Working in secrecy is the intent of The Bureau, a division charged with the task of defending America against communist activity. Their priorities shift quickly as the world is suddenly faced with an alien threat. That is the scenario for The Bureau: Xcom Declassified, a game set in the year 1962.
Xcom games have always centered around fighting aliens with careful strategy and adoption of outsider technology. This time you take direct control of William Carter, a former war hero with a gruff voice and get to fight from his perspective in an over the shoulder view. A big departure from previous games where the player is issuing orders to multiple agents in a turn based strategy environment.
My initial impressions with the game were that it felt dated and clunky. The kind of cover shooter where your reticule moves stiffly and all rough actions make you realize you have played countless other games that execute these well established mechanics way better. If there wasn't more to this game aside from shooting I'd tell you to pass it up right away.
That's when Xcom slaps me and reminds me that, yes, this IS an Xcom game. After running around for a while, shooting aliens and treating the game like any other shooter, you are suddenly shoved into a tutorial allowing you to issue orders to another agent. I was immediately taken back with the pleasant realization of how fun that was. Flanking felt good and the AI executes your order just like you planned.
When you issue orders you enter a sort of hyper slow motion state called “battle focus”. Here you can direct all your agents and queue up actions, as well as view strategic statistical information such as hit rates and flank status. The action selection interface looks like a wheel similar to Mass effect, though the ability to micro manage everything for your agents is a very welcomed improvement. Mass Effect only allows you to pick one ability at a time, and it doesn't care where your party members are placed.
The strategic element forces you to subconsciously consider the environment in a way that other shooters don't. Moving your agents into cover for a flank is effortless and fun. Queuing up abilities also makes each encounter rewarding as you spot enemies and get ready to jump them, you will issue all the orders and then return to normal speed and watch it all play out. It feels like you are a movie director, all that is missing is to say “Action!”
Ammo is limited so the game forces you to move around a bit and gather more ammo, rather than just hide behind cover and wait for your abilities to recharge. It's a nice balance that is complimented by an aggressive AI that tries to flank you, providing decent challenge. Whenever your agents get flanked they will stumble around and go for new cover. Unless you take control, they will just get flanked again and die.
Once you have leveled up your crew enough to have a decent selection of abilities at your disposal, each encounter can end up feeling repetitive as you will always slow down the action and queue up every single ability you have again and again. The simple and refined interface saves it from being annoying, but repetitiveness can kick in.
Larger enemies will feel like bullet sponges as they absorb a ridiculous amount of punishment, and often the game doesn't provide you with any alternative way of attack. Early on in the game I encountered a gunship that had to be taken out. However all I had left was a short range shotgun, so I had to run around chasing it like a chimpanzee trying to swat a fly. Fortunately you will get access to abilities later on that can weaken armored targets.
There are four types of classes that can assist you in the field, however you can only bring two agents. As agents go on missions with you, they will rank up and earn more abilities, encouraging you to take the same agents with you over and over. Fortunately there are optional dispatch missions available where you can level up your bench warmer without painstakingly having to take a level 1 rookie with you to a late game mission. This system allows you to manage your squad in a way that you have similarly leveled guys of every class, allowing for some diversity as you try to bring with you a new class. It also helps a lot to reduce the repetitiveness of queuing up all abilities like mentioned earlier. Each class feels unique and they all add something to the experience. You are also allowed to name each character and customize them to some extent which is always welcome. Often times you will have to pick and choose since they all provide considerate support to your missions, and the game would be impossible if you were going in alone. Worth noting though is that the recon unit will have early access to a critical strike ability allowing him to execute any enemy on the map regardless of obstructions or cover in the way, making this class unbalanced for the first stretch of the game.
As you progress the story missions, or tackle some of the various optional missions you will come across backpacks. They all look nice and they add some needed visual representation of progression to your character. That said, each new one you pick up will always be way better than the last one in terms of passive abilities so there is no reason to consider another backpack based on play style or classes for your allies. Same goes for the weapons, once you get laser weapons there is no reason to pick the drastically weaker normal weapons. The game doesn't seem to realize this as each level is littered with these useless guns.
Any item you can interact with in the environment, be it a note or a weapon pickup, is highlighted with a flashing golden color. I found it to be a tad bit excessive, especially if it's a large object like a door. It comes across like a giant golden column sitting in the middle of this brownish game world.
I compared the game's ability selection interface to Mass Effect earlier. The comparisons don't stop there. In fact the game is a lot like Mass Effect with the only difference being the setting. Everything from the mission selection and optional side quests, to the combat and ability usage seems to be completely lifted from Mass Effect. Even running around your home base and talking to people feels like running around the Normandy. It even has the conversation topic selection wheel, same interface and everything.
I am frankly ok with that. Mass Effect is great and the improvements to combat regarding squad management is enough to make this game unique, even if the shooting itself feels somewhat stiff.
There is not much to say about the presentation. The 1962 setting has some highlights of charm even if most of the environments look brown and dull, as is the case with many modern shooters (especially when they use the unreal engine like this game does). When entering alien structures and ships, it can almost look like Dead Space, though I promise the comparisons to other sci-fi shooters ends there. Character models look decently expressive and the voice actors do a great job even if the script can be a bit silly. I am especially fond of the Director.
As is the case with this game, it lacks a bit of polish to most of its areas. It's also apperant that this game has had had a dodgy development cycle, as well as having less of a budget than the other games I compared it to. Combat is functional and involving but some encounters will feel awkward as you need to deal with bigger bullet sponge enemies. It's a solid experience that has no real huge flaw to get in the way of fun. Some areas shine of brilliant polish such as the command wheel, while others were omitted to meet a deadline.
|What's Good? Queuing up abilities and smooth interface|
|What's Bad? Bullet-sponge enemies, lack of polish|