The Bureau: XCOM Declassified has had a long and troubled history. It was announced before the recently released strategy game XCOM: Enemy Unknown, but the fan response to the reveal was extremely critical. The original X-COM franchise was one of the icons of PC strategy gaming, and the early versions of The Bureau was more reminiscent of BioShock. For a variety of reasons, the game went back to the drawing board. Perhaps that may explain why it is so inconsistent. There's a basis for a good game in The Bureau: XCOM Declassified, but it is buried beneath the weight of the franchise.
The Bureau is set in the 1960s, during the height of the Cold War. Players are put in the shoes of William Carter, a government agent assigned to deliver a mysterious box to his higher-ups. On the way, Carter is attacked by a fellow agent, who turns into a glowing-eyed monstrosity. He's saved when the box opens, burns the possessed agent and heals Carter's wounds. This encounter is the beginning of a large-scale alien invasion by a group called the Outsiders. The alien race seems bent on taking over the world, starting with the United States. The only hope of stopping them is a new secret government organization that's been specifically created to stop the Outsiders: XCOM. Carter is quickly initiated into XCOM and sets out to stop the Outsider invasion.
The plot seems simple on the surface, but it is told in a very strange way. Characters gain knowledge without any rhyme or reason. They change motivations and characterizations on a whim. Events occur for no clear reason — or for reasons that are buried in optional conversations. It's possible to miss important plot points because you didn't do an optional side-quest. There is a large, and theoretically shocking, twist near the end of the game, but nothing seems to come of it. You have multiple endings, but they're effectively the same ending with slightly different voice-overs.
Additionally, the plot doesn't make much sense. One of the first things we're told is that Washington D.C., has gone dark and the aliens are invading in huge numbers. The rest of the game tries to pretend that it is a covert invasion and XCOM is trying to remain stealthy. The ending implies that everything was wrapped up and hidden, which seems impossible considering the events in the game. One side-quest involves proving the alien invasion to a Russian spy. The story jumps between full-scale invasion and covert operation, sometimes within the same cut scene. Carter's growing superpowers are supposed to be a major plot point, but people rarely talk about or react to them. XCOM: Enemy Unknown fans will also be frustrated if they were looking for more of the same world. The game reuses enemy names, but that is about the total of the connection to its strategy brethren.
The Bureau looks like an attempt to combine third-person shooter mechanics with XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Carter plays exactly like any modern third-person protagonist in any modern shooter. He can hold two guns, hide behind cover, and blindly fire. You also have two AI-controlled agents who are under Carter's command. You can press the Circle button to activate the Battle Focus mode, which temporarily slows down time. Then select special abilities or order your allies to move around the battlefield. This is a little awkward because to issue orders to your allies, you move a cursor exactly as you would a character. This means you need to walk it up stairs, and if you guide it off a ledge, it's difficult to get it back. It doesn't take long to adjust, and before long, you'll be spamming abilities left and right.
Special abilities are the name of the game in The Bureau. Carter's abilities result from his exposure to the alien technology, and they unlock as the game progresses. He can heal allies, summon enemy units, and use psychic powers. Your agents also have abilities based on their character class: Commando, Engineer, Recon and Support. Commandos are the tank class, capable of soaking damage and taunting enemies. Engineers can create turrets and mines. Supports can buff allies, debuff enemies, and recover wounded agents. Recon are long-distance snipers who can also call in air strikes. The character classes feel relatively well balanced.
There are a lot of other mechanics that look like they should be important. All cover is graded using the same no shield/half-shield/full shield rating as Enemy Unknown. Likewise, enemy and ally cover can be weakened by flanking them. When you go into Battle Focus mode, you can see how exposed your enemies or allies are. If you go into The Bureau directly from Enemy Unknown, you'd understandably try to play it the same way, but that's a recipe for disaster. The game feels like an unrelated shooter that has some Enemy Unknown mechanics attached. Try to worry about flanking or enemy cover or moving your allies, and that's the fastest way to getting your team wiped out. It may look like Enemy Unknown, but in terms of strategy, the gameplay is closer to Mass Effect.
The biggest hindrance is your AI partners. Those who've played Mass Effect know how annoying squad AI can be. The AI isn't smart enough to stay safe, and your allies go down quickly, so you must constantly revive them. With The Bureau's combat system, all of these problems are magnified. The agent AI is almost suicidal. In an attempt to avoid a grenade, one of my allies ended up running in a circle until he was gunned down by the enemy. You can order AI to stay behind cover, but they like disobeying orders and step out from behind cover to get gunned down by a Sectopod. This frustration is compounded by the fact that your squadmates permanently die if you let them bleed out, so you're forced to charge across the map through enemy fire to revive them. You can order your surviving agent to rescue your ally, but that goes about as well as you'd expect.
The difficulty in a combat area depends on how stupid your AI partners act. If they're willing to stay behind cover and not do stupid things, you can win most fights easily. If they decide to run out to enemy gunfire and die repeatedly, a simple fight can become immensely frustrating. This also has the odd side effect of giving the game an inverse difficulty curve. As your allies level up and gain more hit points and defensive abilities, the game becomes easier. As soon as your allies can survive long enough for your heal ability to recharge, it is impossible to lose a fight. By the end, every major combat area was trivial and I was tearing apart endgame enemies without moving from cover.
Fortunately, the enemy AI is similarly brainless. Each enemy functions as an autonomous unit, so there's no sense of strategy or tactics; they must mindlessly swarm toward you. The only enemy who offers help to allies is the Drone, which can heal other aliens. So the best way to play the game is to treat it like Mass Effect: Set your allies to defend a position, do all the killing yourself, and use your allies' skills to supplement yours. There's no need to worry about flanking or cover bonuses. There are several enemies who take more damage when shot from behind, but that is because they have glowing weak points that you need to target. Trying to play the game intelligently makes it slower and more difficult.
To the game's credit, there's a fun rhythm to the combat once you have two higher-level agents on your side. It isn't challenging, but it's fun to chain your abilities to tear through enemy defenses. Your squadmates level up in combat or can be sent on "dispatch missions" that earn them a free level, so you're not forced to stick with a class for too long. You can equip special backpacks to give your characters a passive boost, but most people will likely stick to the very useful "reduces cooldown" backpacks.
The Bureau is remarkably short. There are a handful of story missions and a few optional side missions. You can burn through the main story and side missions in about seven hours. If you skip the side missions, it'll take even less time. The game offers a lot of optional dialogue in your main XCOM base, but the convoluted and inconsistent plot makes it difficult to care about world building. Talking to various allies only highlighted plot holes and characterization problems. The side-quests may unlock pre-leveled agents and backpacks, but most of these aren't worth the time.
The Bureau: XCOM Declassified is a lot of wasted effort. The Bureau isn't for XCOM fans, but it isn't for shooter fans, either. The basis for a fun and interesting game is there, but the XCOM name hangs like an albatross from its neck. Much of the game design and story would make more sense in a title that wasn't trying to be XCOM. Had the developers focused on making a Mass Effect-style shooter without the XCOM trappings, this would've been a far more enjoyable game. Instead, we get a painful mishmash of mechanics that work against each other. There's some fun to be had once you get rolling with a high-level team, but the amount of time and effort required to get there isn't worth the payoff.
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