The Bureau: XCOM Declassified Review
I remember when I got my first look at The Bureau: XCOM Declassified years ago. It was simply titled 'XCOM' back then, and was purely a third-person shooter. I thought it had some potential then, casting you in the role of an early 1960s FBI style agent trying to help fight back an alien invasion of a Cold War era, UFO obsessed America. Then the fan boys and trolls got wind of the game: "How dare anyone place the XCOM game on anything that wasn't a turn-based strategy game? And where's that true XCOM sequel we're been waiting more than a decade for anyway?" I would have preferred that 2K stuck to its guns or simply renamed the game "XK0M" or something, but under that boisterous pressure from a very vocal few 2K blinked.
Things were really quiet for about a year or so after the initial outcry, and when the game was being shown to the public again it had undergone a transformation. Instead of being a straightforward third-person shooter, it was now a third-person shooter shoehorned into a turn-based tactical game. This, of course, pleased no one. Shooter fans had no interest in pausing the action to tell everyone what they should be doing every few minutes, and strategy gamers didn't want all of that noisy running around and shooting interrupting their careful plotting of their next move. The game went underground for a while as development on XCOM: Enemy Unknown was hastily started and that game was put on the fast track for release. In fact, things on the original XCOM shooter front went so quiet I just assumed that the game was secretly canceled and 2K was trying to pretend that the whole thing never happened.
More time passed and suddenly the XCOM shooter reappeared, this time with a new title "The Bureau: XCOM Declassified". See? It's really a game called "The Bureau" that just so happens to have a connection to the XCOM universe. At that point I had no idea what to expect from the game anymore, I just knew that it had no hope of matching the potential I first saw in the game after so many years and so much retooling. After playing the game, I can tell you that the final product has the feel of something that had a chance at the start of the race but was only able to barely limp across the finish line in the end.
In the game you take on the role of a former CIA operative, Agent William Carter, who's recruited into the shadowy XCOM bureau. Created to deal with the Cold War threat of Russian invasion, XCOM soon finds itself on the frontlines of an invasion of a very different sort; Aliens have invaded the world and one of their first targets is XCOM.
As far as the story goes, The Bureau has all the hallmarks of something that started out with a bunch of interesting ideas that the writers couldn't quite pull together in the end. Even with the necessary suspension of belief that comes with a story featuring an alien invasion in the early 60s the story is so filled with holes and nonsensical turns that it actually detracts from the game. The Bureau would have done better to take a cue from the Sci-Fi B-movies prevalent in the era in which it is set and stuck with a basic alien invasion plot. It would have also fit the game's look, as its graphics are given a washed-out, slightly grainy look to match what movies shot at that time look like today after fifty years of aging.
The gameplay centers on XCOM's headquarters bunker that serves as the game's hub. When not on a mission, you're free to wander around the place working your way through the conservation trees available with your fellow agents or look for all of the hidden notes and audio recordings that unsuccessfully attempt to bring more coherence to the game's plot. It's also where you'll be able to manage which of the available agents are on your field team and to select your next mission from a list of available story and side missions.
The missions are all structured in the same style - you make your way through a tightly linear series of locations until you come to one which has a number of cover spots, at which a battle inevitably breaks out. The third person shooter aspects of the game aren't bad - not great, but not bad - but most of the fun is sucked out of it by the tedium of the strategy aspects of the gunfights. By pressing a button you slow down the action to a crawl and pop up a command wheel. At first there are just a few basic commands available for each of your squad mates such as move to a spot, target a particular enemy, and use a special attack. New squad members will have a single attack available such as placing a laser turret, but as they survive battles and gain experience more powerful skills will become available such as the ability to call in an airstrike.
The ability to issue commands to your squad during battle is not so much the issue here as its necessity. Your squad of elite agents is very poor at doing anything beyond getting killed if left on their own. It's annoying to have to tell an operative to duck behind cover and then move to another location if he's been flanked and is being shot. How am I supposed to have fun fighting aliens if I'm constantly stopping to babysit incompetent allies? And things get worse once an agent goes down because he'll start to bleed out, forcing you to command the other agent to go and revive him. As the second agent is standing out in the open reviving the first, he'll invariably go down and you'll either be down two agents or they'll become stuck in a protracted loop of revive/fall/revive/fall/revive...
A mix of tactical and shooter gameplay can work - it has worked in other games before - it just doesn't work well here. It's probably the result of all of the gear changing that the game had to do during development. Perhaps if it started out with the goal of being a tactical shooter from the beginning and was built from the ground up that way it might have turned out better. Given that it started out that way, I really wish that The Bureau was left as a pure third person shooter, then it might have had a chance. As it is today the game just doesn't work well enough to make it recommendable.
Final Rating: 60%. Perhaps it should have remained redacted.