I almost wish this was a strictly bad game, because admitting it has any value makes me cringe a bit. As a very rudimentary third-person shooter, it succeeds in the density of enemies and the intensity of combat. However, take a step back and the various flaws start to become apparent, to a degree that you wonder where the developers’ heads were at. If you have the will to resist such confusion and frustration, feel free to rent it – but don’t feel obligated what-so-ever to buy it.
The Long Version
It’s a prequel, huh…
WHAT THE F**K!
Why draw comparisons to the infinitely better strategy game XCOM: Enemy Unknown, your own cousin (in-name-only), when you’re late to the party and ill-prepared to deliver on your promise? By the way, I’ll reiterate – XCOM: Enemy Unknown WAS A F**KING BETTER GAME THAN THIS MEDIOCRE TRITE!!!
Time to take a step back, C.A. Okay… deep breaths. The Bureau: XCOM Declassified is the long-delayed addition to the rebooted XCOM franchise, bringing us back to 1962 when XCOM itself was just a young invention by President Kennedy. Theoretically, this game should provide the player with insight into how and why such an organization exists, and what kind of forces would warrant its existence… as well as somehow tying into the events of Enemy Unknown, wherein an alien invasion just like the one in this game forces the world’s governments to start the XCOM program.
I’m going to ask the same unoriginal questions everyone has the right to ask: If XCOM already existed in the ’60s, how could it be founded in the 21st century (or whenever Enemy Unknown takes place)? Is it an off-shoot of the original? Is it a different universe? If it’s the same world, why did no one think to save some evidence of the aliens for the modern XCOM to use in their research? How could the ’60s XCOM be that efficient? It just doesn’t add up. So instead of trying to connect the two games, I’m going to refer to The Bureau: XCOM Declassified as simply The Bureau, and I’ll denominate it as “XCOM in Name Only” – XINO for short.
Seeing as The Bureau is XINO, let’s examine the story on its own merits. The Bureau opens with CIA operative William Carter being tasked with transporting a mysterious package to Groom Range, where a local military installation is busy monitoring mysterious signals on approach for Earth. Within minutes of arriving, though, Carter is knocked unconscious and awakens to find the base overrun by technologically-advanced aliens… and they’re most definitely not here to make nice. Escaping with a small group of survivors, Carter is tasked with aiding the you-know-what program, originally intended for combating a potential Soviet threat, in defending the Earth and fighting back against the invaders. Along the way, he’ll meet a charismatic senior agent with a bent towards friendship and teamwork, a tough but fair boss who’ll stop at nothing to serve humanity, a pair of eccentric scientists enthralled by the chance to examine extraterrestrial technology, and a firm female officer with a tragic past and – oh good God, when will the cliches end?!
Look, the story’s adherence to traditional narrative is not its greatest problem, nor is it the weak attempt at crafting a non-linear narrative by cramming arbitrary dialogue options into conversations. I can handle a game going through the typical motions of “find a lead, investigate lead, lose some people, mourn for a second, find another lead, rinse and repeat”. I can even handle a game ripping off Deus Ex: Human Revolution in an attempt to invest the player – granted it’s only done slightly better here than the last time I saw this sort of thing (ahem, Dark), but still it’s bearable in the long run. What I can’t stand is how lazy and apathetic the developer seems to be about its characters. There’s no quiet moments of reflection between Carter and his boss, no heartwarming interactions between him and the aforementioned Agent Angela Weaver, and no really clever or entertaining dialogue from any of the other side characters. It’s Mass Effect or Deus Ex without the soul, talent and effort.
And I’m not even kidding about the Deus Ex connection – they pull that same bulls**t with their ending that I gave Human Revolution flak for. Essentially they try to make those little narrative “choices” have meaning in the climax before unveiling their “let’s have the gamers play God and make a grand scale, yet ultimately meaningless and weirdly underwhelming decision” ending. This can work if the game had a strict philosophical bent, or if the choices were less telegraphed and more interwoven so as to increase player investment. Instead, it comes off as kind of lazy, generic and lacking in merit.
Gameplay is a different story, in that it knows for sure which franchise it wants to rip off. The core gameplay of The Bureau is a competent and often efficient tactical shooter experience that nevertheless feels the need to take everything about Mass Effect 2‘s combat and do it with less effort. You control Carter and command two agents via a couple of hotkeys (or the console equivalent), with all strategy taking the form of an in-combat menu wherein you order one of the three to use an unexplained ability like commanding turrets or telekinetically lifting enemies, or to focus on a particular target. It reeks of ME2‘s “combat wheel” but lacks the finesse that system had, due to both the menu appearing as a line of command options that you have to carefully scroll over and the fact that the menu doesn’t pause the action but rather slows it to a crawl.
