Gazing out into the infinite possibility of space, a pastime long held in the hearts of those hoping to escape our earthly, atmospheric bonds and leave behind this rock we’ve plagued for so long, pushing its climate far too close to breaking point for comfort. This is the dream for many, so it’s strange perhaps that we continue to portray alien beings as wanton, destructive invaders, intent on intergalactic mayhem at beyond biblical proportions.
Such is the tradition I suppose, and through the twentieth century we’ve a rich tapestry of mythologised UFO sightings, crop circles and errant bum-probings, leaving 2K plenty of yarn to work with in their moderately quirky foray out of the realms of turn-based strategy and into the frying pan mish-mash of the strategic third-person cover-based shooter.
In 1962, the world was ensconced in an overwhelming desire to see men holding their flag go beyond the boundaries of our rock – where no man has gone before – and the superpowers were swinging around their (space) junk in a great rocket-waving contest as world conflicts between the East and the West grew colder, the tension of mutually assured nuclear destruction loomed high and doomsayers predicted, wrongly, that the end was nigh. Perhaps those concerned should have spent a little more time looking beyond the moon.
For your eyes only, this is The Bureau: XCOM Declassified.
There seems to have been a mixed reaction to the somewhat derivative nature of the title, its combination of rudimentary RPG elements with strategic third person shooter mechanics. The obvious connection to be drawn, and rightly so, is that with Mass Effect – and there are similarities. I think perhaps the game has been done a disservice through these comparisons, because living up to the example set by BioWare is not precisely what The Bureau is trying to achieve.
Where Mass Effect felt very dark, serious almost, and totally immersive, The Bureau accommodates a host of tongue-in-cheek cultural commentary, and pokes long alien fingers at both the past and present with its character-embedded satire, and this all happens passively, feeling natural, unfolding gently alongside the story, offered up with cinematic aplomb, at least in part.
Visually, whilst The Bureau fails to truly stir a whirlwind of captivated, immersive amazement, there is little to complain of here. The bright and well-saturated environments escape the usual Fifty Shades of Brown experience that so many current games can so easily become and the palette, slightly sepia affected, gives a vintage warmth and moviefilm-like quality to the proceedings. Despite the bizarre alien designs, which happily stay faithful to those in the strategy-based XCOM: Enemy Unknown (and the forthcoming Enemy Within), the game takes an air of authenticity, due to its well made (if under-used) environments and the beauty of small details. Most importantly the world rendered here by 2K is a believable one.
Further nods to the XCOM series include the character permadeath of your squadmates, and though this fails to inspire the same sense of concern as the feature does in the main series, it can potentially offer a more urgent, tense experience for the stubborn player who refuses to exploit the fairly generous checkpoint system.
Our story sees hard-edged gritty G-Man William Carter donning his fedora and taking on an altered world in the face of invasion, answering trial and tribulation with bullets and death, one grey at a time. There’s a good range of weapons to tantalise your trigger-fingers (and those of your customisable squad), though quite rapidly the human weapons lose any lustre they possessed as they are almost immediately outclassed by garishly coloured devices of extraterrestrial manufacture.
Reporting under Myron Faulke, head of XCOM, you’ll travel across America with a squad of your design to take on the greys fire with fire style, blazing a trail of righteous chaos, leaving nuclear warheads, cigarette butts and dislodged 50s-style headwear in your wake.
The story draws you forward at a decent rate, and the gunplay is fun, particularly when your perk skills or powers come into play and the results of your customisation start to really take shape. This obviously shows a side of the title’s strategic leanings, but the most of that shows its face through the combat. Here, however, it is less satisfactorily represented.
Divergent plot elements are always welcome, and can often encourage multiple runthroughs, but here the feature was under utilised, failing to incentivise a second run. This problem made itself very evident in the out of combat sections, where there is the opportunity to converse with a range of characters in the XCOM headquarters, but really little reason to actually trudge around listening to the hackneyed conversation trees, that if not followed in the predictable top-to-bottom order begin to sound more than a little geriatric, if not Alzheimer’s-esque, darting from repition to out of context babble. Better, perhaps, that Mr W Carter sticks to his grizzly cliché and remains a man of few words.
Another issue arises here. Whilst the story does its job in offering a setting for the (often frustrating) wreaking of havoc, it is utterly derivative. Faithfully recreating the mythos of the typical alien invasion it may be but The Bureau fails to bring anything new to the table. This would be forgivable if the game really excelled anywhere else, but it doesn’t, with its unimaginative stock characters, its flawed squad system and damnable AI.
What is disappointing is how underused the feature of dispatch missions is, and how benign a feature it is in the context of the main game. This could have been particularly useful and intriguing if there were any benefit to rotating squad members throughout the story, but as it stands you’re better off sticking with two guys and struggling to keep them alive throughout. Time spent balancing the levelling of all agents using this feature becomes a grind swiftly.
For those who got down on their knees to welcome the Messiah that was XCOM: Enemy Within and have been expecting another top title to pay homage to the classic series, there will be rampant, unrelenting disappointment. This is not that game, and for purists it was never going to be, having gone down the route of strategy game sacrilege, transforming the formula into a shooter. When creating a title that has evidently borrowed heavily from well-publicised and acclaimed material, there needs to be some sort of justification, a payoff for that imitation in the way of innovation. I can’t help but feel that there are moments in The Bureau that could easily have crept into the realm of the memorable, but were left to remain safe, and therefore just another part of the game, which is just another game amongst a vast panel of far more worthy contenders for your cash.
What The Bureau does offer is an enjoyable burn through around 18 hours, at a gentle pace, a satisfying if not inspiring storyline, graphics that look good if not dazzling and some shots at aliens which never goes unappreciated. However in the end of gen whirlwind currently going on, where studios have honed their techniques to the near-optimum, and with so many titles sat resting on your shelf, The Bureau does little more to give it the pulling power to stand out amongst the greys.