Tactics trump twitch shooting in this interesting XCOM twist.
By Stace Harman on May 13, 2013 at 9:55 pm
Amidst the shadowy corridors and hushed, low-lit rooms of The Bureau: XCOM Declassified’s recent live-action teaser, there’s a strong suggestion of secrets and subterfuge. The trailer appears to reveal that your role in 2K Marin’s upcoming third-person shooter is as a member of a department that does not officially exist, responding to threats that can never be openly acknowledged due to the panic they would cause across a 1960s America.
Having recently played a level of The Bureau, it has become a little harder to reconcile this premise with the actual game. For the most part, this is because it is now readily apparent that extra-terrestrial activity is not only occurring in isolated incidents within localised areas of the US but is instead cropping-up at dozens of sites across the whole country. What’s more, the single incident that I’m dispatched to deal with during my hands-on time involves multiple skyscraper-sized alien towers hovering over Pima, New Mexico.
In short, the alien invasion is happening on a level that would be hard to convince the general populace to dismiss as stray weather balloons, errant military tests or funny-looking cloud formations. It’s at this point that I begin to suspect that the “Erase the Truth” tagline may have less bearing on the gameplay than I had originally hoped.
“[Erasing the truth] is more the prime directive of the Bureau; more an overall meta-goal of the organisation as a whole,” confirms Nico Bihary, senior publishing producer at 2K. “So, you don’t finish a goal and then get a breakdown saying that you achieved ‘a 30% cover-up’, for example. Instead, it’s interwoven as part of the narrative experience.
“For us, the game is really about battlefield management, that’s really the entire focus but there are also elements of a strong narrative experience.”
The battlefield management to which Bihary refers consists of a choosing three agents from a roster of eight and tooling-up before hitting the field. There are a number of familiar franchise elements at work here and anyone who’s played Fireaxis’ excellent XCOM: Enemy Unknown will recognise certain abilities, alien species, weapon types and character classes, even as the 1960s setting seeks to differentiate The Bureau from its sister-title’s near-future aesthetic.
There’s still an HQ to manage, for example, with a research lab to put to work to decipher the secrets of alien technology, an agent recruitment and training process and an Ops room where you’ll choose which of the optional and story-critical missions to tackle and when. However, as Bihary suggests, the real focus of this tactical third-person shooter is the battlefield management; adapting to the ebb and flow of the fight as it happens on the ground, rather than taking Enemy Unknown’s more detached, isometric eye-in-the-sky overview.
In practice, this lends more immediacy to combat without it devolving into a twitch shooter and Enemy Unknown’s at-a-glance cover rating system of zero, half or full cover is implemented to good effect here. However, cover-alone is not going to win you the war and if you’re going to make any inroads to eradicating the alien threat then more aggressive action is required. It’s here where The Bureau’s tactical leanings reveal themselves.
Battle Focus is The Bureau’s radial-menu management tool for utilising your squad’s abilities and tactics, which are essential for triumphing against the often superior number of alien invaders on the battlefield. While you directly control the movement of one of your agents, the other two require your input to position them toward advantageous flanking positions or to be pulled out of harm’s way. Accessing the Battle Focus menu slows down time but still requires a modicum of quick thinking to manage each agent’s movement, combat targets and their use of abilities, which can be queued and combined for optimal execution.
In truth, the abilities themselves are hardly innovative, with the ability to lift enemies out of cover, draw aggro, lay mines and turrets or take extra time to deliver a critical headshot among those available. The way in which these powers can be combined, though, offers scope for personalised strategies as well as the opportunity to find the most potent combination against different enemy types.
It’s satisfying to taunt an enemy with one agent while another lines-up a headshot, and amusing to flush-out multiple entrenched Sectoids by levitating a turret so that it can fire over their makeshift cover. What this amounts to is a degree of familiarity with the powers at your disposal and a UI that looks similar to that found in Mass Effect, while the more hands-on approach that’s required in order to win skirmishes draws meaningful influence from The Bureau’s turn-based brethren, Enemy Unknown.
With a total of around half a dozen abilities per max-level agent class, it’s these combinations that provide The Bureau’s combat variety, while choice of agents, weapons and upgrade paths also offer a personalised approach to each mission rather than it being proscribed by the level designers:
“It’s less about creating a bunch of constraints that say you have to have a specific class or character to be successful, because I don’t think that works,” reveals Bihary. “It’s instead about understanding what the pillars of an XCOM game are: tools, technology and tactics and then letting you work out how to combine those pillars to be successful.”
In all, I come away from playing The Bureau: XCOM Declassified both hopeful and a little disappointed. It’s hard not to feel like 2K Marin has missed a trick by not tapping into the more cerebral covert ops suggested by the live-action teaser. However, it’s also promising to sample a single-player third-person shooter that requires an understanding of the options and abilities at your disposal and encourages you to experiment with them, while also asking that you tailor the behaviour of your AI squad mates to your particular liking.
As with the series’ infamous approach to perma-death, it’s a gamble that could prove immensely satisfying if everything else falls into place.
The Bureau arrives on PC and consoles in August.
For more on the game, read our interview with the developers where they lament how “obscenely accessible” modern games have become, and what they are going to do about it.