By all accounts, it's a miracle that The Bureau: XCOM Declassified ever came out. The game was a victim of a protracted development, studio restructuring, and miscommunication (an excellent article at Polygon tells the tale better than I ever could). It’s hard to criticize a game when you know what the developers went through to get it made, but, as an impartial player, I feel the need to call it how it is. The Bureau really bummed me out.
It bummed me out, not because it is a bad game, but because it is so half-great. Despite (or because of) so many iterations and so many years, the version of the game that shipped was a partially-realized vision. At the expense of making anyone at 2K cringe in terror, I almost wish the game had spent more time in development.
The Bureau is, at its best, a more tactical Mass Effect-like. The structure is astoundingly similar. Players take on missions through a map view at a home base where they can explore and talk to their team. Conversations take place through dialogue wheels, allowing players to make choices in small ways. Missions bring a cover system and third-person shooting to the table, combining action with the ability to give orders to two squadmates. You even have this universe’s equivalent of Biotic powers, allowing you to telekinetically lift enemies into the air or summon helper drones.
It’s Mass Effect in the 1960s, complete with a galaxy-spanning story full of unexpected twists. But in all the coverage leading up to The Bureau, the game was never billed as an action-RPG-shooter hybrid in that vein. If I had to guess why that is, I'd say it’s because The Bureau never quite commits to the idea.
It really should have. Any improvement I can think of can be summed up with, “make it more like Mass Effect.” That said, as an armchair game designer, here’s what I’d improve:
1) Drop the XCOM branding
Let’s start by trimming some fat. The XCOM franchise connection, while noteworthy, prevents The Bureau from breaking out and being its own thing. Perhaps without the XCOM name it would have never been as tactical a shooter as it is, but it would be less concerned with tossing in some half-baked XCOM mechanics. Losing the poorly implemented permadeath, pointless squadmate customization, and shoehorned concept of “research” would only make the game better. These concepts worked well in XCOM, but in The Bureau they were simply try-hard attempts to appeal to the Enemy Unknown audience.
2) Give players a real squad
The Bureau has some genuinely cool, memorable field agents in Agent Weaver and DaSilva. Why not ditch your faceless all-bro redshirt squadmates for some actual characters to fight alongside? The story would have been better for it, and like Mass Effect, you could connect with your squadmates in and out of missions. Obviously the big obstacle here is the permadeath mechanic, but it shouldn’t be there anyway. With a more evenly paced Mass Effect-style narrative, your squad could have been a great way to bring some heart and emotion to this game.
3) Bolster the main missions with quieter side quests
One of The Bureau’s biggest issues is that the story is dialed up to eleven from beginning to end. In fact, it gets even crazier as it goes, culminating in a Mass Effect level of galaxy-spanning stakes that it simply doesn’t earn. Plot holes and confusing character motivations only make it more obvious that this story needed a lot more time to breathe. It could have used a slower build-up, less shooty side quests, and more downtime throughout. The missions the game has should be the epic major plot points between a much longer and fleshed out storyline. As it is, the idea of playing The Bureau for 30 hours instead of 10 doesn’t sound appealing, but if all the issues were fixed, I think that would be a much better prospect.
4) Put all the notes and tapes into the dialogue and core plot
Continuing with the idea of fleshing out the world, The Bureau could have done without all those notes, journals, and audio logs. Beyond being a tired mechanic, this extra bit of world building would be better as actual dialogue between Carter and the other members of the bureau. If the various characters around the home base had more interesting things to talk about, perhaps we would want to spend more time exploring the world. That, and you wouldn’t have to explain why people are leaving giant tape reels all over the place.
5) Give players some real choices
Along with better storytelling, the game should also provide more opportunities for the player to craft the story. There were choices to be made through dialogue options, but they never felt like they were amounting to anything. More sidequests would provide opportunities to influence the story without completely drifting away from the main plot points.
Along with story choices, I think character customization would be a smart, if not entirely necessary, addition. Carter had a pretty iconic, gravelly voice, and I wouldn’t want to change that, but allowing players to customize his face and body at the beginning of the game would have been a cool way to get us invested. It worked with Commander Shepard, and it could have worked for Agent Carter.
We probably won’t ever see a follow-up to The Bureau, and, all things considered, that’s probably a good thing. At the same time it’s hard to ignore the unfulfilled potential this game had. It may be a lost cause on its own, but it did make one thing abundantly clear — the Mass Effect shooter/RPG structure isn’t a bad structure to build another kind of game off of. I hope more developers are willing to take their game in that direction and build it properly.
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