Reviews

The Bureau: XCOM Declassified – Review

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Platforms: Xbox 360, PS3 and PC
Reviewed On: Xbox 360
Developer: 2K Marin
Publisher: 2K Games
Singleplayer: Yes
Multiplayer: No
PEGI:  16+

XCOM is back, but this time its parading around in third-person shooter clothing, having tossed on those clothes after a lengthy and confusing development cycle in which it began life as an FPS. As a result the Bureau feels like it’s never entirely sure what it wants to be, sporting a couple of ideas picked out from other titles and then welded on to its cover-based, tactical combat. The overall package, though, is a decent if rather unspectacular.

It’s the time of the cold war and the world is on edge, living with fear on a daily basis, always worried that somebody is going to press the button that will destroy the world. You play as one William Carter, a gruff agent with his fair share of demons and a love of the bottle. Being an XCOM game you’ve barely gotten into the game when aliens suddenly invade and William is introduced to the Bureau, a secret organization that turns its resources toward combating the alien menace. What that means is that you  are sent out on a series of missions where you lead a small squad in a variety of skirmishes against your alien adversaries.

William Carter. Let's face it, agents always look cooler with a good hat.

William Carter. Let’s face it, agents always look cooler with a good hat.

Heading back to explore the early days of the XCOM universe, tackling humanities first encounter with the aliens, is a great idea on paper, but the plot of the Bureau quickly falls apart thanks to insane leaps of logic by characters, massive plot holes and all manner of stupidity. Early on it’s not too bad, if rather cheesy and stupid, but that’s only because there’s really no plot to speak of delivered to the player, instead there’s just a few loosely connected missions. When the story does begin to arrive it quickly becomes a muddled mess, with piles of utter bullshit thrown in every now and then and a few story arcs that are picked up and then dropped without ever being finished. Carter’s demon’s are brought up a few times but are never properly explored, while a brief piece of storyline involving another agent’s brother is thrown in to try and illicit some emotion, but fails to do so.

Nothing makes any sense, and characters make bizarre decisions along the way that left me scratching my head. Eventually, around 6 or 7 hours in, the game reaches what seems to be the end, building toward a climax but then it keeps going, jumbling the plot even more with some inexplicable nonsense. At this point even the writers seem to give up and don’t even bother trying to explain any of it.

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I did briefly wonder if the Bureau was deliberately aping those old, classic but immensely daft sci-fi shows, poking fun at them in a harmless way. I quickly had to leave that idea behind, though, because everything is played very seriously, leaving me with the sad conclusion that it really is just poor writing at work here. It’s a jumbled mess from start to finish, and XCOM veterans will likely be a bit upset by some of the things that just don’t seem to fit correctly into the universe.

That’s a real shame because the game does a pretty fine job of painting a portrait of the time, presenting a lovely vintage 1960s aesthetic that boasts some great use of color. There’s some pretty poor texture work throughout the game, or at least there is when it decides to pop-in at all, and some questionable animation work as well, denoting the fact that the Bureau isn’t at the top of its technical game, but from a visual design standpoint it is rather lovely. Walking through streets is like stepping back in time, and there’s just something brilliant about Agents wearing suits, ties and spiffy hats. It all contrasts nicely with the alien technology, and even with the technology of the Bureau itself. That does make me think of one of the most obvious plot-holes, though: how come in the very first mission agents have access to things like laser turrets when that technology isn’t even around at that point?

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Of course this is all just dressing, under which is the core of the game: cover-based shooting. So how does that side of things hold up? Well, not great. The cover system is functional, but lacks the fluidity and responsiveness of its peers, making it less than enjoyable to use. Moving around the battlefield feels a little clumsy and cumbersome, like you’re throwing a bag of potatoes with a gun around, occasionally leading to some frustration as it can feel like you’re fighting the controls rather than working in tandem with them. Functional also describes the core gunplay. The weapons feel nice enough to use and there’s a good amount on offer. Sadly the alien gear  barely differentiates itself from the human technology other than doing some more damage and firing green bolts. It feels like a wasted opportunity to let us with  with some interesting alien guns. Meanwhile aiming and shooting feels solid enough, though there is a very slight, and I do stress slight, looseness to it. And that’s it. I honestly struggle to find much to say about the cover and shooting systems, because they’re purely average, neither good nor bad. They fall squarely in the middle of the road.

Where Declassifed sets itself apart from a lot of the other shooters is in its desire to implement some of the tactical play of its strategy cousin XCOM: Enemy Unknown, the game which captured the hearts and minds of many players when it was released last year. At any time you can tap a button to bring up a radial menu and slow down time to a near halt. From this time altering menu you can plan out your battle, commanding your squadmates to move anywhere you wish, with familiar shield icons ripped straight from Enemy Unknown popping up to display how safe they’ll be from enemy fire in that position. As you can imagine, then, flanking enemies and setting up crossfires is the key to combat, and the level design reflects that, with combat zones offering a solid amount of space to maneuver within, even if the way that sections of cover are laaidout often make it almost insultingly obvious as to where the developers thing you should be placing your squad for maximum effect. This also means that from a visual standpoint levels can look a little odd, like when you see a very convenient set of square, chest-high hay bales laid out in a very obvious shape to allow for flanking.

