When XCOM: Enemy Unknown was released it caught a few people off-guard, and what some expected to see as a rehash of former glory actually turned out to be one of this generation’s great strategy titles. Spurred on by the success 2K Marin (who previously worked on Bioshock) chose to press ahead with The Bureau: XCOM Declassified, a game that started life as a poorly received first person shooter and has evolved into something a lot more interesting.
The Bureau takes several directions in its approach – part squad-based strategy, part cover-based third person shooter and part sub-quest-hunting conversations, it tries to do a lot at once. You can clearly see inspiration from the likes of Gears of War and Mass Effect both in the action itself and the downtime between missions, but like a baker who takes the finest ingredients and still manages to underbake his potentially tasty muffins, The Bureau never really manages to hit the heights of those previous games. There are glimpses of greatness, and it’s painfully easy to see just how The Bureau could have ended up on par with Enemy Unknown, but there are one or two things that stop it becoming a great.
That’s not to say it’s a crappy cash-in, not at all. Taking on the role of Will Carter, a growly-voiced ex-agent who constantly torments himself over the unavoidable demise of his family, you’re tasked with the straightforward mission of putting a stop to a sudden alien invasion. Other agents will turn up along the way to help out (or you can recruit more of your own), and like Enemy Unknown these can be customised with various classes and abilities and renamed to whatever you like. It’s the same dilemma that you might have found before – you’re inclined to name them after your friends, but considering that an agent’s death will wipe them out completely it’s a bit hard to take when your best mate gets killed because you were off looking for an ammo refill and forgot he was elsewhere.
Which leads up nicely to the two sides of how you control yourself and your squadmates. Using a very slick selection wheel presumably plucked from Mass Effect you can direct your fellow agents around the area, select which enemy for them to focus on and direct their special funky powers wherever you see fit. The XCOM cover shields are back, letting you see how safe they’ll be when they turn up at their designated spot, although you’ll need to be a bit quicker when decided where to send them. The Battle Focus option slows the battle down to 10% of its actual speed, and gives you a wider view of the area you’re fighting in. While you’re directing your buddies around the place the fight carries on around you, and knowing where in the wheel each ability lies gives you a big advantage. It’s a great system that works pretty well – the combat itself is a very slow burner at first, but as you and your agents level up and unlock more skills it becomes far more fun, especially once you’ve figured out just how dim your fellow fighters are and found how to control them properly.
It’s easy at first to point them to a certain starting point, tell them where to target and let them get on with it. It feels like you should be able to go off and fight your own fight, but before long it becomes clear that’s not the case. They’re lacking in intelligence, that’s for sure – they won’t use their own abilities properly, they’ll stand out of cover and let themselves get shot at, they’ll ignore a handy shield bubble you’ve set up and just carry on where they were. It’s frustrating at first, but once you realise just how much you need to hold their hands by using the selection wheel it soon becomes second nature, and once that has happened and you’re level is reaching its upper limit the game hits its stride and becomes very enjoyable. Battled become a balance between keeping yourself save, making sure the others are getting on alright and keeping a close eye on the special abilities as they cool down ready to be used again. It’s an indication of what 2K were aiming for, and at this point it’s very easy to forget the other bits and bobs clogging up the game and get engrossed into what’s important.
It’s just a shame it takes so long to get there. The opening few hours are more about building up your team and having long conversations with people around the XCOM base. While you can’t decide on the development routes this time round there are side-missions that you can go on to get little upgrades to your equipment, or additional agents to be rescued. You can send your spare agents on other missions without you, again for small rewards while you’re off somewhere else, but the potential for a more strategic side-mode here has been missed and all you’ll need to do it send agents whose levels total a certain requirement. You’re also encouraged to wander round the base talking to people in order to find extra missions and investigations to help you on your way. While these offer an extra way to spend your time, they started to feel a little long winded after a while, and I was more interested in getting back onto the battlefield and using my newly acquired abilities a bit more.
There are very few complaints when it comes to how everything looks. Despite alien locations being a little stereotypical at times the environments themselves look wonderful, and whether you’re working your way through a wrecked town or a seemingly untouched bit of countryside it’s not difficult to see how the invasion is affecting day to day lives, with the brainwashed “sleepwalkers” also staggering around in a totally harmless but strangely creepy fashion.
What’s clear after spending some time with The Bureau is what it could have been. It’s too simple to spot things that might have been a bit better, or a bit more polished. It’s clear that it’s had a rough ride through its development and struggles to nail down its own identity as a result. Let’s not lose sight of its qualities though – get past the early awkwardness and there’s a really good game to be had here, but don’t expect to be blown away as you might have been with Enemy Unknown. It’s definitely a good game – certainly better than some have given it credit for – but it’s just not as brilliant as I’d hoped.
Reviewed on PS3