The first time I played The Bureau: XCOM Declassified, I was mostly just amazed that the game had finally seen the light of day. It took time for me to process any other reaction. The development process - and its failures - had been rather more public than I imagine 2K would have liked.
Yet, here it was. A veritable bonafide really truly XCOM shooter. As the initial shock subsided I came to a few very quick conclusions that would be challenged - or reinforced - over the next 15 or so hours of playtime. First, and easiest - it looked great, in a very Unreal Engine kind of way. Next? The story and voice acting were abysmal. Third: the gameplay still felt like XCOM and was definitely solid. Finally? The Bureau was not finished when it was released. Time just ran out.
The Bureau does a wonderful job of recreating the early 60s in small-town America. In fact, I don't think we ever actually see a city (sorry, spoilers there I suppose). We see diners and old pickups, military bases and one particularly cool farm. The feeling of place is spot on, but it isn't pushing any boundaries. More than anything else, this is functional - which is emphasised by the eventual repeating steel-grey alien corridors. It serves gameplay, it serves the setting, but it is not 'next-gen'. It is not Naughty Dog art. It is not Blizzard art. It doesn't need to be.
Neither is the story as good as I'd expect from either of those powerhouses - at least in the beginning. It has some lovely touches - especially the repeated blame placed on the USSR for the alien invasion - but is incredibly poorly acted and the story belongs in a B movie. After the story is set up and we're done with the painful exposition, you can sort of forget about it, and that’s nice.
If anything, as the game progresses The Bureau embraces its B Movie-ness. It gets into the thick of an XCOM story that anyone who played the recent Enemy Unknown will recognise. We rescue some scientists (badass Australian scientists, even), start to use alien technology and start sticking it to the invaders.
And then, just when you think this traditional story is going to come to an end and leave you with a rather short single player game - the whole thing gets very strange and veers dangerously between genuinely interesting and an awful, incomprehensible, trying-too-hard story. This isn’t just a ‘twist’ - everything I expected was subverted, and the whole world changed. For the better? Well, it’s certainly different.
The gameplay itself is split into two phases: Home and Away. Home is the XCOM base, Away is combat. At the XCOM base you can organise your squad, talk to the important members of staff, and engage in a few minigames. The minigames aren’t great, but the chance to discover backstory and learn more about the characters of the world is a nice touch. If only they didn’t talk quite so much, I would have enjoyed it more. I was spending almost as much time listening as I was fighting.
The combat - the meat of XCOM - is of course where The Bureau really shines. Or perhaps, it is the closest it comes to doing so. Controlling Special Agent William Carter, you lead a team with two other operatives, directing them in much the same way as Enemy Unknown, only this time you're in the thick of things, too.
The shooting feels solid, the squad AI is reasonable and some of the battles get to be quite tense, especially in the early to mid-game. You'll be using all your abilities, all your squad's abilities and desperately running around to pick up ammo. In these few missions, the game is fantastic. But once you reach a certain point, that seems to fall off a little.
I played the game on Squaddie difficulty (one below default) - which it turns out might have been a little too easy. The game offers the same general unit types seen in Enemy Unknown, with the exception that the player character can basically fill any role. I chose to fill a sort of sniper position, and as such played almost the entire game with a Commando (Assault) and an Engineer.
You are able to send all your other Agents on missions without you, which was great at earning more technology (which I never used) and in levelling them up. This was only useful in the last level where the game was finally hard enough to kill one of my squad members. That you can be delivered another Agent to replace losses partway through a level was a nice touch, and prevented set pieces becoming unwinnable. Moral of the story, though: Don't be afraid to play on at least the default difficulty. Your experience will be better for it.
I played The Bureau on PC, and after having tried to play the game with a keyboard and mouse, all I can say is: Get a gamepad, or play it on a console. The squad controls suffer many of the same jerky scrolling problems seen in Enemy Unknown when using a mouse, and the key bindings are unforgiving.
The Bureau managed a solid framerate throughout, only really chugging with some strange cloth issues at the XCOM base. I did experience some other glitches - shadows in particular didn’t seem to want to play nice, but overall this is a solid port.
Despite all of this - a great art style, a quirky story, and solid gameplay that supports tactical thinking - I really just don't believe the game was finished when it was released.
The first hint you'll get is when someone talks about doing something - say, tuning a radio - and they never make a move. Any time someone looked like they should have an animation to match their statement? It was missing. Most of the time someone should have interacted with or held a prop? It wasn't there.
Then I noticed that throughout missions the dialogue often cut across generic responses from soldiers, or conversations interrupted one another. Time to polish and fix bugs like these would have made the experience far more engaging and streamlined.
Towards the end of the game, the polish continued to drop off. More featureless corridors, more triggers that just weren't quite as snappy or precise. They didn't break the game, but every one did break my immersion and reminded me of The Bureau's well documented development history.
I think it's a shame that despite the time put into The Bureau, there still just wasn't quite enough to polish it to perfection. Still, we did get a solid game that is fun to play. Not everything can break the mould - perhaps not even everything should. The Bureau gives you a chance to play another game in the world of XCOM. If you're desperate to do so, by all means have a look. If you don't have a lot of money to spend, maybe hold out for that Enemy Within DLC instead.
I design games and enjoy thinking about how they work. Shorter opinionated blatherings can be found on my twitter.
Jimmy the Geek