The Bureau: XCOM Declassified Review

By Darryl Kaye on September 1, 2013

The Bureau: XCOM Declassified has had a rather interesting life thus far. It was unveiled back in 2006 and has since changed its name, shifted between numerous development studios and even changed genres. It's not ideal and with the reimagined XCOM: Enemy Unknown arriving towards the tail end of last year, it's all a bit bizarre. Now positioning itself as a squad-based third-person shooter, The Bureau looks to try and open up the franchise to a new audience, but it struggles to truly capture the essence of the franchise.

The game is set during the Cold War and, as suggested by the title, focusses on an organisation known as The Bureau. This organisation was conceived by President Kennedy to help the United States fight against Russia, but when extra-terrestrials invade, they become Earth's main line of defence.

You play as CIA agent William Carter, an officer with a troubled past, as The Bureau (also known as XCOM) finds its feet and picks up the fight against the "Outsiders".

It's not the strongest of narratives and it's certainly not helped by some of the poor character modelling during cutscenes, but it does the job. As you play through you'll become familiar with Director Faulke, Agent Weaver and Dr. Weir, but they are all rather generic and it's not a story that you'll finish and want to try and discuss with people.

Gameplay in The Bureau has a strong emphasis on squad-based tactics. You will always be accompanied by two AI partners who will act on their own, but you're able to command their use of abilities and also give them orders about where to take cover and who to attack. If you do neither, they will make their own choices "“ something which is never advised.

Even when you're giving explicit commands, the AI will sometimes infuriate you because their decision making is terrible. For example, you can tell somewhere where to take cover, or retreat if necessary, but you can't always control how they move. You might find instances where their pathing opts to forego a longer, but safer route, in order to run in front of an Elite Muton.

The game also forces your partners to stay within a certain distance from you. So if you decide to do a flanking manoeuvre that takes you quite far out, they will come with you and again, make their own decisions about where to take cover and how to get there. In short, you have to be very careful in order to ensure the AI makes as few decisions as possible.

It's fair enough, as XCOM at its core is all about that level of control. However, since it's in the game, that's not a great excuse. Nobody is asking the AI to start mowing down enemies, but to keep dying repeatedly is just annoying.

On the plus side, when you're able to command the AI and it does what you want, how you want, there is a strong sense of satisfaction. This will most often come when using abilities, because it then just becomes an extension of you.Carter can level up more than any of the AI counterparts and has a specific set of moves due to his circumstances. However, the AI moves are all quite useful in their own right. These range from creating turrets, to performing a more powerful sniper shot. None of them are all that innovative and even Carter's abilities are reminiscent of other games of a similar genre, but that doesn't matter that much. The key thing here, is that in The Bureau you need to use these abilities in order to survive and more importantly, you need to combine them all where possible.

If you're facing an Elite Muton, you might get Carter to lift them into the air, your Support ally to weaken their armour and your Recon ally to perform a Critical Strike. To assist with flanking, you may also ask your Recon to create a Diversion, while your Commando also Taunts.

AI aside, the gameplay in The Bureau is pretty good. It's nowhere near best in class, but it does the job and it's rewarding. It's when you look deeper that the disappointment starts to set in.

XCOM as a brand has a very rich history and when the gameplay has strayed, such as with XCOM Interceptor and XCOM Enforcer, the results haven't been that pretty. In many ways, The Bureau suffers the same fate, as many of its key traits have been streamlined and shoved into the background.

Everything that's customary, like research, character growth and micromanagement, have been shoved into the story and it's a huge disappointment. There are documents scattered around about new aliens and weapons when they're encountered, but it's just not the same. Where's the researching and depth? You've only got a handful of weapons and enemies and nothing you do influences anything.

There were fears this would be the case prior to launch and it looks as though fears came true. The only traditional element that actually carried over as that squad mates can die permanently. However, there's no real attachment. What made you so connected to characters in previous XCOM games was the growth they went through.

The developers did try to shoehorn in random encounters, but again, it's not that great. There are optional missions you can go on as Carter where you might find a new weapon or backpack and there are also other missions that you can just send squad mates away to complete "“ there's no repercussion if you don't though.

You can see why, because it would ruin the carefully planned out story, but the game suffers as a result. Instead of being an XCOM game that's a third-person shooter, it becomes a third-person shooter that's desperately trying to be an XCOM game.

Presentation doesn't help the game's cause either, with nothing standing out. It's rather odd considering the game has been in development for so long. When characters are talking to each other, there's almost no interaction and they just go through a set of canned animations repeatedly. This is highlighted even more when characters change, as despite being different heights, builds and genders, they still end up doing the same thing.

There's no multiplayer in The Bureau, but the game does offer different endings depending on what you choose to do towards the end of the game. That's about it really. There's a dialogue wheel present and you can select different options, but this has absolutely no bearing on anything aside from procuring a bit more info about what's going on.

Final Thoughts

The Bureau: XCOM Declassified ends up being the game that XCOM fans probably feared. And with XCOM Enemy Unknown releasing so close to The Bureau, its omissions just seem so much more apparently. It's a pretty good tactical shooter, and the story is decent enough but it just doesn't have that much in common with a traditional XCOM game.

The different class abilities.
How you can defeat Sectopods.
Way better than XCOM Enforcer.
Lacks core elements from the XCOM franchise.
Animations are pretty poor, overused.
The AI of your squad mates.
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