The Bureau: XCOM Declassified
I didn’t grow up playing XCOM. I played the hell out of the original game’s demo as a kid but the series didn’t get embedded into my soul the way it has for many old school PC gamers. So when I read near-unanimously glowing reviews for XCOM: Enemy Unknown, I assumed that it was one of the greatest games in recent history and eagerly paid full price (something I almost never do) on launch day. The one thing I wasn’t counting on was mass nostalgia-based delusion. The gameplay was linear and repetitive, and the environments and mission types were simple and boring. I dug XCOM’s style, but everything else about it was just average. Nostalgia turned a bland 8-level game into a 9+ in most PC gamers’ eyes. Needless to say, I went into The Bureau: XCOM Declassified quite wary.
The Bureau starts as your character (and the entire country) is attacked by a massive alien invasion as you attempt to deliver a mysterious suitcase to an Area 51-type military base. All hell breaks loose, of course, and after discovering that the aliens can brainwash humans (ah that old cylon, shapeshifter, enemy-among-us trope again), you flee to the very first XCOM base. Thus begins your 60s-era third-person alien-shooting experience. And yes, it’s about as yawn-inducing as that bland description makes it sound.
Speaking of bland, let’s talk about the story and characters for a bit. Agent Carter is supposedly an alcoholic suffering from PTSD from past wars and the loss of his family. How do we know this? Because other characters mention it and every so often, he has dreams of sitting in a chair and hearing echo-y voices. Dramatic stuff. Carter has the typical gravel-voice that’s required of literally all heroes today (for some reason), and about 98% of his and other characters’ dialogue involves spouting exposition. To make matters worse, the story is pretty much a paint-by-numbers alien invasion yarn with absolutely no surprises. Even the intended “surprises” are so obviously choreographed that you see them coming miles away.
Immersion, my personal sine qua non, is almost nonexistent here. Sometimes I talk on a phone to communicate to people at my home base, sometimes I use telepathy. Is there a rhyme or reason? No, not really. Even worse, there are basically no animations to reinforce the flow of story and drama. Characters will stoically stand still as the voice actors express fear or anger, they’ll stare at your character while addressing someone else in the room, they’ll even cry over the loss of a team member, all without breaking that blank stare. Not one bit of effort was made to “sell” this reality. Okay, they gave some characters fedoras because it’s the 60s. Thanks for that, I guess. So, any saving grace this game might have has to come from its gameplay.
Remember in Mass Effect how there was an even spread of “civilian” time and gunplay? Unfortunately, with The Bureau, the civilian time involves trudging (literally, slowly jogging) back and forth through your base talking to various dull-as-dishwater NPCs in order to get “dispatch missions” (i.e. missions you don’t play yourself but your teammates complete in order to level up faster). If that’s the boring part of the game, the gunplay is the frustrating part.
Your agent, Carter, commands two other teammates from your stable of scouts, medics, engineers and commandos whenever you go into the field. Again, very much like Mass Effect, you have to hide behind cover and issue commands to your team, working to synergize between your team’s various abilities, such as lifting an enemy into the air with your mass effect pow… I mean alien magic powers, then having your scout sniper him. The big problem here is that your teammates will not stay alive, no matter what orders you give them or how much you babysit them. On easy difficulties, this means having to manually pick them back up with another teammate (who will also usually die in the process), but on the harder difficulties, it means you’ll quickly be fighting alone for the remainder of the battle. One gets the feeling that if Carter weren’t leading these men, they would be gunned down as soon as their boots hit the ground. Even with Carter, the teamwork is, at best, frustrating and, at worst, unplayable.
But even if the AI worked as intended, it’s still not a well-fleshed-out game. The powers your teammates get are pretty flaccid: placed turrets don’t usually last more than ten seconds, combat stims don’t have any noticeable effect and commando taunts just ends up getting them killed that much faster. The skills are at once both uninteresting and weak. In the end, sustained gunfire and a barrage of grenades are going to be the main way you kill things, usually by your lonesome as your buddies bleed out.
To round out the mediocrity, The Bureau runs terribly, which is strange because it’s also not very graphically detailed. Blurry textures abound but yet my above-average rig was getting below twenty frames per second pretty consistently, even on medium settings. Playing in DirectX 9 mode helped a little but this game is not even close to optimized. Even the sounds effects, a bar that even bad games can clear, come across anemic and sometimes, they don’t come across at all. As a small example of the frequent sound issues, the first time I launched in an XCOM Avenger (a human-made flying saucer), you’d expect there to be a triumphant musical score, some deep-bass thruster effects or even just a simple rocket sound, right? Nope, it was just silent take off and ascent, broken only by a slight background hum that was present in the hanger I was standing in before launching. Pathetic.
The Bureau: XCOM Declassified aptly illustrates my view of the XCOM series, as a whole. All of it sounds fun on paper (Mass Effect-style combat in a 1960s setting) but the execution falls flat. Whereas Enemy Unknown was simply overrated, but still solid for a single playthrough, The Bureau was a struggle to even finish. Every conversation was painful, every trip through the home base felt pointless and every combat mission left me screaming at my teammates’ incapacitated bodies. Who knows, maybe XCOM the open world RPG or XCOM the flight simulator will make me a convert one day.
Reviewed By: Brian Mardiney
Publisher: 2K Games
This review is based on a digital copy of The Bureau: XCOM Declassified for the PC provided by 2K Games.