Since it’s inception, the XCOM series has had a dedicated cult following and with the re-imagined reboot of XCOM: Enemy Unknown in 2012, 2K Games and Firaxis Games were welcoming a whole host of new fans to the genre. XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a tactical top-down turn based shooter and, for the uninitiated, the best way to describe XCOM would be a violent and elaborate game of chess. Players would fight invading aliens who are set on conquering Earth and place their squad around the battlefield in what they hoped offered the best tactical advantage. The enemy themselves would attempt to do the same.
What made XCOM exciting was, despite having an overview and being able to scan the entire map, you never had an inkling as to where the enemy was until you caught them in your line of sight. If you weren’t cautious enough you could often have your entire squad walk into a flanked death trap. Also, in the main hub area (a secret underground base), players had to upgrade weapons, research to build additional equipment and monitor the planet for random attacks – thus preventing the world from falling into alien hands.
The reason I bring all of this up, is not so much to give you some history into the series but to prepare you for the HUGE changes, albeit with some similarities, that The Bureau: XCOM Declassified has made.
Firstly, The Bureau has a plot and integral characters unlike the previous XCOM games. XCOM: Enemy Unknown does have characters but they are not exactly essential to the story telling and I mean ‘story’ telling in the loosest sense of the word.
The Bureau’s predecessor had little in terms of plot. Aliens turn up enslaving or killing humanity and though they are searching for something else on the planet, the plot basically fell down to – fly over there and kill the little green men. But this was not to XCOM’s detriment, the fact that the game focused more on tactics and gameplay, rather than plot, was a refreshing change to the current display of games out there at the time.
However, maybe due to criticism of that fact, 2K Marin decided to explore the other side of the coin. The game is set in the 1960’s (XCOM: Enemy Unknown was set in modern day) and you play as William Carter, a military officer with a troubled past. But Carter is the best of the best and you are summoned to XCOM, a top secret organisation that was originally founded to deal with an potential outsider threat, initially the government had Russians in mind rather than beings from another planet. You are told to bring and protect a briefcase and deliver it head of the bureau, Myron Faulke. A female officer situated at the base attempts to deceive you and take the package for herself. It turns out that this female agent is an alien spy who looks human. In the scuffle you are shot and a burst of energy spirals out of the briefcase. You awake fully healed, the perpetrator is dead and it appears a full on alien invasion has begun.
The biggest change made in The Bureau: XCOM Declassified is to gameplay. This latest installment is not a turn based, top-down tactical shooter, it is a third person tactical shooter. Instantly comparable with the Mass Effect series. The main reason being that with the press of circle (on PS3) you will open a wheel (known as Battle Focus Mode) with various squad options. In doing so, skirmishes will slow down to a bullet time effect and enemies will be highlighted. Similarly to XCOM Enemy Unknown, which fans will be pleased to see, is the hit percentage that squad members have over their enemy. Whilst this doesn’t really apply to Carter, as you are in complete control of him, you are able to determine how high your chances are of your squad member killing the intended target. This can help you decide whether or not the risk is too great to send one troop flanking down the side.
By selecting Battle Focus Mode you are able to pick special attacks that you or your squad mates have in your arsenal. Throughout the game, as your squad-mates increase in experience, your abilities will widen and, depending on your squad members class (Commando, Engineer, Support, and Recon), you will have access to abilities such as deploying turrets, projecting holographic decoys and sending pulse waves through the ground – knocking enemies out of cover.
As expected, William Carter has the most interesting abilities, which are bolstered by acquiring and adapting alien technology in the form a device that looks like a Ghostbusters ‘Protonpack’ merged with Commander Shepard’s ‘Omni tool’. Carter has the ability to heal squad mates from a distance, lift enemies out of cover and, eventually, take over the minds of enemies adding them, temporarily, to your squad. Being the Field Commander, you must fight the urge to run out onto the battlefield and take out all the enemies yourself, as you would expect to do in most third person shooters like ‘Gears of War‘ for example. To an extent you are more of a support class that must overlook the whole battlefield and search for vulnerable areas in your own lines as well as the enemies. If you die, the battle ends.
