I feel bad for The Bureau: XCOM Declassified. It’s like the poor middle child, born with the XCOM name but not given the responsibility of the eldest son (the well-respected though absolutely confusing old-school X-COM: UFO Defense) nor spoiled rotten as the critical darling who’s just so like his older brother, isn’t that darling XCOM: Enemy Unknown. No, not only does The Bureau have the misfortune of being in a family with those two, but in this tortured metaphor, I’d go so far as to say that The Bureau is their sister: the single outnumbered girl constantly being told how great her brothers are.
And here’s the thing – it’s a prestigious family. It’s hard to stand out when your older brother is considered one of the greatest original tactical games ever invented and your younger brother is considered one of the greatest modern tactical games ever invented and you’re a game that has shooty gun bits. How good can an XCOM shooter be, anyway? Is The Bureau a modern-day X-COM: Enforcer?
It tries so hard. The Bureau tries to hard to fit into the XCOM/X-COM (let’s just call it XCOM for the rest of today, all right?) family. The concept is daring not despite its awkward elevator pitch – XCOM, but all action, no turns! – but because of it. It’s a challenge that I’d fear taking on not only because of all that heavy XCOM baggage that comes from huge fans of the original games but also because it is about turning a fantastic genre-based game into a multi-genre franchise. It’s the kind of game that is tailor-made for churning out a flop and reducing grand designs to a pile of bullet points meant to appeal to both genres.
It is in those moments, however – when The Bureau reaches over and pulls something from its tactical brethren – when the game works, when it sometimes even shines. There are enough of these touches – callbacks that aren’t just quick homages but actually weave their way into the fabric of the game – that The Bureau feels undoubtedly like an XCOM game.
There’s a map of possible missions to select, squad selection and progression, individual squadmate classes and unlocked abilities, and the ability to name all of your squaddies (and change the color of their ties). I rolled with Brian O’Connor and Benedict Cumberbatch before the latter got a face full of alien weaponry and sadly expired – oh right, your squadmates can up and die on you forever.
But if I wanted all of those elements in a game, I could play any other XCOM, right? There’s the matter of the shooty bits, and that’s where I feel like The Bureau is a bit of a letdown. The actual gameplay is a bit like Mass Effect meets Star Wars Republic Commando. There are some relatively generic sci-fi dialog trees (tinged with enough 60s gee-golly to make it feel period) and then a decent bit of squad-based gunning.
The squad orders mechanic is technically well-executed. I can easily go into “focus” mode so I can give orders to my two squadmates or use the unexplained ability I have to levitate aliens. It makes me feel in control of the battlefield. However, in the same breath, some of the decisions feel a bit like the game isn’t sure if it’s truly action-oriented or still tactical at its root.
Going into focus mode slows down the action to a fraction of real-time, but doesn’t actually pause the action. Some actions seem to queue up after leaving focus, but some seem to happen immediately. Certain abilities are only available within a certain range of the agent, but navigating the cursor to the intended target requires moving along a path the agent could actually move on, which makes little sense for something like a thrown mine. It’s a little hard to understand how effective cover is for your squadmates and they certainly seem less able to deal with aliens than aliens are able to deal with them.
All in all, though, The Bureau is a decent game. Had it been released without the XCOM baggage (or in alternate universe where it came first!), I think that people would have considered the squad-based semi-tactical gameplay to be clever if not perfectly executed. The combination works better than expected, even if the shooter fundamentals aren’t quite there. On a really generous day, I’d compare The Bureau to Bioshock.
But The Bureau didn’t come first. It is and always will be an XCOM game, and that will mean that it can’t live up to its franchise because it is a far weaker shooter than Enemy Unknown is a tactics game. If Enemy Unknown is Paul Blart: Mall Cop, The Bureau is the now-forgotten Observe and Report, even if Observe and Report wasn’t all that bad of a movie.
I wouldn’t know, though. I never watched it.