The Bureau: XCOM Declassified Review
The 1960s setting for The Bureau: XCOM Declassified is superbly rendered. (Credit: 2K Games)

Key Features:

  • Developer - 2K Marin
  • Publisher - 2K Games
  • Platforms - PlayStation 3 (tested), Xbox 360, PC
  • Release date - 23 August
  • Price - £39.99

The Bureau: XCOM Declassified

Is The Bureau anything like XCOM: Enemy Unknown? No, not at all. This is a third-person shooter with squad mechanics. Guns, movement and graphics are similar to Mafia 2, also by 2K, and rather than plan attacks, you're encouraged to bore into them head-on and fight rather than manoeuvre your way out.

All that to say, this is a less interesting game than the last XCOM. 

It's the early Sixties and a race of aliens called The Outsiders has invaded the US. An early version of the XCOM initiative, calling itself The Bureau, is tasked with stopping them and you, as Agent William Carter, are leading the charge. The set-up might sound a bit plain, but the period setting allows for some neat touches.

The Bureau's base of operations looks great, filled with smouldering ashtrays, reel-to-reel tape recorders and giant ENIAC-style computers. The battlefields are equally gorgeous, with most of your firefights taking place on the streets of small town America. The Bureau's a good-looking game; it's very stylish. But that lustre doesn't translate to the combat, which is scrappy and unfulfilling.

Pain

The shooting itself is as per: You aim and fire using the trigger buttons, can carry only two guns at once and can use either human or alien weapons. But when it comes to controlling your squad, The Bureau is a pain. Orders are given via a Ghost Recon-style command radial, which you can pull up mid-fight by tapping circle. Via this interface, you can choose where to send your troops and which of their abilities you want to activate. You can also access your own skills from here and get an overview of the battlefield by scanning visible enemies.

The Bureau: XCOM Declassified Review
The Bureau just can't seem to get Dave tuned in properly, despite all their TVs (Credit: 2K Games)

But there's not really any point. Your two teammates (you can only ever have two) are virtually useless and it's much easier to just handle the enemies yourself. At the end of one mission, despite my best efforts to properly command the squad, I had scored 23 kills and they had managed only two each. They're unnecessary. You can use them if you want, but it's only going to raise the chances of them getting killed, in which case you have to go through the rigmarole of reviving them.

Although, they do get more useful as the game goes on.

Key

Successful kills and completed missions earn you experience points and you can spend these on customising your teammates' abilities and classes. Engineers can manufacture turrets, Recons can use sniper rifles, Commandos are your basic fighting class and Support members have a healing ability.

The key, as with most strategy games, is to create a decent mix. My character was Support class, so I was responsible for topping up everyone's health as well as picking off targets. My number two was an engineer; at the start of every battle, I'd have him throw down a laser turret and lay some proximity mines so we could burrow in and let my third guy, a sniper, pick aliens off from afar. I also had other abilities such as Lift, which allowed me to telepathically levitate enemies off the ground, forcing them out of cover and freezing them in place. 

A combination of all these things made for a pretty effective team. At the start of The Bureau, I was happy to just let the game's AI handle my squad while I did the heavy lifting myself, but towards the end, when the abilities got more interesting, I was able to develop more team based tactics.

The Bureau: XCOM Declassified Review
The standard issue Bureau backpack came with enough cabling to wire a standard skyscraper (Credit: 2K Games)

Best laid plans

Although they didn't always flow. The command interface is simple enough and the later game abilities are suitably diverse, but the combat set-ups don't necessarily work in conjunction. You know how in old Sonic games you'd find yourself constantly tripping over spikes and falling down holes, how the levels didn't really complement the fast-running mechanic? The Bureau has that same problem. It invites you to play tactical, but then drops you into battles that are too chaotic and close range to make much sense off. 

Despite my best laid plans, more often than not I'd find myself just spamming the Engineer's laser turret ability and sticky grenades, firing into a crowd until the room was all clear. The last levels especially are terrible for this. The Bureau's confident middle-section devolves into stage after stage of wave defence, as you kill unending numbers of enemies amid boring alien architecture. Maybe it was because I had to play the game seven hours straight to make the review deadline, but those last sections felt like a slog. 

Prophecies

The writing's not great either. Again, it goes wrong towards the end, when The Bureau gets completely lost in its own mythology. What starts as a simple and promising alien invasion story turns into some guff about prophecies, chosen ones and mind control. You can't keep up with who's betrayed who and the best character, Carter, is unexpectedly sidelined. The last few stages are spectacularly overwritten. The ending is a total misfire. 

Which is a shame because there are some great lines. One of your abilities is to summon an alien shape called a Silicoid, which looks and acts like the Rover ball from Patrick McGoohan's The Prisoner. When you activate it, Carter yells "Allied blob deployed!" If it gets killed he shouts "They killed our blob!" The Bureau pops with sixties sci-fi schlock like this and I wish the writers had just kept it silly. But this, according to the box, is an XCOM game and XCOM games are serious.

The Bureau: XCOM Declassified Review
One of the enemies in The Bureau: XCOM Declassified had the unlikely name of Mark Target. (Credit: 2K Games)

And that's my biggest criticism - The Bureau doesn't need and shouldn't carry the XCOM moniker. It's its own beast and stamping it with an established brand name just makes it feel even more like a hasty attempt to cash in. Without the franchise rights, I'd be happy to call The Bureau a safe, competent and occasionally enjoyable squad shooter, but complete with the XCOM logo, it feels like a cynical, quick turnaround. 

There's a lot to like about The Bureau and I enjoyed playing it very much, but you can't just take up a brand in the name of financial insurance. With the XCOM logo attached, The Bureau begs comparison to Enemy Unknown and unfortunately it just doesn't stack up. 

Scores:

  • Gameplay: 6/10 - Enjoyable but the squad dynamic is virtually redundant. Battles are too scrappy to let you hatch proper plans and you can easily do most of the work yourself.
  • Sound: 7/10 - Really great gun and alien noises, held back by a nondescript orchestral score.
  • Graphics: 8/10 - Definitely one of The Bureau's stronger suits. The inside of the XCOM base looks fantastic, as do the diners, school-yards and town halls you find yourself fighting in. 
  • Writing: 5/10 - The Bureau starts off with a straightforward and entertaining invasion narrative, then plunges headlong into overwrought nonsense. Carter's sixties straight-man dialogue is often hilarious.
  • Replay value: 7/10 - The Bureau's fleshed out with plenty of side missions and RPG elements to keep your playtime ticking on. I'd play it a second time, I think.
  • Overall: 7/10 - A solid, good-looking third person shooter with misdirected XCOM pretensions. It doesn't need the squad mechanics and, other than a few plot winks, does nothing with the XCOM name at all. It's a cash-in, no doubt, but I had fun playing The Bureau. Recommended, despite some issues.

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