet suddenly shoots him, steals the briefcase and then spontaneously combusts, burning to a crisp… and then aliens suddenly invade! It’s all somehow connected to what was in the briefcase, but who cares? It’s time to kick alien ass and chew bubblegum!
After fending off the initial wave and making a daring escape, kicking and chewing as he goes along, Carter is transferred to a new secret agency that, up until now, had been the laughing stock of the intelligence community. With no one left to laugh now, the small agency is tasked with organising the defense of Earth from the alien invaders. Welcome to the Bureau of Operations and Command, agent! Also knows as… XCOM!
The Bureau: XCOM Declassified is actually a prequel of sorts to last year’s XCOM: Enemy Unknown, it itself a remake of strategy classic UFO: Enemy Unknown from 1994. Set in the swinging 60’s where the Cold War was at it’s highest, The Bureau tells the story of how XCOM came to be in the first place. You will also get drawn deeper into the story of the invading aliens, as you uncover dark truths about who they are and what they are capable of.
Playing as Carter, you will get to know the inner workings of XCOM very well as you take on the role of Squad Commander. Your task will be to take the fight to the invading aliens, flanked by a small squad of fellow agents and soldiers, in a series of missions that will have you evacuate VIPs, secure alien technology, prevent sabotage, attack alien outposts and more.
It all plays out in a third-person viewpoint where you control Carter and run from cover to cover as you try to outsmart and outflank the enemy. They are trying to do the same to you, and aren’t exactly bad at it either. They also have the advantage of being able to call down reinforcements, which you can’t do. This is where battles become the most hectic as the alien reinforcements often arrive in the form of big brutish type aliens or armoured mechs called sectopods that require lots of firepower to bring down. Sure, you can pick up new weapons and equipment (including alien blasters) along the way to give you bit more of an edge in combat, but a successful mission is really down to your skills as a Squad Commander.
You have two squadmates with you on each mission. They will do their best to fight back, but their effectiveness is only as good as the orders you are giving them. They rely on you to coordinate the attack, so while it is tempting to just go in all guns blazing, the best result comes from you taking the time to assess the battlefield and plan an appropriate attack. Doing so is relatively simple. With the touch of a button, you bring up a menu-wheel where you can quickly assign various orders to each squad member. You can tell them to move to a certain location, attack a specific enemy, deploy special equipment and so on. These commands can be strung together to create more efficient orders, but you can’t take forever to do so as the action doesn’t pause; it merely slows down.
This constant mix between full-on running and gunning and managing troops in slow-motion can seem quite jarring at first and could have been a key aspect the game could easily have gotten wrong. Thankfully it doesn’t, and as soon as you get into the flow of it, it can be quite exciting to run for cover, yell to one squadmate to flank left while the other draws the fire and you attack down the middle. When all this comes together you feel pretty badass. Sadly, these moments are in constant risk of being ruined by your squadmates doing stupid things like running directly into enemy fire or taking cover in front of a wall instead of behind it.
If things go badly, you can always call your troops back with a simple click and start over. That is, if they haven’t been gunned down by enemy fire first. If that happens you have to heal them before they bleed out and die, but doing so can leave you vulnerable to attack. If things are really hectic, you can end up succumbing to enemy fire yourself, leaving you in an annoying loop where you and your squadmates take turns in healing each other, getting shot, healed again and shot. This problem is not unique to The Bureau; other squad-based shooters with the same mechanic suffer from the same problem to varying degree. However, it is very annoying that developers still allow for this to happen.
Before you go on a mission you have to select which two fellow agents or soldiers you want to bring with you in the field. Each comes with special abilities and gains experience during missions, just as you do. This experience can then be used to unlock new abilities to use in battle like placing laser turrets, healing troops from afar, and temporarily brainwashing enemies to turn against their own. You can even rename your squadmates and change the colour of their clothes, with the latter resulting in some rather comical outfits as the options given range from a wide selection of very loud pastel colours. Not exactly a clever uniform for a Men In Black-type organisation that relies on secrecy, stealth and the ability to operate in the shadows.
