The Bureau: XCOM Declassified will make an excellent study for game historians. After reading about the game’s near seven-year development process of studio mergers, project reboots and general mismanagement, it’s enough of a surprise to see the title available to purchase at all. Even more surprising; parts of it are not that bad.
Forget that it has anything to do with XCOM though. You’ll twist your neck into knots if you try to follow the ways in which The Bureau attempts to squirm and contort itself into an XCOM: Enemy Unknown prequel. Sure, there are Sectoids here. Mutons too. But don’t worry about that. Just consider this a third-person squad shooter with a 50s/60s sci-fi theme. It’ll cause much less grief in the long run.
You’d better also get used to the quirks and oddities of a game that clearly went through several rounds of development, re-development and then last minute crunching to get it out of the door. Don’t stare when sound effects go missing and protagonist Agent William Carter throws an ash-tray down in eerie silence, try not to concern yourself when the plot slips terminology into dialogue that hasn’t actually been introduced yet, and definitely don’t worry that your squad-mates are tossing out magic laser-turrets from thin air while everybody else is still making do with WWII weaponry.
The Bureau’s actual story is fine. In theme and in theory, at least. The way it’s executed leaves a lot to be desired, as it veers drunkenly between a tone of grotesque horror (entire brainwashed “sleepwalker” populations of towns doomed to a gruesome demise) and campy 50s b-movie antics (scientists messing about with slapstick experiments.) Don’t look for inconsistencies in the narrative, they’ll find their own way to you without any trouble.
By the end, the plot has gone so completely off the rails that it’s borderline incoherent. There’s a fourth wall-breaking twist that in another game, and another context, could well have been brilliant. Here though, it’s just another break-neck turn in a story that already feels as if it squeezes too much, too quickly, into its 10-15 hour length. This is a game in which most of the US military forces have been disabled or destroyed within the first half hour, and by the second you’re taking down alien gunships with an antiquated shotgun. Nothing is especially complex or confusing. It’s all just bananas. Absolutely bananas.
It’s tempting to recommend The Bureau on the basis of its bizarre, disjointed plot alone, but the scarcity of any interesting characters makes the journey more of a slog than it could’ve been. Again, this is something the game almost gets right. After a whizz-bang tutorial style opening, you get a hub-like base to run around in and some fellow XCOM officials to chat with (think Mass Effect’s Normandy, or the safe houses in Alpha Protocol.)
This is a sizeable structure so you need a decent incentive to rush around it all between each mission, and neither the side-quests nor the dialogue deliver on that front. The former either feel like a waste (rewarding you with another stat-altering backpack to add to the other twenty you’ve already collected,) or run into the same tonal problems as the over-arching plot. Everybody is on lockdown. There’s an oppressive, paranoid atmosphere in the building. Whoops! The wacky former-Nazi scientist has lost some of his deadly silicoid blobs. Hey Carter, chase them down will you? But don’t tell anybody!
That particular side-quest actually ends with some entertaining toilet humour; but the problem is it ends with some entertaining toilet humour. Too often there’s precious little consistency in what you’re doing compared with how everybody else in the base is acting.
Most chats have a dialogue wheel, but the vast majority of these are used as boring splurges of information. The voice acting is pretty decent, but few of the characters have much of interest to divulge or much personality to draw you back to them. Agent Angela Weaver and boss Myron Faulke skirt close to being interesting, but The Bureau is desperate for a Wrex or a Steven Heck to liven things up.
What it does have going for it is some fairly enjoyable third-person tactical combat. There aren’t many games where (on higher difficulties at least) you actually need to have proper command over your squad-mates, but The Bureau is one of them. Agents are fragile and will go down to a couple of exposed hits. Yes, it’s true that you need to keep an eye on what your companions are up to, and one or two of them are a bit too keen on returning to the scene of unexploded alien grenades, but smart management can mitigate most of this.
The first ‘proper’ level is a slog as you’re working with terrible weaponry and allies who don’t yet have any interesting abilities. If you can make it through that, everything begins to improve. Once you have access to laser weapons and a mixture of somewhat-levelled classes (fellow agents can be Recon, Support, Engineer or Commando,) the tactical options start opening up. Class-specific ability combinations like force-pushing alien foes into a pre-prepared mine or artillery bombardment zone are always satisfying to pull off, especially if you prevent yourself from wondering how an artillery bombardment works in an underground base.
Commands are dished out while in ‘battle focus’ mode, which slows (but doesn’t entirely pause) the real-time action. Most encounters will take place in areas with options for flanking or otherwise out-maneuvering the aliens, and The Bureau realises that people will want to look stylish while doing so. Thanks to the power of customised outfits, it’s possible to romp into battle in a purple turtleneck accompanied by one man in a pink jumpsuit and another in a three-piece suit befitting of a harlequin. As it should be.
That borrowed aspect of XCOM: Enemy Unknown is an easy crowd-pleaser, but the possibility for squad members to die permanently doesn’t translate quite so well. Both games essentially start recruited agents off as blank slates, but there’s something about the semi-emergent situations of XCOM: Enemy Unknown that lend much more of a sense of personality to your soldiers. Losing someone to a bleed-out in The Bureau is certainly annoying (and in fact can be more of a situational punishment than just letting everybody die and restarting at the nearest checkpoint,) but it never really hurts. It’s a functional loss, not an emotional one. To be more meaningful in this type of game, perma-death would probably need to affect actual, written characters akin to the one you’re controlling.
Level layouts are straightforward and predictable, with linear, corridor-like areas of travel leading to periodic arenas dotted with crates, small walls and other obvious sources of cover. It’s uninspiring, but does the basic job of supporting the squad-based mechanics. Aesthetically though, some of the levels are terrific. At least half the time (often in side-missions) The Bureau steers away from boring, alien tech-hallways and offers something more engaging like a nuke-housing farmhouse in rural 1960s America, or an undersea base with a glass ceiling.
Having a DirectX 11 version on PC certainly doesn’t hurt, and in fact the PC release (for the most part) is quite good. The pre-rendered cutscenes look like low-resolution garbage and the keyboard-mouse ‘battle focus’ menu curiously rejects the controller’s elegant dial-wheel for a weird, hotkey-centric system that’s clumsier than it should be, but 2K has done alright by us in most other areas. There’s a decent FOV slider, a mouse smoothing toggle, fully redefinable keys and a fair selection of graphics options (handy tip: turn off ‘Reflections’ if you’re having major frame-rate issues, and PhysX too if you have an AMD card.)
The Bureau: XCOM Declassified is a title with all the tell-tale signs of a troubled project, but there’s enough substance to the combat and just enough of a hook to the utterly bonkers plot to make putting up with the quirks, lackluster characters and dramatic variance in tone worthwhile for those who know what they’re letting themselves in for.
All of which makes it a throughly awkward title to stick a score on. The number this review is going to end with corresponds to “above average” on our scale, which certainly isn’t the case for substantial portions of the game. Instead, take it as a cautious “when on sale” recommendation for those who see the appeal in a fairly tactical third-person shooter set in a goofy-then-serious-then-goofy-again 1960s sci-fi world.