In 2010, 2K announced that classic strategy series X-COM would be revived in the form of a first-person shooter, to predictable and mostly justified fan outrage. 2012's XCOM: Enemy Unknown gave gamers a reason to love the series once again, achieving the rare feat of appealing to both seasoned fans and new players alike. Following up such success was always going to be difficult, and The Bureau: XCOM Declassified, the re-emergence of 2K's attempt to fuse classic strategy gameplay with elements of contemporary shooters, arguably has large shoes to fill.
Story-wise, The Bureau has very little to write home about. It's the 1960s, aliens have invaded Earth and you, hard-boiled and straight faced agent William Carter, are tasked with stopping them. There's really not a lot more to it than that. For the most part it's about as stock and clichéd as video game stories get. This is not necessarily a bad thing; The Last of Us for example used a very clichéd setting and premise, but the execution made it work. Here, there isn't much execution to speak of, in all honesty.
My biggest problem with this game is that very little effort is put into building the player's emotional involvement with the story. There's plenty of dialogue that helps flesh out the world and the events that have taken place within it, but nothing to make the player care about any of it. Yes, there's an alien invasion. I can see that humanity is doomed, yes. The question of why I should give a damn, however, remains unanswered.
Much of the problem lies with protagonist William Carter, who is one of the most unsympathetic and unlikeable lead characters I have ever controlled. Playing the jaded, emotionless action hero trope completely straight until the end, not once did I find myself rooting for his success.
The supporting cast are not much better, with each of them soundly occupying standard archetypes and achieving very little else. Character development is easily the most important way of building the player's connection with a story, and here it is entirely ignored. The voice acting is partly to blame; rarely rising above the video game average, the performances feel uninspired and unmemorable.
Not only that, the world of The Bureau feels particularly alienating due to its lack of willingness to explain what is happening. Terms like "Mosaic" and "Origin" are thrown around by characters with little explanation, as if the player is expected to understand them. I'm a big fan of "show, don't tell" storytelling, and that effect is achieved to some degree, but a little more explanation may have been helpful to aid the player's engagement with the in-game world.
Without wishing to spoil anything, skip this paragraph if you're worried about spoilers, The Bureau attempts a fourth wall breaking plot twist towards the end, but it isn't entirely successful. Where games like BioShock and Metal Gear Solid 2 use such twists to make some kind of meta-statement about player agency, for example, The Bureau's twist seems to exist simply for the sake of it, and as such it falls somewhat flat.
All of this would be forgivable if the gameplay was exceptional, but sadly that is not the case. In theory, the fusion of third person shooting and real-time strategy sounds promising. The execution, however, is where The Bureau falters. For the most part, it feels more like a standard cover-based third person shooter than anything. In this regard, it's average at best. Controls are somewhat clunky and unresponsive; feeling like an unrefined Gears of War clone, and are highly unsuited to the fast pace the game expects you to keep.
Thankfully, the strategy elements are implemented far more successfully. The various abilities that William and his squad are imbued with are almost universally fun to use. The variety of abilities on offer is striking, from simple pulse wave attacks and enemy lifts, to mind control and the ability to summon friendly drones and the "XCOM Silicoid", a supremely helpful black blob-like creature.
Sadly, the process of using many of these abilities can become a little frustrating. The targeting reticule can only travel along the ground, so it must be manoeuvred around characters and terrain and up and down stairs, only sometimes it will act unpredictably, climbing over railings for example. Couple this with the slow movement of the reticule, and the fact that you can still be attacked while moving it around, and you've got a recipe for frustration. Not enough to ruin the entire experience, but certainly enough to prompt a few swear words, now and again.
However enjoyable these abilities are, it must be said that the strategy elements are not nearly as robust as I or indeed many XCOM fans, would like them to be. Despite the large range of abilities, the number of day-to-day commands used in the field is very limited. As mentioned earlier, The Bureau still feels more like a shooter than anything, so those of you looking for a deeper tactical experience will not be satisfied.
Part of this problem lies in the mission and level design. Mission areas are strictly linear and littered with chest high walls, and objectives never become more interesting than "Kill all of the enemies". The lack of enemy variety is also a notable problem. Although they are well designed and evoke an authentic XCOM feeling, there are roughly six of them, and they are repeated constantly.
