The Average Gamer

The Bureau: XCOM Declassified Review (Xbox 360)

The Bureau Xcom Declassified - Squad Silo
There were times while playing The Bureau: XCOM Declassified, grappling with the laborious combat, where I wished that instead of providing a difficult third-person tactical command system the game instead was turn based and viewed from a top-down perspective.

I realised right away I’d accidentally described the game that this newest title was trying to spin off from. In an attempt to make something radically different from 2012’s XCOM: Enemy Unknown, the efforts of the team at 2K Marin have made a far less elegant experience.

That criticism holds true for the entire game, which consistently calls for unfair comparison to the other source where the same ideas are far better implemented. The Bureau: XCOM Declassified is a prequel story, attempting to tell us all how the clandestine international military operation began. It takes place in 1962, though truly it could have been set at any point in history for how much the premise is used for anything other than the aesthetic weight it carries. The men wear dapper hats, smoke cigarettes and indulge in casual sexism. The women are… there?

There’s a lovely anachronistic quality to the design, it’s fun to see a suited man wear a goofy alien backpack, but the period doesn’t feel particularly well leveraged in the world. The environments in Enemy Unknown conveyed a sense of place, that you were in recognisable settings (chain restaurants, bookstores, dive bars) that had been subverted by introducing an other-world element. It made everything eerier. Here the locations are largely built from alien constructs, making you, a 1960’s dapper hatted man, seem like the part which doesn’t fit. Instead of leaning on a world we recognise for shock it’s two disparate design ideas thrown together.

Combat is controlled with a tactical wheel that slows down (but does not pause) the world and allows the player to pick abilities. It’s simplistic enough, but becomes muddier the moment you move into another layer. Regular abilities work without hassle, but if you want to better direct an AI partner to move you do so with a cursor that needs to be scanned over to their end location. This cursor is blocked by walls, so you have to find a path there even if your unit is going to mantle over cover to get there.

The Bureau Xcom Declassified - Revive AgentYou can’t rely on your AI partners to defend themselves at all. They are desperately in need of your guidance to survive. The Bureau’s systems intend for you to flank enemies, but it’s unwise to ever be too far away from your AI partners because they will likely die before you can get there to revive them.

They’re idiots. They will act out your orders without any sense of self preservation, running wildly out into enemy fire in their attempt to gain ground.

Death in Enemy Unknown felt like it informed a tactical consideration. You needed to consider the risk of using more units attempting to save one. It changed the agency of the situation you were in from just needing to complete the mission to instead needing to complete the mission before someone bled out. Here death is just an encroaching blight on the experience which prevents you from taking full advantage of the combat options. Similarly you don’t want your units to die because they level up as you take them out into combat, but they’re so fragile it may not be possible.

The game succeeds in having the player believe that they are on the back foot during combat, but that’s because it doesn’t truly allow them another option. This might be forgivable if the checkpointing were tighter, but often you can be sent back huge intervals of time, several combat encounters before.

The Bureau XCOM Declassified - Carter_Vs_EliteOutside of missions you return to XCOM HQ and can wander aimlessly around the facility. From here you can customise your squad from four classes (taking only two with you into a mission), stumble on casually strewn dossiers/microfilm and also have conversations with other members of the organisation.

Dialogue options seem included because someone decided they should be, not because they largely serve any purpose. You could easily skip them all for how ill thought-out the narrative is glued together, but the most entertaining moments in the whole 8 hour run time are found in the disparity between your character’s Gruff Video Game Man voice and any other normal sounding character holding a conversation. You play as a loose cannon haunted by his past and gain very little incentive to care. There’s a lack of characterisation from the entire cast, which makes some late-game dramatic narrative touches ring utterly empty.

There are some interesting ideas revolving around a cheeky fourth-wall break that surface almost as the game is coming to a close, but these aren’t implemented nearly well enough. That’s that case for most of The Bureau’s more interesting parts; in concept they are exciting, in execution they lack any understanding of how to actually make anything work.

The Bureau is a boring slog which refuses to justify the premium cost, nor the connection to an excellent series. It is as rote as a third person shooter can be and is notable perhaps only because of the storied and extravagant development.

The Bureau: XCOM Declassified is out now for PC, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.

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