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Moving troops around is rather mundane stuff, though. Where the true interest lies is within the selection of abilities, powers and skills that each of your two squadmates can bring to the table, depending on their specific class. As you blast your way through the alien scum you’re little troopers will rank up, giving you the opportunity to pick one of two perks for that level. Engineers can  do such things as chuck mines down and summon up turrets; Recon squaddies can pull off brutal headshots, create diversions and unleash artillery barrages which somehow still work when you’re indoors; meanwhile Commandos can scatter enemy troops and Support can heal up your injuries all nice and stuff. The best abilities are saved for you, however. While your squadmates can only reach rank 5, you can go all the way to rank 10, unlocking the ability to summon forth combat drones, levitate enemies, control minds and much more.

Like movement commands abilities/powers are accessed via the time-altering radial menu, a menu which reminds me an awful lot of the Mass Effect series system, not that that’s a bad thing as it works well.  From there you can target the unfortunate victim or choose where to place your turret/mine/drone etc. My only complaint with this system is that when placing turrets and the like you have to go around things like small walls, when it would have been far simpler for the developers to allow these things to float over such obstacles. It’s a small complaint that doesn’t damage the overall game very much, but it’s still a little frustrating.

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Frustration can and does stem from the game’s shaky AI. They have a nasty habit of running directly into enemy fire if you order them to a location, and so you’ve got to be careful about how you do it.  Once ordered to a location you’ve got to keep a careful eye on them, because even if they get surrounded and start taking a pounding they often won’t move. I would have liked the developers to allow the AI to be able to think for themselves in situations like that, because while you yourself are under fire it can be annoying to stop and hand them more orders. Other times the AI will simply ignore commands. Numerous times I ordered them into a flanking location only to find them a few seconds later somewhere completely different, usually in the line of fire or bleeding out.   The Bureau is more about micromanaging at times, always keeping an eye on your squad, managing their skills and generally just making sure they’ve got a handle on things.

Though the Bureau’s core gunplay and cover mechanics aren’t as refined and smooth as its peers, the combat experience gets much better as the game progresses and combat areas become more open while new squad abilities and enemy types lead to more strategic play, although you still shouldn’t expect to have to flex your grey-matter. Battles change from simply moving your squad into position and mowing down the foe to carefully unleashing an initial barrage of abilities, combining powers for devastating effect, such as using your levitate skill on an Engineer’s turret to life it high so it can rain down fire, or mind-controlling a foe so that your sniper can get a clean shot. Enemies types like the lumbering Muton or the powerful Commanders force you to change your tactics and pick your targets wisely, commanding your squad to focus fire for maximum effect. None of this fixes the merely average shooting and cover, but it helps draw the focus away from them.

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Sadly The Bureau has none of the tension that defined Enemy Unknown, where every move could lead to disaster and you never quite knew where the enemy where hiding. In The Bureau you always know exactly when a fight is coming because the environment inexplicably changes from tight corridors to open spaces with a suspicious amount of chest-high walls and a layout that makes great sense for a battle but not a lot of  practical sense. In between such areas you need only worry about the possibility of running into an alien or two.

The agents accompanying you on your missions aren’t the invincible AI partners of most other games, instead the Bureau takes a page out of XCOM: Enemy Unknown’s playbook by having the death of an agent during a mission permanent – once they’re dead, they’re gone for good, and their skills along with them. To combat this potential pitfall you need to keep an active roster of agents as backups. New agents can be recruited at any time and then customised to a very small degree. They can then be sent on Dispatch missions to gain experience. It’s nice to see permadeath carried over, but unless you’re on the highest difficulty actually losing an agent is unlikely.

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Between missions you’re given the chance to wander around the base where you can interact with a couple of people and even take on spme investigations, which are just short little side-missions that take place within the base. These investigations are almost insultingly simplistic. There’s one where you have to find a safe within an Agent’s office, for example, and when you walk into the office the painting which the safe is hidden behind is highlighted for you, as is the painting containing the code to unlock it.

Still, having the chance to roam the halls is a welcome breather between the hectic missions. It  just doesn’t feel fleshed out. There’s not much to look at or do when wandering around, and as a result it feels a bit like the developers were just ticking a box with the inclusion of a small hub to relax in. I would have liked to have seen this idea expanded upon, perhaps even incorporating some concepts seen in XCOM: Enemy Unknown, such as alien weapons you find in the find having to be researched and tested in the lab before you can use. S

Within the base you’ll find the console for recruiting agents and outfitting them. By scrolling around the map you can read snippets of news from around the country, which is your only indication outside of your self-contained missions that there’s actually a war being waged, albeit one being kept from the public. You can also head out on “minor operations” which provide you with a chance to snaffle some new gear and some experience. These operations don’t deviate from the template that the main missions adhere to, by which I mean venture forth, kill some stuff, press a button and then repeat. Still, they do at least occasionally give you a better sense of the horror of the alien invasion.

Deeply flawed is the way I would describe XCOM Declassified, but it’s a game  that’s still worth picking up, though I’d personally recommend waiting until the price drops. The storyline is muddled, and the cover and gunplay is merely average, yet as the game goes on the mixture of straight shooting and commanding your squad against the enemy forces becomes rather engaging. As something bearing the XCOM name it’s a waste of an opportunity to capitalise on such a beloved franchise, but curb your expectations going in and you’ll find an enjoyable shooter here, even if it’s not going to leave slack-jawed

The Good:
+ A good mix of squad abilities makes combat interesting.
+ Cool aesthetic.

The Bad:
– Muddled storyline.
– Decidedly average cover system and gunplay.
– Occasional glitches.

The Verdict: 2.5/5 Okay, bordering on good.
After some difficult contemplation I decided that the score seemed fitting. Sure, it has a lot of problems, but the combat grows on you and becomes better as the game progresses, largely thanks to squad abilities and enemy types bringing a small degree of strategy to proceedings. It’s a decent game, with flashes of something better.

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