Review: The Bureau: XCOM Declassified redacts franchise staples while remaining familiar
When we think of the 1960s we think of the Cold War, communism, racism, sexism, the space race, and wide-scale alien invasion. But when humanity is put to blaster point, suddenly those other unfavorable themes don’t seem quite as important. It’s us vs. them.
It’s not a far change for an American organization designed to defend their home soil from the soviets to be transformed into an organization designed to defend against extraterrestrial invaders attacking US home turf; this is XCOM. In The Bureau: XCOM Declassified you play as hard-times, no-nonsense CIA agent William Carter, who was taxed to deliver a package when an invasion occurs.
From an XCOM franchise standpoint, The Bureau does well in keeping certain aspects alive while missing the boat completely in other areas. People who pick up this game need to realize it is its own beast and NOT XCOM: Enemy Unknown. After finishing the game, it’s hard to say if The Bureau is a soft reboot to Enemy Unknown or plot hole-heavy prequel.
Regardless of where Declassified stands, it successfully takes from the XCOM universe. Although the game occurs in the 60s, the look, environment, and feel are familiar. The majority or the weapons and aliens are identical to those in Enemy Unknown. When you see a Sectoid, you know that’s a Sectoid. The first time a Muton descends upon you, fight or flight takes over. Besides the fact that they look like giant, angry, hulking beasts, you know exactly what they are if you've played Enemy Unknown.
As you play the levels, you assimilate the alien arsenal into your own. From ballistic, these upgrades go to laser and then to plasma. Your characters have a backpack slot to help customize your gameplay more. You’ll find blueprints for these backpacks during missions.
While those are pretty big similarities (that and the whole working for XCOM and fighting aliens thing), this is where the resemblance stops. First of all, and most importantly, The Bureau is a third-person tactical shooter. That said, 2K Marin does an excellent job of transitioning the world of XCOM into this third-person setting. The combat in Declassified is downright fun. While you play as Agent Carter, you always have two other agents with you that are commandos, engineers, supports, and recons – each with drastically different abilities. Carter can gain 10 levels and the others max out at 5. Between missions and often during longer missions, you can swap the other two characters out. You can name your squad mates and play dress up to make them look a dapper as you’d like. I always like to name them after real people I know because it’s so much more tragic when they die.
Through entering ‘battle focus mode,’ Carter slows time to issue commands to his squad mates or to use an ability himself. This is the bread and butter of the game. Tactics are key when defeat your foes. Do you set up mines to funnel the aliens in a certain way? Do you snipe them at range, fight them head on, try to flank, or just bunker down and play a game of distance? Throughout the whole game, you’ll learn new skill and thus new tactics. I found myself ordering my squad around far more than I ever did in Mass Effect. By the end of the game, you’re going to want to master these tactics because the aliens won’t be afraid to throw everything they got at you at once. Multiple Elite Mutons at once while drones heal them to get intense.
On the topic of death, the permadeath system is a bit weak in Declassified. If Carter or a squad mate falls you can just revive them. So as long as you don’t do anything extremely stupid, you shouldn’t die. If everyone dies or Carter dies, you just restart at a checkpoint; most the time if you’re losing a fight, you lose hard and just go back to the checkpoint. So the only way for a squad mate to suffer from permadeath is to not revive him in combat, have Carter live, and reach a new checkpoint. This is actually fairly difficult to do.
This leads me to my next point. Compared to previous XCOM games, The Bureau doesn’t have those hard-hitting, highly stressful life-or-death decisions in it. This is a franchise staple for me. While the game tries to set up these time-sensitive main missions, you can do side missions before you do them. On top of that, it’s not even ‘choose one side mission over the other.’ You can literally do both before moving on to the supposedly time-sensitive mission. This honestly bothered me. The first option is to stop the aliens from firing off our own nuke or finding an artifact in a train wreck. After finishing the nuke mission, I was disappointed to see I could still go get to the artifact. Through dialogue, the game sets up urgency, but then it doesn’t back it up with gameplay.
Another pet peeve of mine was the down time at base between missions. I suffer from that Mass Effect disease where I feel I must do every side mission and talk to everyone in the base before moving on. Unlike the Normandy though, the XCOM facility is HUGE and on top of that, Carter refuses to run out of combat. Sooooo much slow walking around the facility looking for speech bubbles. JUST LET CARTER RUN OUTSIDE OF COMBAT! The good news: The game has really useful and simple objectives guides; yellow arrows tell you your main objective and blue shows side missions. This calmed my rage some.
As a third-person tactical squad-based game The Bureau: XCOM Declassified does things right while in combat. It's worthy of the XCOM title in environment, alien murdering, weapons, foes, story, and progression. The lack of hard-hitting decisions (yes I realize there are a few), no stressful scenarios, Carter using his ability to run sparingly, and numerous plot holes took away from the experience for me. Overall though, the gameplay entertained me and I found myself into the story enough where I wanted to finish it. There are some delightful twists, and when the game gets weird it actually works. I played it on PC and had a much better experience when I used a controller over the keyboard/mouse. But unless you are interested in playing again on a harder difficulty or getting 100% achievements on the game, I don’t see a lot of replayability.