The Cold War is raging on all around. Conspiracies fly through the airwaves like falling leaves in Autumn. Secret government bases are more commonplace than actual government buildings. Paranoia infects everyone. Then it happens. The Outsiders attack. You control Agent William Carter as he fights back with a small team from the XCOM base. The fight against the Aliens however is on a par with the fight against the game itself. Maybe its all a conspiracy. I need to take my favourite gun out to a grassy knoll and contemplate this.
Almost forgot my tinfoil hat.
So this is The Bureau: XCOM Declassified. The latest and only finished iteration of the XCOM FPS which has been through more key changes than a prog rock song. 2K Marin initially threw us all a trailer of an FPS based around the classic strategy series first created as a spiritual successor to the Mythos Games’ strategy classic original. Then after fan backlash 2K announced Enemy Unknown which stuck to the series’ deep roots and the FPS game fell into the depths of development. After several years and many design changes The Bureau burst out of the mire squinting into the light of gaming press to a mixture of praise and scrutiny. Gameplay demo’s at E3 sparked a great deal of interest in what looked like an interesting take on an old franchise in a new genre.
Agent William Carter is the character you control. A hardened government agent haunted by the death of his family while on mission who drinks to forget. Cliché you say? Yeah incredibly so, especially with his outfit which resembles any carbon copy US Government agent with the hand gun harness and his trusty hat. The hat can be shot off though and lost which is something of a shame, the hat is his most charming feature. His demeanour is often that of an anti-hero with the hero sapped out of him. He doesn’t react to people in a normal fashion or even in an abnormal fashion. A conflict with a character for example when his name is said wrongly is simply brushed off. His reaction to killing an infected human is to state “They are all infected”, no feeling for killing an innocent in cold blood. Not at one point throughout the entire game did Agent William Carter feel like a fully fledge human being. The character instead just feels like a means to an end, which is strange for an XCOM game where you normally make quite emotional ties to your soldiers.
Some incredible opportunities are missed completely with regards to character development all around the game in fact. The eponymous Mass Effect/Dragon Age style conversation wheel has been ripped out of its home and into The Bureau without the key feature. Players use these conversational wheels to try and unlock more of the story and learn more of the characters populating worlds. In this, however, they are simply reasons for the NPCs to talk in horrendous poorly acted drones about things happening in the world. This could have been saved from happening with one option. Another line or two of dialogue from each character about themselves and their stories.
In every single conversation with important characters at least one opporunity is missed to give Agent Carter and the NPC true humanity. These small touches might not add much to the game mechanically but they give it a depth that lasts for eternity. The main reason FFVII is set in many gamers hearts is not the game play but the very important character death quite early into the game. Heavy Rain made an entire game out of it. Would it have been so hard to write two extra lines of dialogue and reward the player for talking to these robotic emotionless collections of pixels?
While The Bureau’s story seems to always be aiming at a target in cover some of the game’s comedy is out of this world, if you like awful puns like that one. A stand out for this is the quite brilliantly built mission set within a car sales store in New Mexico. A looping audio announcement reverberates around the car lot talking about out of this world prices and grey alien head motifs across every available surface. Every twenty or so lines of speech there are jokes slipped in there which made normally cynical me crack a wry smile but never anything to make me guffaw wildly. A little dry humour or comedy can make an average game seem better because your brain is finding something genuinely funny. In the case of The Bureau however the rare shine of comedy is buried deep beneath a pile of alien corpses. Smattered around the hit-and-miss story and comedy however is an incredible setting. When playing and not fighting with the game 1960’s America is forced through your ears and your eyes in a brilliant rendition that may sadly be one of the main things the game is remembered for.
The majority of gameplay revolves around being out in the field with two NPC agents and controlling them via a tactical user interface. This works like it does in most cover based third person shooters of this type but with an added XCOM flavour. You command your two companions into cover and around obstacles with a surprising degree of ease. Tell them to head towards cover and that will be their priority over everything else. Best of all they follow instructions. Focus that Sectoid you tell them, and you see the fire raining down upon the poor little mites bulbous head until it pops into satisfying green ooze. Your friends run around in one of four classes. The tinkering engineers can throw down mines and turrets to direct foes. Commandos charge headlong into the head of battle distracting the aliens from you and your other troops. Marksmen are best left at the back and pop off your enemies with satisfying booming sniper fire and the support does its job and supports the whole team with stims, shields and the ability to neutralize armour/shields for X number of seconds.
There are a couple of issues when it comes to controlling in this view. For one the combat doesn’t pause totally but slows down which in itself is okay and makes sense, it stops the combat stopping and keeps the player on their toes. However when you’re fighting the alien menace at one end of the arena only for a huge armoured mech to drop in along with two elite foes and drones [irritating flying things that look like Christmas baubles on mushrooms] the time it takes to manoeuvre your men into covered positions only for one of them to fall to a lucky shot while you’re repositioning the other is irritating. What makes it so slow is not the mode itself however but how you tell your men to position themselves and their abilities.
