2K Marin's third person shooter based around the classic strategy game XCOM has had its ups and downs since that rocky E3 2010 debut. What many veteran agents saw as a slight to the franchise by taking a beloved RTS framework and "dumbing it down" for the brain-dead shooter crowd turn out to be a boon for both genre fans. RTS loyalists received the fantastic critically acclaimed "XCOM: Enemy Unknown" and shooter fans would get their fix as well. As a bonus to both sides, 2K was going to add in a bit of back story to flesh out the XCOM brand and give it a bit more flavor. What "The Bureau" brings to the table is a sort of melding of both worlds -- a richer, story focused shooter propped up by the infamously live and let die decision making skeleton from the RTS side of things. So can "The Bureau: XCOM Declassified" seamlessly blend RTS and TPS elements smoothly or should this file be blacklisted forever?
The game's story centers on the actions of Agent William Carter within the clandestine operations of The Bureau during a full scale alien invasion. Originally tasked as a highly skilled delivery boy of sorts, Agent Carter was to drop off a mysterious and highly valuable package to the Bureau's dry-eyed Director. However, things don't work out so well for him -- as well as the planet -- and he is quickly enlisted deeper with the Bureau to combat the extraterrestrial threat. Though the plot is straightforward enough, the cadence wanders drastically as the threads are stretched quite thinly between scenarios. The game wants you to believe that everything is so utterly hopeless but at times takes a backseat to the serendipitous nature of solving a problem with most resolutions seemingly having a lucky break or simple resolution. Each mission has its MacGuffin that needs capturing, destroying, etc. in order to tie the ends, but ultimately they get lost in the shuffle as the whys and hows are just blindly accepted in order to create a simpler story. At the end, the tale being spun is rather simplistic, leaving several questions unsatisfactorily answered, and the throwaway ending essentially nullifies a committed canon for any future stories relating back to the origin of XCOM. For what it's worth, the voice acting is pretty spot on and 2K Marin managed to capture the feel of the 60's nicely. On the plus side, it certainly leaves enough to create spin-offs and b-sides should "The Bureau" get some attention in the gaming community.
Carter's lack of and then sudden concern for some teammates puts him at odds with his motives for thwarting the destruction of the planet. I won't spoil it here but there's a string of late game choices that threaten to impact a meaningful plot twist but occur so late that they become relatively toothless. I have the feeling that someone wanted desperately to make these choices happen earlier so as to steer the story in new directions but were either shot down immediately or revealed much too late in development to attach anything beyond a shallow grab for future replays just "to see what happens if X." These choices are not necessarily bad by their nature but because there aren't any real attachments, you'll probably just make your choice while sighing out whispered "huh?" before moving on to the end game.
Between sorties, you'll investigate the office area, interact with fellow agents and have a chance to solve some of their "monster of the week" problems. However, these more often than not serve as a way to get bonus EXP and don't exactly reflect upon the greater story. It's a real shame that the HQ -- a huge staple from the RTS XCOM games -- is placed so much on the back-burner. As a field agent, Carter realistically wouldn't have much -- or any -- say on construction or R&D, but it would be nice to be to "steer" production in advanced weaponry or maybe even unlock certain bonus attributes by engaging with said NPCs. Additionally, you'll have several short dialogue options that open up from time to time, but like the side missions, don't serve anything beyond providing nice dusting of atmosphere.
Plot aside, the real meat is the combat and the recruitable agents that live and die by your command. Mechanically, it holds up among some of the better third person shooters and can be quite intense as alien forces flank, use powers, and aim with deadly precision. Throughout your adventure, you'll be tested time and again on your combat, and most importantly, your leadership capabilities. Higher difficulties prove this even more so as keeping you squad healthy and combat ready can be very tricky due to the incredibly smart, quick, and proficient alien AI. "The Bureau" can be forcibly tackled like any old shooter but only true masters of leadership and combat will make it through the highest difficulty. As Carter it's up to you to employ the right moves at the right time and see your squad live to fight any other day.
Carter and crew are easily managed with the Battle Focus ability which dilates time to a snail's pace allowing you to select the right power at the right time. Agent AI is pretty on the ball about taking out enemies that you won't have to micromanage all the time. That said, you'll be using Battle Focus much, much more to control the battlefield and get a one up on your opponent. Smart use and timeliness are key to victory. Typically, I approached fights by using the two agents as focus point for enemies while I lead Carter around the backside for bonus damage. This proved an effective method most of the time as I could soften up alien defenses with my squaddies and then layout the tougher foes in a coordinated sneak attack. Few battles required much more thought than shoot this guy, activate X power, and take cover here, though, one or two boss encounters need a bit more massaging to successfully come out on top. As a shooter, "The Bureau" is one of the more refreshing games to come out this late generation and I would very love to see more games take a methodical, slower pace to firefights rather than simply dump you into the fray.
Missions are activated via a giant map of the USA, showing all the alien hot-spots and are divided between major story progression missions, minor side-missions which usually grant a new weapon or backpack, and agent missions in which you have to send a small squad without you. These agent missions are interesting in concept as whoever you send cannot be used until you complete either a major or minor mission. The odd thing is that you'll need to meet level requirement by sending a mixed group of agents. For instance, a level 7 mission can be completed with a single level 5 and two level 1 agents -- or you can send 3 level 2 agents and a single level 1. On their return, they'll gain experience and, because they can't die during these missions, the only sacrifice is not having a full roster during a field emergency. It's perplexing that so much emphasis is on placed upon the classic XCOM trope of perma-death when you can simply level up a bunch of agents without having ever used them in a player mission. On top of that two different side missions don't have any bearing on the plot arc and serve to pad out the 16 plus hour campaign.
At the end of the day, "The Bureau: XCOM Declassified" answers a question that I don't think original XCOM fans asked -- namely, do we need another shooter just set in a different universe. And even though the story and overall narrative falls a bit on the shallow side, there is definitely a spark present. Perhaps, it's the excellent art work and alt-history style of 60's Americana coupled with the brilliant designs of a retconned NASA motif that bumps "The Bureau" a few notches above just another bulky space marine shouting garbled lines of tough guy talk. The engaging combat is certainly a factor, and offers enough variety to keep even the hardest of core gamers on their toes. Unfortunately, it's a bitter pill to swallow given the lacking plot and maybe "The Bureau 2" can build upon the seeds planted in this game. Still, if you're looking for a shooter that will test your situational wits as well as your reflexes, "The Bureau" will easily satisfy that need.
Score: 7 out of 10
"The Bureau: XCOM DEclassified" is available tomorrow on PlayStation 3, PC, and Xbox 360. Review copy provided by 2K Games and played to completion on Xbox 360.