Alright, so today we’re going to be reviewing The Bureau: XCOM Declassified. Let me start by saying that this review will often have to refer to the fact I didn’t play the game that brought you this very spin-off, XCOM: Enemy Unknown. I think this will make for an interesting point of view since a lot of what I’ve heard or read about this game is that it ‘isn’t like the last installment’. I would have thought that would have been the point considering it went from a nerve-wracking turn-based strategy game to a 3rd person shooter, but fans of the series’ original formula needn’t worry, for we are here to save you the potential heartache. So we valiantly adventure into a new shooter, a third-person experience from the makers of XCOM.
If I’m entirely honest, I didn’t even study this game enough to know it WASN’T going to be an outright strategy game, which meant it was a good surprise. It also doesn’t take more than a five minute introductory cutscene to let you know you’re up the creek; the blue-green-grey alien invasion kind of creek. It’s also 1962, and the best armaments you have are a few old-timey guns to deal with “a couple of decades more technologically advanced” alien weaponry. You are outclassed, outmanned, and have no communications; this is our Independence Day!
As mentioned, this is a third-person shooter. The angle this game tries to work is the XCOM strategy, but without the turn based waiting period, making it much more fast-paced. Whether this is good or not depends mostly on your personal opinion; someone who wanted old XCOM will not like this change, but someone who likes being able to take the shots himself will really appreciate this (I’d say I’m the latter). It’s not like strategy is completely gone here, anyways. You still get to control your positioning as well as your team’s, and you get to manipulate your enemy’s positioning (and face) with new abilities as you level up. It definitely adds some depth compared to most modern shooters. In fact, with a somewhat comparable gameplay style as Gears of War (plus abilities), you could say it makes for a good overall experience.
This is really a one player, story-driven experience, which is a rare breed these days. This also means we should expect a damn good game. Luckily, the controls and mechanics are generally solid. All your new abilities come with short tutorials, but nothing that really gets in the way. There are a bunch of neat things you can do to gain an advantage over your opponent, such as lifting someone out of cover, using a pulse wave to push enemies, using turrets, cloaking, and a bunch more, all varying with the style of fighter your teammate happens to be. So plan your team and their abilities carefully to get the most out of them in combat.
The combat itself comes with some issues. There will be some situations where you will not be able to cover properly, which happens to be a big part of the game, and can lead to a random death or two. Usually just thinking about what you’re doing will save you most of this grief. Unless, of course, you let the A.I. make any decision…it’s a little slow. You constantly need to remind your buddies to stay in cover, otherwise they will ‘die’ (lie down in agony), then you will get flanked, and you will die. Your opponents aren’t much better, so at least there’s that. You can definitely use strategy to make this game a lot easier. I know that I personally get caught up with the shooting, and will sometimes have a teammate die out of my own ignorance or get myself killed. K/D ratio of 4:1? Awwweeeee yeah! Not good. That being said, it’s still a pretty hard game if you’re on a difficulty that is over your skill level; I wouldn’t want to try it on its hardest difficulty without profusely practicing levels.
One last flaw from the gameplay that is pretty blatant is the lack of originality with the level staging. They are nice to look at and all, but it’s the same thing all the time: run down a hallway to this open area, expect firefight; firefight; run to the next area. This is a problem in a lot of games, especially shooters, and I feel like the old (2010) XCOM might have influenced this flaw by forcing the game to carry the strategic style into every engagement, regardless of the flow in the story. The same staging is repeated over and over, and there’s not much you can do about it. Adding some innovation and creativity here would have made the gameplay a lot better and kept up the intensity. The experience isn’t smooth, which makes me think that they either rushed or didn’t care to work a little more on this aspect.
The story is pretty solid, but not new, and it does come with some swiss cheese (plot holes…I’m hungry, ok?). Alien invasion, bladi bladi blah. Most major cities in the U.S. have been attacked, and there are lots of casualties. Though there is a charm to this game, especially with the 1960’s period guns and characters. It really helps immerse you in the game’s universe. There are a bunch of cutscenes which help set the mood, with the support of communication trees. The voice acting can be a little stiff at times, but I’ve seen worse. They could have put a tad more detail and general work on a lot of things. “Better than average, but not by much” by Bon Jovi should be this game’s theme song. But don’t worry readers, I know you might think the same for my reviews, but ‘ohhhhh, we’re halfway there’. You could say there are a few too many cutscenes, but I like knowing what’s going on in my single-player games. Adding layers of depth is a good thing to me. I will say that one thing that does bother me is having to run or gingerly jog to a location that’s really far away in between missions. This slows down the pace of the game a little too much. I mean, action shooty bits are the fun parts, cutscenes are the story defining parts…what do I gain from watching my guy walk for the next 30 seconds? It reminds me of the movie Birdemic, where the first 15 minutes are watching a guy live his life, and he’s driving his car for about 10 of those minutes. (Charming review seen here
The game looks pretty good; not top of the line by any means, but solid. This game is more about style than outright beauty. There is a decent amount of detail to help you get into the 60’s era. The music and atmosphere are especially well done. They don’t overwhelm you, but when you’re in an engagement, they are right there, buzzing along right with you. Or you can find leftover jukeboxes playing an odd tune with a room full of disintegrated bodies. Yeah. Immersion is a really wonderful thing. Animation could have used some touch ups, but as with many aspects of this game, there is more good than bad. Like the rest of the game, nothing is done that pushes boundaries or brings something entirely new to the table.
The length of your experience will vary with your skill level, the difficulty level, and how fast you’re trying to finish the game. My experience was around 20 hours while staying with most of the main missions, and most people will tell you that somewhere between 15-30 hours is within the average, again depending on how many of the side quests you complete. As most single-player games go, however, playing through it again won’t get you much of a different experience except for a few different conversation trees and endings. Sometimes that’s enough for people to keep going, especially at a harder difficulty, but for me one playthrough is enough.
There are four difficulty levels to try, and it’s important to find the right one for you at the start of the game, considering the A.I. can be a little wonky. Otherwise, you’ll either get bored quickly or find a new kind of hatred for XCOM.
All I really want to say is: if you expect a similar or enhanced version of the last XCOM, you’re gonna have a bad time…maybe. It’s an averagely good third-person shooter, with an interesting strategy theme, that – like others before it – seem to make the whole experience hit or miss. Buy it for the gameplay and style, but without expectations, and you might be pleasantly surprised. Buy it for XCOM, the strategy-first game, and you’re probably headed for disappointment.
This review is based on the PC version of The Bureau: XCOM Declassified. The game is also available on the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360.