After multiple studios and re-imaginings, can The Bureau finally live up to its promise?
By James Pinnell on August 22, 2013 at 3:57 pm
X-COM was once one of those sacred properties that would live on, forever, in the minds of those lucky enough to have experienced them in their original glory. Arguably one of the best turn-based strategy titles ever made, X-COM: UFO Defence redefined how players managed not only a squad, or a mission, but an entire counter-attack against invading aliens. Balancing resources and making the tough decisions about which parts of Earth to save or leave to rot was not only an unrelentingly stressful and difficult task, but immensely satisfying when it all came together.
The recent remake of this classic, Enemy Unknown, had its problems but succeeded (get our review here) in understanding what elements made the original so addictive and enjoyable, while adding a 3D perspective and modifying behavior to allow for a new system of cover and squad manipulation.
The Bureau: XCOM Declassified began its life as the “original” re-imagining — an FPS where you would take on the form of an individual squad member or commander (ala Syndicate) and fight through the invasion at ground level with the ability to pause and modify squad placement from the top down. From the moment it was announced, the title was forced to rush through a plethora of various forms and imaginings, ditching its isometric roots to compete on the same level as other shooters. Terms like “survival horror” were bandied around, to the (actual) horror of many X-COM devotees, along with a host of promises to preserve elements like squad and base control.
Eventually, the FPS idea was dropped after an uproar from the community (and critics) and instead morphed into a third person, over the shoulder shooter which essentially is much of what they promised — just from a different perspective.
The game is set in the 60′s, and opens with an alien attack on a major military facility where you, Special Agent William Carter, are awaiting orders to deliver a mysterious suitcase to a mysterious gentleman. Before long, you’re part of “The Bureau”, originally set up to defend the US from Soviet attack, but quickly retrofitted to becoming the final stand against the invasion. It’s from here that the bulk of the game is played — from researching new technologies, chatting to various people about various world ending topics, to choosing which part of the United States you’d like to visit and blow away aliens in.
It’s here you can see that 2K Marin have nailed the aesthetic. Everything looks sufficiently part of the Kennedy era, from the WW2 rifles to the various “Home Town USA” locales you’ll find yourself in. Everything down to the voices, clothes and makeup of the various characters replicates the paranoid antics of Cold War era America. The problem lies in that claustrophobic element of being actually stuck within the XCOM base.
In the original game you flew above the base, quickly accessing various areas to upgrade tech or sort out your squad. Deploying was just a couple of clicks away. On base (and in person) you’ll find yourself walking (more like meandering, really) around the various sections of XCOM, having largely useless conversations about pointless babble in order to proceed to the next mission. Those keen on Bioshock style diaries will find them littered around the place to pick up or listen to — from notes to recordings — which lets you uncover untold parts of the story, but generally you’ll end up frustrated that getting everything done is so laborious. It’s surprising, and a little confounding — especially since accessing the same functions when you are out on a mission is much simpler, as are the mechanics of play, that you wonder why the base wasn’t just a couple of menus or a top down area in the first place.
The Bureau, ultimately, aspires to be too many different things. When you’re out in the field, it’s XCOM at the coal face. You control your squad via an intuitive full screen menu that pops up when you hit the spacebar and allows you to quickly provide orders to your squadmates, from dropping mines to placing them behind new cover. When the system works, it works well — it’s easy to jump in and out of active combat to set up a flanking maneuver or to set up a combo attack of various abilities in perfect synchronization. But when it doesn’t (which is more often than not) you’ll be yelling at the confounding stupidity of your AI controlled squaddies as they attempt to get themselves killed in the most moronic ways possible.
Sometimes, they’ll run directly through a group of trigger happy enemies, instead of carefully around heavy cover. They’ll run out into an area to drop a mine, instead of lobbing it from a safe spot behind cover. Other times they’ll simply blind fire at a gun turret.
I found myself micro-managing almost every movement, hitting space after each successful attack to reposition or re-target their aim, or simply hitting F2 to bring them back to my position. Leaving them alone during the ability recharge period was far too dicey: in most cases they would sit and absorb fire until they become incapacitated, leaving me or the alternative squadmate to revive them. Thankfully, during the revival process you are actually invulnerable to attack, meaning it was almost impossible to die unless you were supremely incompetent. It’s like the developers were well aware of how useless your team were without you shepherding their every action, and took pity on you as you struggled to move your clumsy arse in and out of cover while your men (there are no women) flipped and flopped around the battlefield like dying fish on the hull of your dads dinghy.
It’s a shame too, because parts of the combat can be a lot of fun, especially when you level up enough to have pretty fun abilities such as lifting up dudes from behind cover for easy shots, or dropping laser turrets for protection against flanking. There’s a host of traditional XCOM weaponry on offer, plus the custom upgrade packs and perks to bolster your teams effectiveness. You can name your squad (a feature that is one of my personal XCOM favourites) and create new agents for your roster. Later on in the game there are also a couple of outstanding missions that make much of the AI frustrations somewhat forgettable, but combat still tends to favour the waves of drop-podded enemies with the odd elite here and there. This in itself isn’t a bad thing, and frankly, XCOM was just a bunch of enemies on a map you needed to kill, so I can’t pretend like I didn’t enjoy it — at least those times when I wasn’t having to constantly stop my teammates from running across landmines.
The Bureau draws heavily from Mass Effect. Unfortunately, while it stole a lot of the elements that made it interesting, it failed to keep the controls tight and responsive, or make the story interesting and deep, or gift you with AI squadmates intelligent enough to keep themselves alive during a firefight. Even the dialogue trees are ripped straight out of BioWare’s playbook, offering you various wheel-based options for responses alongside a number of choices at various avenues. But I just wasn’t feeling it — during combat missions the story is communicated through cutscenes without a whole lot of subtlety. The voice acting is okay, but the animations are in many cases broken (one NPC just stared at the ceiling while he talked to me) and at other times I found the lip-syncing way off. On top of that, the plot is just plain boring, uninspiring and relies too much on tropes. I won’t spoil it, but the whole Roswell thing just doesn’t cut it any more.
The Bureau: XCOM Declassified is, unfortunately, another casualty of a development hell project with just too many flaws to recommend. Sure, there’s a lot of fun action to be had. But there’s also far too much filler stuffed in and around the fun parts. If I were you, I’d sit out on this particular assignment, especially if you’re an X-COM diehard.
- Great presentation, atmosphere and aesthics
- Intense, XCOM inspired third person combat
- Poor AI lets down much of the strategic elements
- A boring story with generic, uninspiring protagonists
- Missing some polish around voice acting, animations and graphics quality
- Didn’t really need the XCOM name at all
The Bureau: XCOM Declassified is available on Steam as of tomorrow for $79.99.
This review copy supplied by the publisher.