Unlike the previous XCOM were your choices were cemented, you always have the option to fall back at a moment’s notice. Whilst XCOM purists may see this as a cheat, it completely works in tandem with the aliens positioning – as they too can quickly traverse the battlefield or fall back from it. The enemy AI is not stupid, whilst you may out-flank one or two opposing troops, the enemy will adapt to this and attempt to out flank you. This leads to some intense and highly varied skirmishes. Both you and your squad are vulnerable to laser fire, which is much more realistic than ‘Gears of War‘ and the game forces you to consider your options despite the heat of battle. In the earlier stages, I was way too brash in my approach. I struggled to keep a cool head under fire and would often lead my troops to their death. This wasn’t helped by the fact that in the initial stages you are armed with 1960’s rifles and shotguns – pee shooters in comparison to the alien weaponry. The game certainly punishes you and your primitive technology very early on, which is why flanking and positioning is key. Once you master the Battle Focus Wheel, (which is tricky and you can easily hit the wrong command without meaning to) you really begin to understand were the game is coming from.
What disappointed me was once you had mastered the Battle Mode Wheel and your squad had acquired alien weaponry and technology, the game bcame way too easy – until the final level of course. When I came against my first ‘Muton’ and a host of soldiers, I died several times. Actually, and more accurately, I fell to the ground several times pleading with my team mates to revive me before eventually succumbing to the masses in front of me. A ‘Muton’ is a hulking, heavily armoured creature, armed with a scatter shot gun and a bad attitude. The Muton doesn’t care what weapons you have and how many bullets you riddle him with, he just keeps on coming. Bold as brass too, he doesn’t even run for cover- EVER. One of the early levels took me around an hour to do, due to the frequency of my death rate. However, as stated, this is quickly offset about a quarter of the way through the game, thanks to advanced weapons and technology, until the final level or two. There is even a boss who can down you with one hit but I was revived so easily I managed to kill the ‘Holodisc’ (which looks like a huge UFO) in my first attempt.
It’s the overlooked moments and offsets in difficultly that fundamentally let The Bureau down. The game doesn’t feel polished. The characterisation is poor, William Carter is your typical gruff voice anti-hero who almost resents being there, but won’t take crap off anybody. In the main HUB area (XCOM Headquarters) you interact with characters who are incredibly two dimensional and wooden. If it wasn’t for the fact that their characters sometimes give you additional missions to carry out, you would certainly resist talking to them. Once again Mass Effect has been copied here as 2K have a conversation wheel that ultimately feels pointless. In Mass Effect your conversation choices have a huge impact on your squad and the overall outcome of the plot. The Bureau doesn’t. There are no real choices in XCOM, except maybe one or two that affect the ending ever so slightly but the outcome is essentially the same. I won’t go into any details as this could spoil the ending for you.
The plot has holes too. Certain story arcs are forgotten about or rushed. Also, whilst I am aware we are fighting aliens in the 1960’s and I should take this with a pinch of salt, how is it we mere ignorant humans are able to adapt advance alien technology and use abilities that, for the most part, the aliens themselves don’t have. My understanding is that the Bureau was to be a First Person Shooter but during development the change to third person and general game mechanics clearly has left this game wanting.
I, for the most part, enjoyed The Bureau and once again with the current crop of games that have been released this year there is something refreshing, although not original, about the Bureau. Who this game is trying to appeal to is the big question. 2K perhaps felt they needed to bridge the gap between those who love shooters but perceived strategy games as tedious, but it also feels they didn’t want to aggravate XCOM fans either by including certain familiar settings and gameplay. Whilst I believe there is certainly a game here worth playing that has been perhaps harshly and ignorantly criticised, 2K will have to come back with a clear focus and intention as to who this game is aimed at and patch up parts that feel unfinished or rushed. The other big question is, will 2K attempt anything like this again? Especially if its hardcore fans flock together to purchase the upcoming DLC pack Enemy Within (For XCOM Enemy Unknown) due out in November this year. Could that be a real indication of what fans want? Either way, I know the main XCOM series will produce and I really hope there is room for further progression of this new take on the XCOM series. I guess only time will tell.