The Bureau: XCOM Declassified
XCOM meets Mass Effect – that’s what The Bureau: XCOM Declassified endeavours to be. The third person cover and squad based combat, the RPG-esque classes and levelling system. Heck, even the dialogue wheel is the same.
On paper, this sounds like the makings of a classic. To have two beloved series brought together while fleshing out the relatively simple lore of the XCOM canon seemed like a stroke of genius.
Sadly, The Bureau turns out to be a classic case of sloppy execution crippling what could have been something truly special.
Let’s start with what the game does well. This will be brief.
The combat is solid and is probably the single element holding the whole package together. That shouldn’t be too surprising given that it’s basically copied wholesale from Mass Effect. Even some of the special abilities such as psionic lift are directly analogous to Bioware’s action-RPG series. The only distinctly XCOM touch is the power to do more damage to enemies by flanking them.
The handling is slightly more fiddly and loose than Mass Effect but it’s manageable and still fun. My only major complaint is that the sheer number of special abilities available does dilute the pure strategy essence of XCOM somewhat, especially later on when brute force is emphasised in order to combat the huge numbers of aliens.
The 1960s USA backdrop is the other enjoyable aspect to The Bureau though it’s arguably a misguided choice for a setting. This period is rarely seen in video games so it’s somewhat refreshing and, from what I can tell, fairly authentic. However, it’s largely superficial as it’s used very little to inform the characters or the story. Honestly, it feels like someone at 2K noticed that Mad Men was popular and decided to co-opt that vibe.
Despite resembling the basic XCOM plot structure, pretty much everything about the story is sub par. Betraying one of Mass Effect’s great strengths, the majority of the characters here are flat and are given very little development. Even protagonist Carter’s apparent arc goes basically unresolved thanks to a baffling late game twist and the brief, thin conclusion.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, the story feels substantially patchy right from the outset. Moments, dialogue references and character decisions often spring up out of nowhere. Seemingly important subjects and player choices simply aren’t followed up on in any capacity. These numerous omissions, strange turns and unprompted leaps suggest that big chunks of the story were cut, robbing the game of any chance of telling a coherent, compelling tale.
Let’s talk about The Bureau’s connection to the XCOM series. Though the game is meant to take place before last year’s superlative XCOM: Enemy Unknown, the connection ultimately makes very little sense. Crucial continuity issues are cheaply sidestepped by stating that everything from this first war was covered up. Why are we not using any of this superior technology and knowledge when the aliens returned for round two in Enemy Unknown? That’s errr… classified.
The Bureau could have so easily been made a separate continuity and avoided these problems but 2K still decided to have a scene at the very end that foreshadows Enemy Unknown. This connection ends up feeling forced and was likely kept in simply to attempt to capitalise on the universal good will and popularity surrounding Firaxis’ XCOM game.
In terms of game play there really isn’t much distinctly XCOM here besides the combat and the basic mission deployment system. There’s no base building, no shooting down alien aircraft (there’s a strange lack of UFO style vessels altogether) and no management beyond outfitting your troops.
New alien weaponry can simply be picked up and used immediately without testing as there’s no research system. The linear narrative-based campaign means there’s no overarching strategy to be had and thus little incentive for repeat playthroughs. Had the story been excellent this point could have been forgiven at least, but alas.
Presentation-wise the game is also disappointing. It looks dated and unpolished for a title of its pedigree, particularly in its unusually simplistic animations. No where is this more evident than the face to face conversations. Facial expressions are very limited and combined with the permanent stock two camera medium shots these scenes tend to be flat and boring. It also doesn’t help that the voice acting is largely plain.
I played the PC version which is sadly burdened with additional graphical issues. Not to bore you with exact specs but my rig can run Skyrim and the just-released Saints Row IV on maximum settings. There’s no excuse, therefore, for The Bureau’s unstable frame rate and constant screen tearing, especially on the lowest graphical settings.
Switching off Screen Space Reflections (whatever that is) is a must if you want a half decent frame rate but that doesn’t solve everything. With the many complaints from PC users of varying systems, it’s obvious that the game simply isn’t sufficiently optimised and needed several more months of polish before launch.
The Bureau has been through development hell and back, originally announced in 2010 as an ill-fated first person shooter simply named XCOM before purportedly being reworked at least twice. It’s obvious that most of its problems stem from these troubles and this version was likely pushed out the door too early so 2K could finally see some return on the project. That’s a real shame because with another year or so in the development oven it could have been something special. As it stands, The Bureau isn’t completely devoid of merit but it’s undoubtedly a half-baked product that barely and poorly represents the series it’s based on.