2K Marin’s The Bureau: XCOM Declassified has travelled a rocky road to get to where it is today. The game started out life as a first-person shooter; something that 2K Marin is particularly good at (they’re the team behind BioShock 2). It was originally shown off at E3 in 2010 but promptly fell off the radar for months. Rumours of cancellations swirled about the Internet, and it only became more confusing with the arrival of further rumours of the game’s shift from a first-person shooter to a third-person, squad-based tactical shooter. Then in April of this year, all online traces of the “XCOM Shooter” vanished; 2K had basically done what their later marketing drive would emphasise: they had erased the truth. Less than two weeks later, The Bureau: XCOM Declassified was unveiled and that’s pretty much where we are now.
Over the last couple of evenings I’ve been playing a preview copy of The Bureau to get a sense for what 2K Marin has in store for us when the game ships in late August 2013. Having recently loved my time with the turn-based strategy title XCOM: Enemy Unknown, I was eager to see where 2K Marin would steer the trademark.
Set in 1962 during the height of America’s Cold War paranoia, The Bureau sees players taking on the role of special agent William Carter during the formative stages of the XCOM initiative. The opening portions of the game provide a neat backstory for how XCOM came to be, but I’ve always been a sucker for alternate versions of history – kind of like how the Cuban Missile Crisis was portrayed in the movie X-Men: First Class.
In my few hours with The Bureau I must admit that the character of Carter himself wasn’t earning any points for originality. He’s your typical, gravel-voiced lead who doesn’t take kindly to superiors and is considered expendable by the organisation he works for. His entire family is dead and as a result he has developed alcoholism as a crutch; it’s a little hackneyed but it does fit the motif of the flawed 1960s special agent with nothing to lose.
You’re thrown into the action very early on in the game and it doesn’t take long before the alien invasion kick-starts humanity’s march towards extinction. It all starts off feeling very much like your average third-person shooter: you view the action from an over-the-shoulder view point, you can take cover behind numerous chest-high barriers, and you can roll and dash between cover points when the need arises.
And then you get squadmates and you encounter your first real fight against Sectoids and Outsiders; that’s when the game shows its teeth and turns into an altogether different kind of cover-based shooter.
It would be an oversimplification to call The Bureau “XCOM meets Gears of War”. That’s a useful analogy but it’s too simplistic and suggests that gun fights can eventually be won by huddling behind cover and waiting for enemies to pop out from behind their cover; you know, Gears of War style. Similarly it suggests that when you’re feeling bolshie you can rush enemies head on and send them packing with a well-timed Gnasher shotgun round. Both approaches are guaranteed to get you killed in The Bureau.
You need to keep yourself and your squad constantly on the move if you hope to survive enemy encounters. If you’re stationary for too long, by the time you’ve played “let’s see who pops their head out of cover first” long enough to kill an enemy, you will have already been flanked by another three enemies you didn’t even know were moving. And the moment you’re flanked you’re pretty much dead already. The best way around this is to flank the enemy first, and this is where The Bureau’s cover system is pretty neat: if you and an enemy are facing off and you’re both behind opposite pieces of cover, your weapon damage is decreased. If, however, you flank the enemy so that they have no cover between you, your weapons are significantly more powerful. Obviously enemies can make use of this cover-based-weapon-damage-multiplier as well. It’s a very clever way of incorporating the percentage chance to hit that featured in the strategy title XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Obviously, a shooting game that deliberately hindered your aiming would be frustrating as hell, so a weapon damage increase is the logical alternative to an XCOM mechanic. It also seems to be just a really cool feature that keeps enemy encounters rather tense.
When it comes to issuing orders to your squad, you get to use something called “Battle Focus”, which slows down the action on screen so that you can tell squadmate one to move to that flank and squadmate two to begin concentrating his fire on a specific target. Note that the action doesn’t stop entirely, it just gets slowed down, which means you can still die in the middle of giving orders. The moment you activate Battle Focus you’ll get a wheel of orders for each squadmate; all enemies are also highlighted through cover so you can pick who you want your squadmates to focus on.
Obviously, as you and your squadmates level up you’ll all get access to special abilities that can also be activated when Battle Focus is active. Abilities include being able to deploy laser turrets to being able to lift enemies out of cover through a sort of gravity-well effect. Just as in XCOM: Enemy Unknown your squadmates have specific character classes, each with their own weapon preference and special abilities. And yes, they can die permanently as well depending on which difficulty level you’re playing on. On the harder skill settings, if a squad mate goes down they’ll begin to bleed out; if you don’t get to them in time they’ll die and be gone from your game for good. It’s that classic XCOM permanence, just in a third-person shooter as opposed to a strategy game.
Between missions you get to explore the XCOM base, which sees you being able to have conversations with various characters (which makes use of a wheel-based dialogue option tree similar to Mass Effect’s), the outcomes of which seem as if they might lead to side missions. You’re also able to manage your squad at the base by customising their uniform colours and names. Naturally I found the gruffest looking squadmate I had and dressed him up in pink camo – with great power comes great opportunity to ridicule your subordinates.
The game is definitely going for a certain aesthetic and it’s not going to win any awards for best looking game on a system, but it does nail that 1960s American atmosphere very well. In that regard its artistic direction had me convinced. The storyline hadn’t hooked me just yet, but there were definitely some interesting characters developing on the periphery.
My taste of The Bureau was one that became more palatable over time. The opening level didn’t exactly sell the game that well because the movement and aiming felt a little clunky. However, the moment you get a squad and you’re given the chance to start giving orders in Battle Focus mode, the game shows its true potential. After you’ve earned some XP to level up Carter and the rest of your squad, the game opens up even more as you’re given further tactical abilities to use in the field. And I think that’s what drove me forward with my time with The Bureau: seeing how tactics could evolve alongside my units. On the surface, there seems to be a wealth of tactical options that get drip-fed to you as you progress, and the emphasis on those tactics is what makes The Bureau feel like an XCOM as opposed to just another third-person shooter.
Fans of the more tactical, squad-based games (that you’d find in the Tom Clancy stable for example) might want to keep an eye on this one.