The Bureau: XCOM Declassified departs from the tried and tested in favour of pastures new. Can 2K’s other-worldly spin-off carve a niche of its own?
Underground bases, extra-terrestrial invaders, laser-powered weaponry and a giant world map pulsing with little red warning lights – The Bureau: XCOM Declassified has everything a good intergalactic conflict needs. There’s a Post Cold War era setting to flesh out the action, and numerous upgrades and talent-trees to help hone your troops, not to mention the lure of getting up close and personal with Sectoids and Mutons alike. It’s amazing, then, that a game so full of the ingredients for a sure fire alien epic could end up feeling so flat.
The Bureau is a mix of grand designs and great disappointments. As settings go, 1962 works well; vintage signage and classic cars furnish the streets and add character to the sea of waist-high walls behind which you’ll keep your three-man squad for the majority of your adventure. Even your sprawling base of operations has a believable footing: built to monitor Soviet activity in the fallout of the Cold War and converted to withstand the alien invasion, the smoky offices and bright white labs are busied nicely by the gaggle of military personnel, scientists and trilby-clad detectives found within.
You can forgive the clichéd back story of your leading man, William Carter, his generic husky baritone and less-than-friendly attitude to pretty much everyone around him – he does, after all, have a world to save. You carry out the messy business of smushing aliens and preserving humanity with two colleagues in tow, each of whom comes with different specialities and can be selected from a total group of eight as required. There’s a familiar mix of engineer, medic and military classes, all of which level up the more they’re used, gaining more potent abilities as time passes.
While each comes with their own skill set, there’s no great benefit to choosing one over another. It can, of course, be useful to have a ranged specialist or an efficient medic in certain situations, but combat scenarios are often very similar. After some initial casualties, you might well find yourself sending out the same team mission after mission. The Bureau brings with it similar customisation options to its cousin XCOM: Enemy Unknown – none of the fun of designing matching uniforms or thinking up ridiculous names like Febreeze DuMont or Chest Thrustington has been lost.
The Bureau does its best to encourage you to partake in side missions or send troops out alone to help build experience. In truth, though, there’s little need to bother – even on the game’s harder difficulties your abilities become powerful enough that mashing through the core campaign without deviating too much feels preferable.
The combat itself goes from uninteresting at best to rote at its worst. You guide your units using a command wheel, positioning your men and activating abilities accordingly. Opening up the wheel slows the world to a crawl and allows you time to queue up moves as desired – it’s functional enough, although navigating commands with your analogue stick can feel a little loose at times. As you potter through the early tutorials, The Bureau puts emphasis on positioning your units tactically – encouraging you to consider flanking and the like. As things progress, this approach exposes some of The Bureau’s most jarring flaws.
Friendly AI simply can’t keep up – units respond to instruction initially but quickly flounder as the scope of the battlefield changes. There’s a tendency to put themselves in danger as well – after a few battles you’ll find yourself abandoning any attempts to position your team at all. Enemies are dense enough for it not to matter, often tending to sit out in the open, run around in circles, or just trot from cover to cover until someone can be bothered to shoot them. Shonky teamwork apart, The Bureau’s floaty reticule movement and samey weaponry make for one of the flimsier feeling third-person cover shooters.
Men are from Venus, Mutons are from Mars
There’s still satisfaction to be had from successfully bum-rushing an enemy encampment. Whipping out drones and turrets and lining up shots before anyone knows you’re there feels great when achieved. Coming face to face with certain creatures can be suitably intense – figuring out how to tackle your first Muton on the fly is a challenge and the game’s passive Sleepwalkers help darken matters and take care of occasional jumpy bits. The peaks are few, though, and the novelties wear off. Enemies quickly begin to be recycled and there’s very little in the way of variety. Even a few hours of play will leave you with a blur of indistinguishable skirmishes to reflect upon.
There’s an unfinished feel to much of The Bureau – as if another six months were needed to iron out the creases. Frame rate drops and texture pop-in are issues throughout and many of the environments feel threadbare. Plenty of scenery is re-used, too, choking any variety out of the game. There’s the occasional pretty reveal, but a staid feeling prevails – and I found myself wondering at one point if 2K had pulled out its old Prey soundboard for a certain section.
The Bureau does have lots of aliens, laser weapons and a certain Roswell noir to it. There’s literature to read and audio logs to listen to that help thicken up the lore for fans of the XCOM series. There’s even some brief levity to be had on the rare occasions that the combat comes together. These are the exceptions, though, and as either a third-person shooter or a squad-based commander The Bureau is as inoffensive as it is uninspiring, not worthy of comparison with either the genre’s greats or its weakest links – and barely worthy of comment at all.
The Bureau: XCOM Declassified, by 2K Marin and 2K Games, is available now for PS3 (reviewed), Xbox 360 and PC.