2K Marin’s attempt to revive the long-dormant X-COM series has taken many different forms over the past several years. After initially being revealed as a first-person shooter under the name XCOM, sharp backlash from fans and a lukewarm response from the media led to the game being completely redesigned more than once, and while the shooter was expected to reboot the franchise, Firaxis’s excellent XCOM: Enemy Unknown proved that gamers were ready and willing to play strategy-focused X-COM games. When 2K Marin unveiled its final iteration, my expectations for the game increased exponentially. The Bureau: XCOM Declassified appeared to blend fast-paced shooting and strategic squad commands to create something that could stand alongside the strategy games, and while some of its ideas still shine, the final product doesn’t come close to reaching its potential.
The year is 1962, and CIA agent William Carter is assigned to deliver a mysterious suitcase to a superior when a massive alien invasion leaves many top-ranking intelligence officers dead and Carter with special healing abilities. After meeting Myron Faulke — the man whom Carter was tasked with delivering the case — William learns that a mysterious agency known as “XCOM” is the only thing standing between the alien outsiders and global annihilation. Confused, tired, and suffering from constant nightmares about his family’s tragic death, Carter has no choice but to assemble a squad and discover why the aliens have attacked.
The Bureau is intended as an origin story for the X-COM franchise, but its narrative is at odds with the tone of the universe of which it so desperately wishes to be a part. Aliens speak English — which makes absolutely no sense — and the explanation that the government was able to cover up an alien invasion that nearly destroys the entire planet and gives way to technological innovations centuries ahead of their time by merely classifying documents is deeply unsatisfying. The military is gutted, many top officials are dead, and citizens are just going to forget that aliens turned their friends into walking corpses and destroyed numerous towns? The horrible voice acting for William Carter also gives an unnecessarily campy tone to a story hell-bent on delivering an emotional tale; it may have been better to go the Nintendo route and not included voice acting at all, as this lazy choice would have better fit into the game’s cynical and halfhearted attempt at a resolution.
Perhaps these issues arise not because of individual inconsistencies in the game’s plot, but rather because the plot often takes center stage in a series not known for deep or compelling stories. Several late twists unravel the little bit of emotional investment The Bureau earns — unintentionally destroying any interest players might have in the game’s villains — and these problems are made worse because they can’t hide behind what the X-COM series is known for: tactical combat. Although The Bureau is a third-person shooter, players have access to a command wheel that is used to give orders to Carter’s two squadmates. These orders range from simple movement and attack commands to special abilities that vary based on what class a particular agent happens to be. One class has access to a turret, for example, while another can unleash a devastating critical strike to quickly take out a powerful enemy. Some of these abilities seem to be more effective than others, but swapping out squadmates and testing different combinations is one of the best aspects of the game.
This sounds good in theory, but numerous AI problems — such as inaccurate shooting and suicidal games of “run like a headless chicken next to a grenade” — make The Bureau often feel like Babysitting Simulator 2013 (1962?) and completely ruin the “mastermind” feeling that Enemy Unknown got so right. In addition, as a third-person shooter, The Bureau is barely mediocre. Weapons of all varieties feel sloppy and somewhat weak, and the slippery movement of enemies makes lining up shots a pain. More challenging archetypes often feel more like endurance exercises than tests of skill, and this only continues over the game’s roughly eight hour-long campaign.
The peculiar thing is that even with its glaring flaws, there are several moments in The Bureau that are genuinely exciting and well designed. Using the different characters’ special abilities in conjunction allows players to quickly cut down enemies that may be healing or shielding weaker aliens from harm, and some of Carter’s later powers completely change how each scenario plays out. Unfortunately, as players gain access to these new abilities, the game doesn’t know how to simultaneously increase difficulty and remain fun. “More challenging” really means “more enemies,” and as The Bureau reaches its final moments, this philosophy is on full display.
What may be the game’s most glaring problem is its desire to remain faithful to the X-COM brand while also pulling — seemingly without much thought — key features from several other AAA titles. Squad commands and interaction feel like Mass Effect, almost to the point of parody, and the game’s illusion of choice serves no purpose other than to frustrate excited fans. 2K Marin’s work on the Bioshock series is shown (or rather heard) through audio messages scattered throughout the XCOM base and each level, but the problem is that while the recordings in the aforementioned series give context and additional information to the game’s narrative, The Bureau uses them as a throwaway attempt to showcase the “deep universe” that the game is supposedly (and poorly) reimagining. An Assassin’s Creed-esque mission assignment system is also used to send out extra agents to perform tasks, but there’s no risk of failure in these; a few agents are gone for a mission, and then they return at its conclusion. If the level requirement for these missions is not met, they can’t even be attempted.
The fact that the The Bureau looks downright hideous also doesn’t help. Character models and environments look like they’re from 2007, with muddy textures and poor animation, and the game’s wildly fluctuating framerate and cheap effects pull players out from what tension the narrative actually achieves. Its art style also appears to be caught between “realistic” and “cartoony,” which not only makes the game look dated, but soulless.
The Bureau: XCOM Declassified could have been a solid companion to the excellent strategy series that Firaxis resurrected, but it instead only serves as a reminder of what can happen when too many conflicting ideas are combined in an attempt to please both newcomers and longtime fans. Many of its pieces seem to be at odds with each other, and although it initially looked to be a great improvement over its original concept, we may have been better off with a first-person shooter. At least that wasn’t trying to please everyone.