I guess when a console lifecycle comes to its end; either developer’s get lazy or just so busy with Next-Gen games that their current-gen releases suffer. When you play The Bureau: XCOM Declassified (here out known as TB:XD), the feeling is that it doesn’t quite know what it wants to be. Way back when, in days past, 2K obviously sat down and brainstormed ideas on how to revive their strategy based sci-fi series. Trying to match the most popular genre of the time, TB:XD began development as a first person shooter (FPS) but very quickly this development route was binned and they instead started to look at creating a cover-based third person shooter. However, quite recently we’ve seen Firaxis release the very popular and successful XCOM: Enemy Unknown, trying to capitalise on this TB:XD changed its direction once again to take a much more tactical route.
TB:XD wants to become a modern revival, its part shooter with a shot of real-time strategy and mixer of emotional narrative. It tries hard to do its own thing but without abandoning the XCOM name. Ultimately the result is a game that almost desperately attempts to please everyone but doesn’t quite commit to either direction, disappointing from the offset with the first mission immediately displaying such flaws.
The game is set to be a prequel to other XCOM titles, set in the early 1960s amidst the Earth’s first extra-terrestrial invasion. We play the protagonist Agent William Carter, an ex-CIA operative with a drinking problem who’s spent the last few years working a desk job. He’s almost comically stereotypical coming coupled with a troubled past that haunts and an attitude problem that resembles a prepubescent teenager. His back story can be found via ‘Top Secret’ dossiers left lying around your office. None of the details have any bearing on the narrative, they are simply there to inform you this man has nothing left to lose; he’s loose cannon and so incredibly expendable he screams anti-hero.
The game and accompanying narrative deals with the first and founding days of XCOM, including the build up to its inception and their first encounters with the Outsiders. It’s a narrative let down by a diluted script and plethora of worn, tired out sci-fi clichés. To tick them off you have plot holes, characters contradicting themselves and the powers they report too, double crosses and twists to name just a few.
Let’s talk about the XCOM HQ as the inclusion of this confuses me. After each mission you’re let loose to explore it’s labs, firing range, briefing rooms, offices, storage areas etc etc. The first time you get to do this, it’s exciting like the first time you explored the Normandy in Mass Effect or Crescent Isle in Skies of Arcadia. The excitement is short lived. There is nothing really to do in the HQ which makes one wonder why it was even included. You converse with others by utilising a Mass Effect-style conversation wheel although the information feels empty and hollow. You can however unlock additional side missions with the HQ that upon completing you will unlock a second level of side mission out in the field.
I never got round to playing XCOM: Enemy Unknown, but from the reports I’ve read it employed its HQ as a means to research and manufacture new weapons and equipment whereas in TB:XD you feel all potential is lost. You quite early on meet a scientist who asks you to keep an eye out for alien technology that could be scavenged, researched and reverse engineered into devastating weapons and gadgets to aid you. The implementation of this is to simply instead allow you to pick them up off the floor. It’s another example what I mentioned above; 2K attempting to appease XCOM series fans without dedicating themselves to one direction (route, not the group). Overall the HQ is wasted and I wonder why it was even included considering its put to such meagre use?
As you load up on weaponry, tie your boots and head out into the field on assignment with Agent Carter you take two squad mates with you, both of which can die at any time if not healed or revived in time. The idea of perma-death is one appearing more and more in games across consoles and PC. It’s a feature that could become bothersome, stacking the odds firmly in the enemy’s favour as you become outnumbered and outgunned if it wasn’t for the fact that after each battle has ended you’re allowed to simply replace your fallen ally with someone else. They magically appear from behind or the side of you fully equipped and combat ready. Your squad mates level up as you do, so maybe losing a high level comrade is a little more upsetting? Nope – levelling your team is easy.
Rather than rotating between your allies from mission to mission to maintain synergy between their rankings, there are Dispatch missions you can send them on that they’ll never fail gaining a whole new rank with the completion of each assignment. Before you know it, you’ll have each of your squad mates fully ranked up with little to no effort on your part. So when someone dies just recruit a replacement that’s just as good.
As Carter, you begin with a simple healing ability but it doesn’t take long however, to unlock more abilities; thus expanding upon your tactical options with deployable turrets, the capability to lift enemies into the air or employ a handy shield. There are four available classes when it comes to your squad mates and you’ll need to combine classes and abilities to get most out of everyone in every situation. With a radial command wheel at your disposal you can quickly trigger three abilities concurrently, moving your squad mates across the battlefield and you’ll want to keep manually moving them around, too, because the AI can be downright terrible at times. Leave them to their own devices and they’ll constantly get up and walk straight into lines of fire taking bullets like they think they are Superman. Unfortunately, they don’t have Clark Kent style super-powers and once they are downed; you’ll need to revive them super quick due to an incredibly short bleed-out time.
Having to micromanage your two squad mates does limit your tactical options in certain situations. For instance some enemies have weak spots on their back and in an ideal battle you’d want to set up your squad mates to distract these enemies while you flank around behind them and get the kill. Unfortunately the AI is hesitant to stay behind cover making your life incredibly problematic. Some of the latter discussed abilities do offset these issues, but that doesn’t excuse the AI’s failings.
When it works and it works right, the battles can be incredibly fun and exhilarating. The setting has a lot of character as you fight through the small towns and farms of Middle America. The 1960’s backdrop is contrasted by ominous and advanced alien technology. The predictable appearance of waist high cover is always an obvious indication of combat, somewhat dispelling the inherent tension of the unknown present in other XCOM games, but it doesn’t detract too much from what is a very fun and satisfying tactical shooter.
The simple fact is TB:XD is an enjoyable shooter and this is a triumph considering its development confusion. The games holds a disappointing lack of identity, pulling from multiple games of a similar ilk and genre, taking a half-measured approach to multiple gameplay elements and aspects. It pulls not just from its XCOM predecessors but titles like the Mass Effect series. Underneath the muddy surface there is a good game to be found down there. The Bureau: XCOM Declassified launches you deep into a high-stakes covert war where tactics and precision win the day.