Wednesday, 8 July 2015

The Bureau: XCOM Declassified

Post-Launch Review
The Bureau: XCOM Declassified (PC)
Developer: 2k Marin / Australia / China
Released: August 2013
Played: story complete in 10h:38min; Hangar 6 complete in 2h:10min


It's the height of the Cold War in 1962. A covert American organization known only as the Bureau is investigating a mysterious pathogen when an alien attack destroys a military facility and exposes CIA agent William Carter to an unknown artifact. Recruited into the Bureau, Carter leads a team of field agents investigating and combating the alien threat, hoping to keep the war covered up and discover a vulnerability before the aliens take over the world.

At Launch

The Bureau received mixed-to-average reviews around 68%. Early publicity was hurt significantly by its departure from the traditional tactical formula, but critics who weren't expecting a full XCOM were satisfied by the tactical elements and open environments, and impressed by the visuals and aesthetic. Other reviewers felt there wasn't enough depth, and series fans were not impressed.

Post Launch

At least one patch was released to resolve relatively minor bugs and improve performance.
A few DLC packs were released.
The Light Plasma Pistol is simply an extra weapon.
The Code Breakers DLC adds a short optional side mission.
Hangar 6 R&D tells the story of the study of the sleepwalker pathogen in the days leading up to the initial attack on Groom Range. 

The Bureau caused quite a bit of controversy with long-time XCOM fans, having been announced prior to Enemy Unknown as a sequel or revival of the XCOM series as a shooter instead of a turn-based tactical game. Fans worried that The Bureau would be a dumbed-down cash grab rather than a true XCOM game. Were they justified? Let's find out.

(I've only played XCOM: Enemy Unknown and no previous entries in the series, but with the success and quality of Enemy Unknown, I think I can make some comparisons)

The Bureau reveals (or declassifies, I guess) the origin of XCOM in the United States of the 1960s. The initial team is scrambled together to investigate a strange infection that causes people to get lost in their minds and leak black goo from their eyes and mouths. Of course it turns out that it's aliens and you have to fight them off to save the world.
I did find it odd to begin the alien attack decades before Enemy Unknown. Why does the XCOM of the future seem to be encountering the alien threat for the first time if they invaded before? This is partly explained in at least one ending as a large-scale cover-up, which is a reasonable explanation for why the public doesn't know, but it leaves quite a plot hole for XCOM to have existed and encountered an alien threat only to forget everything they learned the next time the aliens show up, and for the aliens to take major steps back technologically.

But I'm getting ahead of myself, talking about plot holes before the actual plot - which is okay, I guess. For the most part it's pretty standard stuff: underdog humans lead by the comically gruff loose cannon white male scramble to learn enough to make a desperate small-team attack on enemy leadership. For the majority of the game the sleepwalker infection is the only interesting element. But the last few chapters go bananas, mostly in a good way (if inconsistent with Enemy Unknown lore). I was pretty impressed with the twist that you were never playing as William Carter, but as the ethereal inhabiting his body. It's a nifty meta reveal that reminds me of Bioshock. And there are some actual meaningful choices in the final missions, too, which is nice.
In terms of atmosphere, the primary difference here is the retro-futuristic 1960s setting more than anything else. But it's acceptably tasteful and not shoved in your face - the feel of the setting is about backdrops and wardrobes and chrome tech without any heavy-handed social commentary. Despite the American setting and leadership, the XCOM team is still pretty multinational even in its early days, which feels respectful to the series.

Cover and flanking are important to your survival, but not quite in the same way as in the more tactical games. But it's the smaller squad size - three agents - and smaller suite of abilities that really cut down on that XCOM feel. In fact, gameplay-wise, The Bureau feels much more like a less slick Mass Effect 2 than it does Enemy Unknown. Shooter skillz alone won't beat missions, and you have to pay attention to cover and positioning and ability cooldowns, but it's more of an action-RPG-shooter hybrid.

That's not necessarily a bad thing, unless you're an XCOM series fan who was expecting something more XCOM-ey. Though I feel like that would be a silly expectation given that The Bureau is thoroughly a cover shooter.
Anyway. Like I said, it feels like a less slick Mass Effect 2 in terms of gameplay - there are some minor quibbles. Cover is sticky enough that avoiding grenades can be a nuisance, and you'll occasionally find yourself unable to look far enough up to shoot at drones. The tactical focus mode doesn't quite pause the action, so stuff still happens while you're issuing orders, meaning it's possible to set up your action queue and get blown up before it begins because someone tossed a grenade while you were not-paused. And sometimes agent pathfinding screws up and your revive order never arrives. Enemies have a lot of health and don't always act consistently, sometimes making combat feel swingy and random - I had a couple of times where I received a brutal beatdown, then loaded and wiped the floor.

Other than those relatively minor flaws, it works well enough. The goons feel too tough, but it's nice to have real nasty mini-bosses in the mutons and sectopods that really force you to focus and think tactically, especially when mixed in with goons and commanders.
The pre-rendered cutscenes are more annoying than any of the gameplay - they're low-res and blocky and sometimes stutter, which is real irritating on a top-of-the-line gaming PC.

The Hangar 6 DLC is almost - but not quite -a challenge map mode. You are indeed fighting through a chain of arena maps, but the running plot thread is the early testing process on a sleepwalker that leads to the discovery of Mosaic and the Outsider threat. Longer than I expected and reasonably entertaining, so it's worthwhile.
Overall The Bureau is competent enough, though I think it would have been better off as a standalone game. Not because it's too different from other XCOM games, which it isn't necessarily - the bigger problem is the inconsistency in plot and lore as compared to XCOM: Enemy Unknown. But as it turns out, it's an alternate-universe type thing, which is not at all referenced in-game in any way, so really it has little to no connection with the other XCOM games. Had The Bureau been its own independent game without the XCOM branding, I think its reasonably solid gameplay and unexpectedly intriguing conclusion would have been better appreciated. It's not a "proper" XCOM game, and not the best game I've ever played, but I enjoyed myself. If you want an occasionally thoughtful sci-fi shooter set in the 1960s, it'll do.

Recommendation: maybe.

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