Part of the fiction of the XCOM franchise revolves around an extraterrestrial invading force who have arrived to Earth after enslaving entire alien civilizations, monkeying with their DNA to shape them into an effective, if abominable force. When the creators of The Bureau: XCOM Declassified speak of being inspired by their turn-based source material, this could well be what they mean, as game has sucked up a bunch of tropes and mechanisms from other titles, cobbled them together in a slap-dash fashion, and arrived at a squad-based shooter that’s effective overall, though crude and inelegant every step of the way.
The Bureau trades the globe-trotting, near-future setting of XCOM: Enemy Unknown for a plot set in early Cold-War America, and casts the player in the shoes of William Carter, a sanctimonious browbeater whose constant presence on screen undermines any inclination to root for humankind. Carter is immediately recruited into the nascent XCOM organization: a top secret task force founded to prepare for Soviet invasion, and he spends his time visiting the slices of Americana that the aliens are chewing through kicking alien ass.
The 1960s aesthetics are prevalent throughout the adventure, with XCOM HQ looking like space-race era NASA Mission Control, and the agents’ offices looking like sets from Mad Men. The characters are decked out in period-authentic garb and hair, and the idyllic small-towns are painted in nostalgic technicolor hues that really sell the era. Despite this wonderful set dressing, the game fails to capitalize any of it. It seems like the narrative designers had a checklist of 60s vibes to nail, so a few secondary characters make sexist remarks, and a few memos show off McCarthy era paranoia persists, but the main characters neither seem limited nor influenced by the period in which they live.
The Bureau is most in its element when in the thick of battle, which looks on the surface like any other competent third-person cover based shooter from this generation. Two agents with abilities from four different classes are brought into each mission and are controlled by a Mass Effect style radial menu. Much like the Brothers in Arms series, the most effective way to progress is to spend the majority of the time issuing commands rather than lining up headshots. The enemies come in multiple varieties, and will flank, retreat, and push forward appropriately, forcing you to adapt your strategy on the fly. Orders can be queued to great effect, and setting up the various one-two combos between different classes is hugely satisfying. Time slows to a crawl, but doesn’t stop when bossing around allies, which means the intensity doesn’t let up. Every now and again a heavily armoured enemy will be dropped into the arena, which leads to inevitable moments of time-dilated panic as you’re forced to revise best-laid plans under hails of plasma fire.
The frequency with which battles can thrill vindicates transplanting the familiar XCOM concepts into a more immediately gratifying perspective, but not all of the series’ staples are adapted as effectively. Much like Enemy Unknown, soldiers can be renamed and customized, and combat experience is rewarded with new abilities, but the threat of permadeath is diluted when the player character’s death results in restarting from a checkpoint. Given the trade-off, I’d rather have fleshed out characters to chat with on missions, rather than disposable automatons. The XCOM base is available to explore in between missions, but instead of serving as a means to manage limited resources and influence R&D, it’s spent doing fetch quests for bloviating NPCs, with little reward for the patience expended. The base is a beautifully designed diorama, but the amount of aimless wandering that takes place there makes the time in between missions a chore.
At times, it feels as though the teams working on the game weren’t talking to one another. Key characters stress the importance of acquiring alien technology, and issue stun weapons to bring enemies in alive, but weapons can be picked up from dead enemies with little aplomb, and the only live capture happens in a cutscene. The abilities of the squaddies frequently veer into superhuman without explanation, and the technology available in gameplay appears well before the scientists in the story acknowledge them. There’s foreshadowing with no payoff, plot threads that peeter out without warning, and the story manages to be guilty of being too bloated when dealing with inconsequential matters while simultaneously glossing over important plot points.
It’s strange to witness a game so beautifully presented, and yet feel so hastily assembled. Important sound effects are conspicuously absent during cutscenes, characters will respond inappropriately to dialogue choices, and there are issues with the basic combat controls that ought to have come up in the very first QA session (using the same button tap to reload or pick up a weapon is bonkers considering how much time is spent killing enemies behind cover, then using that cover for yourself). It’s tough to reconcile these basic issues with the loving detail in the first two missions, wherein Carter’s dapper fedora can be knocked off by heavy attacks, and retrieved with a button press (I haven’t got this excited about a hat-losing feature since Super Mario 64).
The Bureau: XCOM declassified lumbers between thrilling battles and tedious waffle too often, and the combat designers have run out of new tricks by the time the endgame comes some 15 hours in. As a prequel story for those eager to lap up more XCOM, it fails on all metrics, divulging no interesting information on the organization, nor explaining why Earth was so ill prepared when the aliens came back with the exact same battleplan some 50 years later. It’s a Frankenstein’s monster of a game, and even if you were able to just sift through and pick out the pieces worth experiencing, ultimately there’s no soul.