Review: The Bureau: XCOM Declassified

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Prior to Firaxis’ much loved XCOM: Enemy Unknown, the idea of XCOM becoming a shooter was met with much doubt and outcry. History tells us that a popular franchise spinning off into another completely different genre generally doesn’t pan out, but that didn’t stop 2K from attempting to broaden the XCOM brand with The Bureau: XCOM Declassified, a tactical third-person shooter to the franchise’s usual turn-based strategy.

I’ve played a few hours of Enemy Unknown thanks to PS+. It’s not my favorite, but I can appreciate all of the improvements and ease of accessibility the reboot offers to modern gamers. After playing it I can’t help but think that The Bureau would have been better suited being released with a different name unrelated to the XCOM universe. Now that’s not to say that The Bureau is a poor game, it’s just that there are some aspects of the game that take liberties and almost go too far with the scope while overlooking the premise of the title.

The Bureau is set as a prequel of sorts showing off how the XCOM division was created. A wonderful introduction of 60s government soldiers and scientists doing their best to battle a world destroying alien force, all the while keeping everything hidden from public awareness, sets an intriguing stage. Except the encounters feel almost too grandiose. Government cover-up or not, The Bureau paints itself into a corner and then struggles a bit in the end by trying to not completely re-write how events from Enemy Unknown begin.

The Bureau doesn’t just simply play as a third-person shooter. Instead, it borrows a fair amount from Enemy Unknown by assigning squad member commands fitting the skills of their class. Engineers lay down mines or turrets as they typically do in video games. Commandos can put a shield on another squad member or dish out attack power boosts and health increases. Support members use combat stims to boost damage, place shield spheres that two members can hide behind, or weaken armor or disable an enemy shield. And the recon class has a high power crack shot attack to pick off enemies for increased damage, and can also use cloaking and put out a decoy while sneaking to flank the enemy. 

All of these powers can make for an exciting turn-based encounter, but in a real-time shooter format things obviously become a lot more frantic and fast paced. Fortunately, as fast as the action unfolds, there are plenty of ways to tactically issue orders or assess which enemy should be focused on next. At the push of a button, you can enter Battle Focus which slows down the encounter but doesn’t completely stop the movement of aliens or your squad. Holding down the left trigger allows for a full scan of the area, and when held down on particular enemies offers specific information about the target. 

In addition to issuing squad commands, each encounter allows for plenty of environmental improvisation by taking cover behind cars, hay bails, fences etc.  The problem with this, however, is the fact that anytime your squad walks into a large area with random walls or objects that feel like they probably shouldn’t be there, you can tell immediately that some element of combat is going to occur. Depending on the mission, it quickly becomes obvious that two or three escalating waves of enemies will appear. After a while, the game just becomes familiar and predictable.

Hardcore players will probably be happy to hear that The Bureau has permadeath. Depending on the level of difficulty the game is played at, if a squad mate is dropped during combat and is not revived before they bleed out, they are lost for good. On easy, a replacement will fill the ranks of a fallen soldier mid mission. However on higher difficulties, squad mates don’t automatically appear mid mission and recruits aren’t unlimited to act as replacements. Once a squad mate is lost another recruit can be added to the roster.

Selecting between minor or major missions is based around non-combat interactions held at the XCOM headquarters. These interactions offer some interesting character growth and exposition, but often feel like they are filler to pad the game’s length. While some interactions offer minor branching paths for conversation choices, there isn’t any sense that one choice would shift the tone or balance of the game one way or another. The writing and performances during these non-combat moments help to make the game more interesting, but there is also a lot of running around doing what feels like fetch quests as well. Overall, though, if The Bureau didn’t have these interludes between combat scenarios, the game would not be nearly as good as it is.

That’s mostly because the shooting bits don’t offer anything that truly stands out. Combat is serviceable, but not exceptional. The reliance on squad mates during shootouts makes for a challenging tactical exercise, but only having two to order around is a frustrating limitation. Four specialties that all have their own benefits during certain types of combat means missions could be handled faster if more appropriate skills are brought along. During major story missions, there are checkpoints which allow for squad members to be switched out, but without knowing what type of enemies will be encountered before hand the process of choosing who to bring along feels more like a gamble than the result of tactical thinking. There are also unattended missions that can be played with unused squad mates, but the downfall to these missions is that they only finish once a major or minor mission is completed. Sending out unused squad mates during non-combat downtime would have been a great way to level the rest of the team while running around in the base helping to further the story.

The Bureau was clearly put together with a lot of care, but in the end doesn’t quite go the extra mile to feel like a “must play” game. General fans of tactical shooters will find The Bureau to have enough fun moments to be worth playing. But gamers used to the turn-based XCOM standard will likely not be nearly as enamored with this rendition of the franchise.

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Pros:
+ Interesting tactical shooter mechanic
+ Cool retro G-man art style
+ Engaging character growth

Cons:
– Combat encounters become repetitive
– The story feels shoehorned into the XCOM franchise

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on PC, also available for PS3 and Xbox 360
Publisher: 2K Games
Developer: 2K Marin
Release Date: 8/20/2013
Genre: Tactical third-person shooter
ESRB Rating: Mature
Players: 1
Source: Review code provided by publisher

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About the Author

Tim has been playing video games for more than 20 years. He manages to find time to game in between raising three kids and working as a network administrator. Follow Tim on Twitter @freemantim.