Monday 21 October 2013

The Bureau: XCOM Declassified

1962. The Cold War is at its height. In great secrecy, President John F. Kennedy has ordered the founding of the Bureau of Operations and Command, code-named XCOM, which will coordinate the defence of the American homeland in case of a Soviet invasion. When Earth instead falls under clandestine attack by alien forces, XCOM's brief is changed to defend against the incursions. CIA Special Agent William Carter is recruited by XCOM as the alien attacks intensify and has to lead the fight back.

The Bureau is a prequel to the critically-acclaimed 2012 turn-based strategy game XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Unlike that game, The Bureau is a real-time action game played in third person, with emphasis on shooting from cover. You command a squad of three soldiers (one of them is always Agent Carter) who are each equipped with different weapons and powers to be used against the alien threat. At the start of the game you are using contemporary weapons, but as the game goes on you can recover alien weapons and turn them against their creators.

The Bureau had a rocky road to release. Begun in 2007 as a fresh reboot of the XCOM franchise, development was shared between 2K Marin and Australia. The vision for the game shifted repeatedly. The original 2010 E3 demo showed a tense, claustrophobic game based around investigation and gathering evidence of alien incursions. It was more like the X-Files and appeared to be a highly original and experimental direction to take the series in. However, it appeared to have nothing to do whatsoever with the existing XCOM franchise. The developers didn't exactly endear themselves to fans by declaring that strategy games were dead. Astonishingly, the developers of The Bureau did not know about Firaxis's Enemy Unknown game until it was revealed to the general public in early 2012, and that game's enormous critical and sales success left their more traditional (and moribund) action-shooter looking rather unnecessary.

2K seemed to agree. The game was transformed into an action shooter clone of the Mass Effect games, had some of the traditional XCOM aliens shoe-horned into it and a narrative link to Enemy Unknown rammed into its ending that is quite astonishingly unconvincing. Literally days after ushering The Bureau out of the door in August 2013, 2K announced an expansion for Enemy Unknown named Enemy Within and seemed to do everything they could to make people forget about The Bureau, including firing most of the people that worked on it.

All of this context might lead you to be expecting a truly terrible game. In fact, The Bureau is an enjoyable, competently-executed cover-based shooter with some really nice tactical options. The storyline and characters are - mostly - forgettable, but there's some great ideas going on here. Recruiting new troops and sending them on missions you can't attend yourself is a great idea (and one that could be transferred to Enemy Unknown, which suffered plausibility issues by always having the aliens attack three targets simultaneously) and the levelling stuff is a good way of differentiating characters. There is permadeath as well, although the game's use of checkpoints and quick-loads means it's easier to avoid than in Enemy Unknown. In-battle powers are chunky and satisfying, and towards the end of the game you find yourself assessing the battlefield, deploying drones and turrets and giving orders to your team-mates as much as you are firing plasma rifles. Combat may be ripped from the Mass Effect series, but frankly it's handled better. The last few missions in particular have some epic and memorable firefights.

There's some great attention to period detail, with 1962 America brought vividly to life through music, architecture, cars, aircraft and so on. This version of XCOM's Skyranger being a 1960s transport helicopter is a cool idea, and rather than having tons of Interceptors you have just the one experimental flying saucer which plays a big role at the end of the game.

On the negative side of things, there's way too much physically running around the badly-designed base and the story and characters never really gel. Dialogue is irritating as characters you can speak to have word balloons above their head, but these don't vanish or change colour to confirm you've spoken to them. This means it's impossible to tell when you need to speak to someone again to get new information without talking to every single character between missions, which gets old very quickly. That said, there is a really, really good story twist in the last couple of missions. If you keep a close eye on what's going on you can see it coming, but it's still a well-executed plot twist that hints at greater narrative strengths than the game ever really engages with. The attempts to tie in the plot with Enemy Unknown are also interesting, but ultimately unrealistic. The plot hinges on the alien invasion - complete with Washington, DC being attacked, Chicago being burned to the ground and dozens of multi-kilometre alien towers being built across the country -  being completely covered up by the American government so the alien attack in Enemy Unknown still comes as a surprise, but this is ludicrously unconvincing.

Still, The Bureau (***½) may struggle to be a good XCOM game, but judged purely on its own merits it is a competent, entertaining shooter with some great combat and a decent length (clocking in at about 15 hours for the single-player campaign), and definitely a lot better than its lengthy development and its mistreatment by its publishers suggests it should be. Recommended, but preferably as a budget release. The game is available now in the UK (PC, X-Box 360, PlayStation 3) and USA (PC, X-Box 360, PlayStation 3).

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