Despite all these options for customization, you never really develop any bond with your squadmates. If and when they die, it’s often with a shrug of your shoulder rather than a pull on your heartstrings, as you know there are plenty of other squadmates waiting back at base to take their place. This is a shame and also a bit strange as to why it fails, since the mechanic is more or less lifted straight from XCOM: Enemy Unknown where it works so much better.
When not on missions, you spend your time back at base, planning your next move, talking to the scientists, catching up on the gossip or sending agents out on missions by themselves to gain a little extra experience. Exploring the XCOM base is actually quite fun, and talking to the many inhabitants between missions can give you various insights into the world of covert alien warfare.
Dialogue takes place using a Mass Effect-style dialogue wheel, and does allow you to steer certain conversations in various directions for different outcomes. The interrogation of a alien infiltrator that has just killed your partner is a good example, but these moments are sadly few and far between, and unfortunately, the majority of conversations never get very deep or meaningful. Instead, you can’t help but feel that they are merely leftovers from a scrapped feature that developers simply forgot to remove.
The Bureau is set in 1962, and the unique look and feel of that era permeates every facet of the game. The artists have clearly done their research and the game looks like it could have easily featured as the cover on one of the sci-fi comics of the day. The technology, the aliens and the people, including Carter himself, fit every possible aesthetic cliché of the era. So much so in fact, that it almost becomes too much. Carter is just too square-jawed and clean-cut for you to believe in him as a character, while the weapons and special equipment, especially the high-tech backpacks that offer your agents special abilities like improved aiming or healing, are just a little too sci-fi to be taken seriously.
The aliens fare slightly better design-wise, as do the surroundings. One of the earlier missions takes you to a small all-American town in the aftermath of an alien attack. It’s an effective setting that mixes the eeriness of the scene before you with the horror of realising you were too late to save the people, as well as the urge to dish out some good ol’ fashioned payback.
This payback is wrapped in the all the sounds you would expect an alien invasion would bring with it. Lasers sound as high-tech as they should, rifles pack the punch you would expect and the aliens scream, squirm and go ‘splat’ when you riddle them with bullets. As Carter, you shout your orders with the trademark gruff voice of your typical hard-man hero, and your fellow agents shout confirmations and general banter back with eagerness. They also cry out in agony for help when they’ve been shot or are pinned down by gunfire, which sadly happens quite a lot thanks to their inability to think straight in the heat of combat.
The truth is still out there
The Bureau: XCOM Declassified’s road to release has been a long and perilous one. The core design changed so much over the years that it’s hard to say if the end result is better or worse then what could have been. One thing to make clear is that The Bureau is not a bad game at all. Its core mechanic, with its mix of strategy and full-on combat, works well and the presentation is solid, but you can’t help but feel that a few unique tricks have been missed during the game’s bumpy development.
While shooting aliens is always fun, The Bureau completely ignores one of its core premises; that this is supposed to be a secret war against a secret enemy being fought by a secret government organisation that the public must know nothing about. There is no cover-up here, no hiding the truth and no elaborate lies to be fashioned to keep the common man blissfully unaware of the danger he is in. Instead, this is all-out war taking place in your average Joe’s own backyard of which he seems totally oblivious.
The Bureau even plays light on world history and makes some pretty significant rewrites without paying too much attention to them. It may be a minor detail in the grand scheme of things, but you can’t exactly have aliens kill someone like J. Edgar Hoover and not comment on how this ties into history overall. Especially not if you want to create a believable world.
This is a shame, because The Bureau tries really hard to set itself up as ‘XCOM meets X-Files meets Men In Black‘, but ignores the unique aspects of this arguably strange but enticing combination. This would have given the game the uniqueness which it desperately needs to be more than the well-meaning, decent but ultimately clunky shooter it ended up being.