You would expect with an overview sort of system you would be able to quite easily float the cursor to where you want it to be. The Bureau obviously disagrees, making you have to follow around each piece of cover as if running and move the camera until at the right angle. The optimist within tells that this is to make the combat more intense and make the commander think harder about positioning. The trained coder within me thinks that the development team got lazy and just gave it the exact same control scheme as actually moving the commander but without ACTUALLY moving. Perhaps this sounds picky, but during the heat of battle being able to give quick orders is the difference between life and a constant resurrection loop where you die and resurrect your buddy, only for you to fall and have to order them to resurrect you.
Not all of the battle is played out on screen. Guerilla warfare rages between you and the controls. Half of the time running into cover will place you exactly where you want to be. The other half of the time you end up not snapping into cover or snapping into cover you weren’t even aiming for. Several missions have you running through offices devoid of AI enemies and instead spawn in IF [irritating furniture] which turns a five second run to the next arena into a twenty second cacophony of frustration.
One very welcome addition to the franchise is the chance to send your agents off on missions of their own. Instead of only being able to level comrades… oh wait communist term… buddies will do, on missions you play. You send your buddies off on missions of their own in groups of up to five where they can gain experience and unlock new equipment. Of course you don’t see these fights but the effect they have upon gameplay is incredibly profound in both a good and bad ways depending on your viewpoint. For a player new to the normally uncompromising XCOM universe this allows them to level new up spare agents should any of theirs die. Veterans however may feel short-changed by this. Two close friends of mine were outraged to see the option exist. The other side to this is that you aren’t having to actually do it. The game offers the option but does not force you to do it. You don’t want to have additional agents levelled up? Then don’t!
However one omission from the game will have die-hard XCOM fans up in arms. In almost every XCOM game in the past, except the terrible Enforcer, there has been a focus on base building and research. Even in the latest strategy reboot this mechanic exists even if it is not on the same depth or scale as old classics like Apocalypse or Terror from the Deep. The Bureau dumbs this down so much it is removed completely and turned into a painfully simple practise of looking for two types of pick up.
Backpack schematics offer often quite unbalanced upgrades to your team mates – improved weapon range and weapon damage and reduced damage taken from one backpack makes this one feel like the only option. The only other item you can ‘upgrade’ is weapons and even these are the most basic possible. It literally boils down to look on the ground to find a new weapon, pick up that new weapon, unlock weapon. That’s it. No deep research or development trees. No base management. Just go out and shoot aliens.
Graphically the game is impressive at times while being a little flat in others. Some of the structures created by the aliens are awe inspiring and the effects surrounding them make you genuinely terrified of walking up to them for fear of losing your face. Character models too are impressive and move as you would expect a human too and how you might think an alien to. A personal favourite is the mouth’s on the Outsiders which are vertical instead of horizontal. Its not a massive feature but its just a touch that brings the game up out of the dick sack and into passable content. Then again while the console version of the game are able to keep to a fairly good framerate and stay pleasant to look at the PC version is fraught with issues. Frame rate dips occur incredibly frequently and textures leak into one another like the radiation leak from a Japanese nuclear plant. And this is all on a high end PC wielding 16GB of RAM, a GTX660 graphics card, Intel 3rd generation i7 and everything else. Running the settings down does help somewhat but barely enough.
There is however one thing that has not yet been mentioned that really deserves to be. The sound design and the composition of the background music is inspired. The weapons sound like you would expect, alien machinery sounds industrial while keeping an unworldly vibe and the orchestral backing tracks swell and fade with perfect timing. If nothing else try and find the soundtrack for this and stick it on your chosen music device. You will never ever regret it
Playing the Bureau is like eating a bland sponge cake with a smattering of strawberries hidden within. Most of your bites are tasteless and uneventful but finding those berries makes it bearable. Through the poor storyline, unimaginative character development and buggy environments you find the juicy filling. The incredible setting of 1960’s Cold War America paints a canvas for the inspired brush strokes of combat mechanics and subtle hues born of the musical design, only for it to be displayed in the gallery toilet above the urinal. Running into combat feels like seeing your favourite soft drink is on a buy one get one free offer then finding that you’re holding the last bottle. It builds your expectations with engaging, tactical combat only to dash them with piss poor voice direction and aliens appearing on top of the cover they were behind.
In closing. The Bureau is an oddity of a game. The core mechanics are executed quite well and some of the sparkly additions really hit the mark. Circling around these are the poor voice acting, terrible story progression, unlikeable main character and a long list of other issues. Each one swims in to take a bite from the amazing parts of The Bureau but they never seem to be able to pull it all the way under and drown it. Instead they are nothing more than a harness. A jail that holds back that which could be incredible. As a result the Bureau can score nothing more than just above average. If more time had been given to the games other features maybe its core would have shone through.