The difficulty is another issue. I'm not saying that the game isn't hard. Quite the contrary, it's crushingly difficult, especially on Veteran mode and above. My problem lies with the method of achieving said difficulty. Where older XCOM titles escalated the challenge by presenting the player with ever more complex scenarios, The Bureau just multiples the number of enemies and the number of waves that the player is forced to fight. The player is never tasked with working out the solution to a complex problem; they are tasked with clearing out rooms of bad guys right until the very end.
As such, many encounters are reduced to battles of attrition rather than tests of skill, and it's because of this that even those players looking for a more challenging, cerebral experience are brought down to the level of those who aren't, simply by the nature of the game's design.
Despite all of these complaints, the strategy elements are the most enjoyable part of The Bureau, but I really wish they had been implemented more successfully. As it stands, they serve only to elevate the game from a below-average third-person shooter into something slightly more interesting.
One holdover from previous XCOM titles that makes a very welcome return in this game is the concept of permadeath. If one of your allies dies in the field and you complete the mission, they stay dead for the rest of the game. Since the usefulness of your allies depends on their accumulated experience, it can be harrowing to lose a character and have to train a new one from scratch, which adds an element of tension to encounters, and forces you to be ready to have allies revived at all times.
It is worth noting however, that you can bring your allies back by simply restarting from the previous checkpoint. This isn't like Dark Souls, where permanent means permanent, but still, it goes a long way to enhancing the game and making it feel more like a classic XCOM title.
In general, The Bureau is a technically sound game, but it still has some notable issues that frequently affect the experience. The AI is perhaps the most questionable element; the least you should expect from allies in a cover-based shooter is that they will take cover. Sadly, this is not always the case, as I often found my AI partners wondering out without any prompt and getting themselves killed. Given the player's lack of control over when and where this will happen, this can lead to some very frustrating moments, as there is nothing more irritating than being punished for something that you cannot control, in any game.
There are a few other minor issues. The weapon aiming reticule will just disappear for a second or two at a time while firing every now and then, which can cause some disorientation during hectic moments. The orders to move your allies around and to quick-select targets for them are mapped to the same button, and occasionally the game will recognise one as the other, resulting in infrequent but entirely frustrating moments in which you wish to target an enemy and instead inadvertently send your allies to their deaths.
There's also a freeze of about a second or so during every quick-save. This isn't game-breaking but given the frequency of these saves, it can become a little irritating at times. Full-on freezes are thankfully much rarer but aren't unheard of, with one taking place during a pivotal cutscene, during my playthrough.
One area in which The Bureau deserves some praise is for its aesthetic design. The first half of the game takes place mostly in small towns, and these areas do a fantastic job of building a colourful and authentic-feeling 60s world. Most of the second half of the game takes place in futuristic, spaceship-like areas reminiscent of Dead Space and Mass Effect. Although these areas do feel a little derivative at times, they are still well designed and pleasing to the eye. It's worth noting that although The Bureau is not all that graphically impressive, it proves once again that art direction is far more important than pixel counts.
The transition between these two styles, however, could have been handled far more sensitively. There is a stark contrast between the quaint tranquillity of the game's first half and the harsh mechanicality of the second, and once again this remains unaddressed. No greater point is made about the dark underbelly of a seemingly peaceful society a la BioShock Infinite, for example. The change is simply presented as a part of the story, and as such feels out of place and somewhat jarring.
Despite the laudable visual design, the music is far less appealing. Almost entirely unmemorable and frighteningly generic, it adds little of value to the experience. The sound design is similarly uninspired, consisting mostly of entirely average stock sounds for weapons and abilities. This is certainly a game to set your own soundtrack too, and this aspect of the game would be entirely irredeemable were it not for some choice classics played during the ending credits.
To its credit, The Bureau is a very substantial game. A straight story playthrough will take around 8 hours, but this is easily doubled, at the very least, by all of the side-quests. Coupled with the vast amounts of dialogue and increased difficulty settings and there's a very long lasting game here, for those who enjoy it.
Overall though, The Bureau is something of a disappointment. It feels like a compromise, an awkward mix of shooter and strategy game in which neither element is allowed to shine. Shooter fans will most likely be reminded of superior titles like Uncharted and Gears of War, while strategy fans will be prompted to revisit the excellent XCOM: Enemy Unknown. As it stands, The Bureau is a perfect example of the dangers of attempting to appeal to everybody, proving that, more often than not, you won't appeal to anybody.