It’s been quite a while since we’ve seen a game go through a development period as tumultuous as The Bureau: XCOM Declassified’s. Delays, multiple revisions, genre swaps, development team changes and more meant that what would eventually release as 2K Marin’s XCOM shooter was stuck in a development limbo lasting for seven years. Yes, parent company Take-Two has had teams working on an XCOM shooter since 2006, although initially (and for some time) it was meant to be a first-person shooter. That was because at the time of the initial concept stages, games like Call of Duty 2 were dominating the gaming scene. It’s certainly taken a while for 2K and Take-Two to get this XCOM shooter out of the door.
The unfortunate common phenomenon when it comes to titles that experience this level of difficulty during development, is the creation of games that feel incomplete, inconsistent and lacking in any coherent identity. Sadly, The Bureau: XCOM Declassified exhibits this as well, despite the fact that its core gameplay mechanic has some solid strategic elements to it.
Players take on the role of special agent William Carter. He’s your cookie-cutter, gruff and noir agent from the 1960s who doesn’t take well to being told what to do. He’s earmarked for the XCOM project by the organisation’s director Myron Faulke and soon enough becomes embroiled in a supposed covert war fought on Earth between humanity and an invading alien horde.
The game’s plotline is actually rather good and fans of the XCOM series will get a kick out of seeing how the organisation began. I was surprised on a couple occasions by just how many twists are thrown into the game’s story. One in particular towards the end of The Bureau incorporates some fourth-wall breaking devices which really put quite a refreshing spin on things. As great as that sounds however, the plot suffers in its execution – there are moments of incredibly bad story-telling that damage the overall presentation of what could have been one of the more memorable science fiction plots in a third-person shooter. What’s more, the game has multiple choices towards the end, but either they have little influence on the direction of the plot, or they are so badly communicated that what you think you’ve chosen turns out to be something completely different. One choice in particular actually results in the game’s abrupt ending and a fade to rolling credits; had I not thought to reload and see what the alternate choice resulted in, I would have missed out on a further two hours of gameplay!
Did you see the advertising campaign for The Bureau during the weeks leading up to the game’s release? Live action web series starring familiar actors like Dominic Monaghan must have set 2K back quite a bit of cash. What’s bizarre is how the tone of the advertising (erasing the truth of an alien invasion) is almost nowhere to be seen in the actual game. There’s this complete disconnect between the game that 2K was advertising, and the actual game. It just reeks of an incoherent identity and a lingering vagueness of what the game was supposed to be.
It’s not all bad news however, as up until this point I’ve really only raised concerns with the narrative and some odd marketing decisions. Gameplay is pretty solid. It was always going to be tricky translating the hardcore strategy elements of the original X-COM games into a third-person shooter, but 2K Marin has done an admirable job. Alongside Carter, you’ll lead two XCOM agents into each mission. Accompanying agents fall into one of four classes: support, recon, engineer and commando. Each of the classes should be familiar to XCOM fans, and each has a collection of special abilities to unlock. I found myself using engineer and recon agents the most, as the former’s rocket turrets and mine placement skills were invaluable. Recon agents are equally useful in picking off enemies from afar; they become particularly deadly once they learn the cloaking ability and become outfitted with an alien sniper rifle.
If you’re hoping for stacks of research options and armour upgrades like those found in recent strategy game XCOM: Enemy Unknown, you’re going to be disappointed. Aside from a single weapon option, your squad can equip different backpacks that have varying perks like shortening the cool-down times for active skills or increasing weapon damage. In that sense, it’s a little limiting. You can still customise your squad and name your agents, but the attachment you feel to your team mates isn’t a patch on what you probably felt towards the squad members you nurtured through Enemy Unknown.
Likewise, permadeath is there on the harder skill levels, but I didn’t lose a single squad member throughout the ten odd hours I played through the game. This is because if you get into a situation where one of your squad goes down, bleeds out and dies then it’s highly likely you will as well. Once that happens the game loads to the previous checkpoint where, lo and behold, your squad is alive and kicking. Consequently, permadeath is not nearly as threatening as it is in Enemy Unknown. I didn’t even need to recruit new XCOM members; I played the entire game with the original four team mates that were given to me at the start.
During missions you’re able to slow down the action in order to issue commands to your team by using something called Battle Focus. You can queue multiple skills and orders, all of which are executed in real-time and in sequence once you end Battle Focus. Issuing commands and the tactics that are made available to you through the rather diverse skills sets makes the game’s combat enjoyable. There are, unfortunately, some pretty nasty difficulty spikes, and I had to drop the difficulty level on a few occasions in order to get through particularly tough encounters.
Missions are very linear and are set in areas that really only have one direction to them. Some of the environments are interesting (the university town immediately springs to mind) but the missions set in alien bases are incredibly dull and derivative.
On top of the major missions that drive the narrative forward, there are side missions to add some diversity to the campaign. Those missions, however, are very short and more often than not completely uninspired. Between missions you can wander around the XCOM base and interact with certain NPCs. Some of these characters will have mini missions for you to complete while you’re in the base. These base side missions are not very compelling. With no immediate reward and very little in the way of interesting gameplay, there’s no motivation to do them unless you want to pick the narrative clean.
The Bureau has some technical shortcomings. I experienced inexplicable frame rate dips and some terrible object and texture pop-in. Certain in-engine cut-scenes also seem to be missing sound effects at particular moments. Sticking with cut-scenes, character facial animation is very wooden and lip-syncing is often non-existent. It’s all rather sloppy really, especially considering the previous titles that 2K Marin has given us.
There is no denying that The Bureau is a disappointment. Its core gameplay mechanic and squad-based tactics are actually quite solid, but the game that those mechanics have been plugged into is an addled mess. Bugs and silly design choices mire the experience: squad members will suddenly appear in front of you if you run too far ahead; engineers can throw mines through second-floors to land on the story below; waypoint indicators occasionally point in the complete opposite direction to where you’re supposed to go. The game starts out rather well, but as things progress and elements unravel, the shoddy quality begins to outweigh the few positives struggling to be seen above the muck. It feels like Take-Two thought they’d invested too much during seven years of floundering development, and so forced The Bureau out into the world in order to try and recoup some of the financial loss. This is one of those titles that probably should have been allowed to disappear quietly.