Bringing XCOM to the third-person, tactical shooter realm seemed like a solid idea. A more action-y XCOM isn’t necessarily a bad thing, so long as the series’ trademark strategy remained in place. The Bureau: XCOM Declassified makes a strong effort to deliver on this premise, bringing all the staples of the series including the ever popular “permadeath,” along with plenty of focus on tactics. It even plays reasonably well, too. Only, despite its struggles, this is XCOM in name alone.
Set in 1962, you play as William Carter, a CIA agent who finds himself swept up in a war against alien forces. The story goes that the government has suspected extraterrestrial activity for some time, the discovery of a new element known as Elerium fueling their suspicions. As such, hoping to learn more about the enemy, Carter was charged with delivering an alien artifact for research. Only, just as he arrives, the invasion begins, decimating most of the world’s military and even more of its citizenry in mere hours. Thus, XCOM is born.
The Bureau delivers a serviceable tale, though it lacks any sort of intrigue. Covering up the invasion sets a precedent for some cool story-threads, only it’s relegated to passing mentions in conversation with NPCs. Dialog suggests that you can’t take on every mission, telling you to choose carefully and prioritize – just like regular XCOM. Then you find out that you can in fact take on whatever jobs come your way, robbing the scene of any urgency. The idea of exploring XCOM’s origins is a sound one, but The Bureau never expounds upon that past the opening level. Every time a potentially noteworthy plot comes up, your hopes are dashed instantly. Instead, from the opening level onward, it’s all about shooting aliens.
Where last year’s XCOM: Enemy Unknown conjured XCOM in its purest form, The Bureau only captures its essence on a superficial level. Strategy plays a small role at best, sharpshooting skills carrying more sway in the outcome of battle. Directing troops certainly matters, as the odds are too great for a one-man-army approach, but their contributions are minimal at best. At the end of every mission, the stats said I slayed a good 70-80 foes, while my crew only downed maybe 6-8 apiece. They only grant any real aid against specifically marked targets, though even then, without your support, their damage is meager.
The Bureau claims to be a tactical shooter, though it just barely lives up to that title. Your team is hardly capable on their own, needing guidance to be of any assistance. Using the tactics wheel, which slows down time, you can move units about the field, mark targets, or use of their class’ special abilities. Carter’s own skills can be used from here as well, such as deploying drones, lifting foes into the air through telekinesis, or magically healing himself and the team. There are four classes – Commando, Support, Engineer, and Recon – but apart from their equipment and talents, none of them provide any advantages over the other. No one class aids you more than the other, let alone suited to a particular mission. It all comes down to which ones you prefer, really.
In terms of tactics, positioning tends to be the bread-and-butter of your stratagem, as flanking enemies almost always proves to be most effective. Turrets and drones can be deployed for support, telekinesis makes targets more vulnerable, and mind control serves to cause disarray among enemy ranks (even though the AI then tends to refuse to shoot their comrades, defeating much of the ability’s purpose), each lending a clear advantage during more overwhelming skirmishes. Their long cool-down mean you can’t be over-reliant upon them, however, granting one of the few examples in which bona-fide strategy manifests.
Using skills in tandem opens up some clever means of dispatch. Erect a turret and then raise it into the air, giving it a better view of the field. Combine it with a scatter – a tool that causes a disruption of some kind to send the opposition out of cover – and you can easily gain a few kills. Tell one of your units to taunt an enemy, only to send a sniper around back to deliver a critical strike on him. Take command of an alien’s mind and then backstab them with an airstrike. The options are plentiful.
The problem is that you rarely receive any incentive to use them. Going into battle, I always tried to carefully plan my moves, see how far I could get before being spotted. And every time, without fail, once the shooting started, whatever ideas I may have had were thrown out the window immediately. Not because I gave up – oh, did I try – but because there simply wasn’t any means of executing a plan. Combat always devolved into a basic firefight, just barely enough strategy involved to remind you it’s there.
And even when it appears in a greater capacity, it’s short-lived. As soon as mammoth soldiers like Mutons (hulking, armored folk) and Sectopods (a mech of sorts) arrive, any semblance of tactics instantly dissipates. Fighting these resilient opponents always devolves to running about in the open trying to stay alive amongst the crossfire while whittling down the durable foes’ health. Sitting around behind cover only serves you so well for so long. Once a Muton closes in, he slams his fist down causing a shockwave effect knocking you and your allies out of shelter. If any of you are at low health, this can create a never-ending cycle of death and revival, making an already tedious foe absolutely infuriating to contend with. Sectopods don’t engage close-quarters often, but the effort required to pierce their armor bogs the game down just as much. The difference is that they aren’t frustrating: just boring.
Which is ultimately The Bureau’s greatest disappointment. Though it may be a perfectly technically proficient and functional game, there’s simply no soul. 2K Marin clearly had some solid ideas planned, but whether through the turbulent development cycle or because of business decisions, The Bureau fails to capitalize on any of its potential. What we could have gotten was a fresh, inventive take on XCOM. Instead, we receive a forgettable shooter using a recognizable brand to sell it.