Review of The Bureau: XCOM Declassified from 2K Games

The first thing that becomes apparent about 3 seconds into The Bureau is that things have changed since XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Rather than a fixed top-down camera you are now armed with a brand new third person over-the-shoulder fully interactive camera to explore your environments in. Initially I thought the absolute worst thing that could happen to a team based strategy game is probably the addition of aiming and shooting.

It very quickly becomes clear that the third person aspects of The Bureau aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive with strategy. “Battle Focus” puts the game into slow motion allowing you to give out commands very effectively. It has to be said it’s refreshing to have a strategy game without being cruelly punished because an enemy just spawned behind your carefully planned cover.

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Being able to aim and shoot alongside the strategic team decisions is uniquely liberating. It’s not so easy that you can just blast your way through the entire game but it does allow for some real-time reactions which is particularly welcome in fights where you are outflanked or face overwhelming odds. Terrible flash backs of hideous hit percentages from Enemy Unknown still haunt me today.

Weapons are now collected from dead enemies and become available if you finish the level with them or find scripted points and scan them with your wrist-gadgety-50’s-thingy. Weapons feel unique and all have their own pros and cons but towards the end it becomes apparent that some are quite useless compared with others and, in true XCOM style, you should avoid using conventional weapons at all costs.

In a similar style to Enemy Unknown the late-game becomes more and more populated with difficult/annoying enemies to balance your new weapons, equipment and skills. Obviously the difficulty must ramp in some way but just adding super-ninja-aliens doesn’t seem like the answer to me. My particular favourite is the Muton Elite that can now jetpack behind you. So a powerful lumbering tank – with a jetpack? Not sure why this is necessary and regardless of where you are positioned the Muton Elite will be behind you. At these points The Bureau can descend into a clumsy 3rd person shooter rather than a strategy shooter but luckily it only happens once or twice.

Another strange alteration is almost a complete absence of full cover in the Bureau and I’m not really sure why. Remaining stationary and not coming up to shoot will see you well protected so it’s fine for you. Unfortunately you have no such control over your team mates. You can tell them to move where you want but they will instantly pop up and start shooting, and taking damage.

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When an agent shouts out “this is NOT a good position sir!” my (very polite version) response was often “well get in the damn cover then!”. Even whilst taking fire from multiple enemy’s they still, at times, insist on leaning out of cover. Another favourite of mine is the AI’s inability to just sit still. Often when I checked to see where my agents where, as they scorned me for my bad judgement, I found they had got bored and run out of their cover and into danger. Having a sniper cover you and another agent join you as you push forward is almost impossible. Despite the fact every order was obediently followed initially, eventually the “AI” kicked in to override my decision. I would have been much happier had my team mates not had any “intelligence” of their own at all. Stop shooting the sniper with a shotgun, it doesn’t work. Just stay down for 10 seconds! Just listen to me!

It’s frustrating that such a good combat system can be spoiled by a couple of irritating niggles. Luckily for the most part the combat system works well and is very fun to use. It’s user friendly and with little to no tutorial you can fling out commands like a pro. The Bureau should definitely be played as an action strategy rather than a chess match.

Third person games also have greater capacity for characterization and narrative structure. Initially the plot is gripping and exciting – the Bureau concerns itself with the initial alien invasion and therefor takes on a darker survivalist tone. The 50’s setting is a refreshing change too offering old school “futuristic” technology. Offices are wood cladded and smoke filled with more than enough flasks of whisky for even the sternest 50’s gentlemen. Between missions you spend time talking to other agents and interacting with the many collectables in your environment. It’s a welcome distraction that’s well paced and breaks the action up well. It also makes XCOM feel like a real place rather than just a mechanic to allow you to buy upgrades or research weapons.

Unfortunately at the end characters are quickly altered enormously far too fast for it to have any real meaning. It’s a real shame that the last hours of The Bureau instil only confusion and bewilderment and seems to discard any development your character has gone through. I felt that The Bureau’s plot would have been more effective if it had concentrated on dealing with the desperate defence of earth and preserved its dark tone throughout.

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Adding to a confusing and slightly disappointing ending is Bureau’s length. It’s only around 20 hours long and I sorely missed act II where you can really earn some upgrades and build your squad up as you see fit. The middle of The Bureau really needed bulk such as optional missions. Nothing special. Just a few generic, optional, fights. It would at least have allowed me to get to level 10 before literally the last area on the game. What’s the point in a level 10 if you only get there 1 hour from the end?

Audio and visuals are nice enough but sadly they are plagued with technical issues. During almost every cutscene there was a point when the sound cut and the video skipped 3 or 4 seconds. Most of the game is fine and there are no major issues during combat. The problems hardly ruin the game but it’s frustrating that the audio and visuals aren’t allowed to show their full potential.

A much more personal experience and interaction with XCOM beyond combat makes The Bureau a much more driven experience. Side objectives and characters provide an entertaining distraction but aren’t enough to bulk up the 20 hour game. Sadly it looses focus towards the end by overreaching with the plot and technical issues interfere throughout, especially with the cut scenes.

Swapping turn-based strategy for third-person action with a cool slow motion command wheel worked well – minus the questionable team AI which would have been better off dead. Still, a clever new adaptation of strategic 3rd person combat and one that I hope catches on, or at least gets a sequel. Despite all my issues I enjoyed playing The Bureau. The Bureau is definitely worth playing although it may disappoint hard-core strategy fans and those looking to sink some serious time into a game.

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Reviewed on PS3.