It’s also not helped by some really warped AI protocols. The enemies vary from being tactically paranoid to suicidal but ruthless, while your teammates work best as bullet magnets. You’ll carefully dole out orders and target enemies for explosive death, but then one of your fellow agents will have the bright idea to run straight into enemy fire and BOOM – all that hard work’s for nothing, and you have to run out to revive your ally. Fellow agents stick to cover when they should move, charge when they should hold back, and don’t have the common sense to run around the firing turret to rescue you instead of toward it.
Now I could accept some of this if death mattered and the strategy of managing a team received some focus, but sadly, because the game “needs” a main protagonist for the sake of plot structure and narrative progression, it’s now possible to never lose a teammate. This means that, should any one of the dozens of shooting segments you’ll encounter prove disastrous, plentiful if frustratingly-placed checkpoints ensure you can just go back to before the big fight and try again. Adding to the disappointment, none of Carter’s agents have distinctive personalities, speaking only in context with certain narrative moments and not receiving any fanfare or recognition if they die. It’s one thing to have a persistent main character to guide your damned narrative along, it’s another to deprive any potential fans of the soul-crushing goodness that comes from having distinctive, upgradeable, mortal lives in their hands – like a proper XCOM game would.
Speaking of things a XCOM fan would cringe at, the strategy elements begin and end with the missions. Outside of missions, the player can explore the XCOM base that is nicely sized and filled with a number of neat audio logs and notes seeking to expand the mythos (unsuccessfully, but admirably, I might add). You can upgrade agents’ abilities, customize their in-mission equipment, pick your team, talk to some of your fellow employees… and that’s about it. The available side-missions are two-fold: first, there are optional assignments to be taken on, like a trip to the countryside to prevent a missile launch; and second, there are missions you can send groups of Agents on, a la Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood‘s Assassin mission mechanic. The former does serve as a nice site-seeing tour of a few extra American locales, but all it adds are a couple more hours to the run time. The latter, meanwhile, works as a way of quickly building experience in lower-level agents but doesn’t amount to anything else.
This might seem like a lot of generalization and a lot of negatives, but the truth is what’s good about The Bureau doesn’t amount to a whole lot. The weapons, for the most part, feel good and varied; from your average (kinda over-powered) pistol to flashier weapons like Plasma Sniper Rifles and Laser SMGs, the range certainly does all it can to impress. While I can’t say much for the creativity or visual look of the powers Carter and company use, they do add a factor of strategy and tension to proceedings in that everything may hinge on a carefully calculated attack plan. There’s certainly tedium in how shooting segments are telegraphed from the way the environment is established, but transitioning in and out of cover is smooth enough and the aim for Carter is quite precise.
From the perspective of your average onlooker, The Bureau looks and sounds like a top-notch game. However, upon closer observation, one notices that the cutscenes’ fuzziness and various graphical bugs make them feel like late ’90s cutscenes – the kind that Command & Conquer would’ve said “No” to. In-game the character models look impressive and believable overall, especially on the facial side of things. Environments and style of dress for both humans and aliens fit the tone and time period, and everything has a nice polished sheen.
Sound is a bit harder to praise, since it hardly has an impact. Some subtle orchestral work crops up from time to time to remind us that this is a tense sci-fi adventure, and the use of licensed tunes like Buddy Holly’s “That’ll Be The Day” is certainly something I can’t argue with. However, the voice work comes across as disinterested and really phoned-in, especially for the eternally-monotone William Carter in all his blandness.
Truth be told, there’s nothing much of value to this game besides the fact that – underneath all the crap and half-hearted posturing – there is a decent shooter here. The themes of paranoia and shifting from fear of the Soviets to fear of extraterrestrials could have made for some grade-A science-fiction narrative, but instead it’s your run-of-the-mill late summer release that has no ambition to be anything more than a really shiny time-waster. I wouldn’t dare recommend this to an XCOM fan, but if you’re desperate for some third-person action this might bide your time until the real show begins from October onward.
Look at it this way: at least we have Enemy Within to look forward to. Small comfort, but with garbage like this around I’ll take what I can get.
Recommendation: Rent It