Platforms: PC (tested) | PS3 | Xbox 360
Developers: 2K Marin
Publishers: 2K Games
The year is 1962. The Bay of Pigs Crisis has just happened. Paranoia is rife on the US mainland as the Cold War begins to kick off, and the world is plunging into a quagmire of paranoia, secrecy, mistrust, and clandestine ops.
Only the Communists aren't the real enemy at all.
The above forms the basis for 2K Marin's tactical action title, and if it sounds eerily familiar, well that's because it is.
"There wasn't a “Big Bang moment” where the [XCOM] service just came into being, so we really wanted to tell an origin story, and we really liked the idea of setting the game in 1962, just after the Bay of Pigs incident," producer Nico Bihary tells me. "So you have this global atmosphere of paranoia, it's the start of the Cold War, and set against that backdrop we have this really believable story about how XCOM could be formed.
"So we have this clandestine organisation, constructed to defend against enemy threats and covering them up, but it takes time. So we wanted to zero in on the Bureau as this organisation that really hasn't matured yet technologically or organisationally to fight off a massive alien threat, but was really established early on to be a counter-intelligence group."
The game's story goes that JFK set up the Bureau to combat infiltration by enemy operatives, but it soon becomes apparent that the threat is quite literally out of this world, and the Bureau is rechristened, and set to work performing counter-intelligence against a mysterious force known as the Outsiders: unfriendly extra-terrestrials who've gone and enslaved a bunch of other alien races, from Sectoids to Mutons.
It's at this point of rechristening that William Carter, the game's protagonist joins the organisation, and he's quickly dispatched to learn more about this strange new enemy.
Of course, 2K Marin's initial pitch -- a first person shooter -- was met with mixed reactions to say the least. On this very site, our appraisal of the 2011 work in progress was met with an emphatic negative reaction best summed up in three words: "It's not XCOM". Development stalled, the news feed dried up save for hints at a shift from first to third person, and then 2K announced a string of delays.
"XCOM: Enemy Unknown was extremely beneficial," Bihary admits when I ask him how important it was for Firaxis' more traditional take on the series to release first. "It reinvigorated the franchise and it satisfied the consumer desire for that particular type of game.
"I think that when you have strong desire for a product, combined with a lack of information simply because it's not appropriate based on where we are and what our plan is, you're going to get speculation and you have to be prepared for that. I worked on Bioshock Infinite as well, and there was a period of time where people were very sceptical, but then we held a hands-on presentation in Deccember and everyone came back saying 'I'm a believer, this game's going to be awesome'. So I hope that the same thing happens here, that why we want to get the game into the hands of people such as yourself and get people playing. Hopefully, when people do play it, they'll forget the noise."
Well, we did just that the other day, and we were pleasantly surprised with what we found.
Our hands-on demo took place forty-seven days after Carter joins the service and we found ourselves dispatched to Pima, New Mexico to investigate the disappearance of another Bureau team that had been led by a chap named Da Silva. There is a base you can trot around and choose from a variety of main and supplemental missions (along with AI dispatch missions for your roster of agents, a little like the Assassination Missions you could give out to your brotherhood in Assassin's Creed), but the R & D side of things is narrative-based rather than player-driven in this game.
We weren't too cut up about that, though, because this is a game that's really all about battlefield-management rather than grand strategy. XCOM itself is not a global organisation yet, taking the fight to the aliens. 2K Marin have focused in on a national story, with a heavy emphasis on narrative and strategic action, and that's not necessarily a bad thing.
"I'll give you an example using an American sports reference," says Bihary. "In Enemy Unknown, you're playing from the coach's perspective. In The Bureau, you're the quarterback or the point guard. It's the same sport, but you're like a combat quarterback, calling plays for your squad mates in real-time, adapting your tactics to counteract the movements, strengths and weaknesses of the units on the other team. Those gameplay approaches defines what an XCOM game is, not what you name it."
You can take two agents with you on missions, with a roster of eight or so in reserve should you want to switch things up a bit at supply points. There are four familiar classes for your accomplices -- Engineer, Commando, Recon, and Support -- all with different unique abilities and skills, and their own, distinct, branching tech trees. You'll earn XP as you overcome enemy forces, and you'll be able to upgrade Carter and his squad as you go.
Thrown into a combat situation after walking through a desolated Pima street, littered with the burning husks of Thunderbirds, it quickly becomes apparent that playing The Bureau like a regular third-person shooter will get you killed. The action is heavily reminiscent of Mass Effect 3, and there's a nifty radial wheel called 'Battle Focus' that allows you to order your squad about with merry abandon. But unlike BioWare's game, where you could sit back and let the AI pretty much get on with things, occasionally playing the solo hero when you felt about it, using your squad is pretty mandatory here.
2K Marin have pinched the shield motif from Enemy Unknown to highlight effective cover, and much of the first skirmish is spent getting to grips with the Battle Focus system, and the frequency with which you'll use it. Your squadmates are some of the most respectful subordinates we've come across, and they rely on your orders. The enemy AI will not make cheap mistakes or simply blunder into your gunfire, you'll have to make the most of your squad's skills.
Finding cover is essential, as is marking targets for your sidekicks. Such things form the basics for Flanking 101. There are simple things you can do such as having your Commando taunt an enemy so they come running into the mine that your Engineer has just placed, and then there's inventive stuff like applying a 'Lift' power to an Engineer's turret so you can elevate it fifteen feet into the air, rendering enemy cover useless.
We later rendezvous with Da Silva, who's been infected with an alien virus but managed to rig up a whole bunch of explosives in the courtyard outside. As we then defend the square against a wave of enemy forces, we're able to instruct Da Silva to blow individual charges, eliminating low-level threats, and flushing Elites out of cover. The action is fast-paced, and we're forced to constantly re-evaluate the battlefield, shifting positions regularly as the enemy forces attempt their own offensive manoeuvres. Then an armoured Muton drops in, and we're forced to scatter the squad as the hulking brute can potentially take us all out in one hit. Enemies go down fairly easily if they're out of cover, but so do your compatriots, and indeed Carter himself. Good old Bill has a heal ability for his squad, but careless strategy will inevitably lead to a downed squadmate, and then it's a frantic scramble to revive them.
If one of your agents dies in The Bureau that's it. Permadeath is very much the order of the day.
"We want players to respect the rules and systems we've set up," says Bihary. "We want them to think about how they approach problems, and use their tools effectively; we want them thinking strategically; and we want them to also feel empowered with the suite of moves that their agents will have on the battlefield should you train them up. At the same time, we have a responsibility as designers to ensure we're being respectful of the battle areas, to make sure that the balancing is right, that the game is compelling and engrossing and challenging without ever cheating the player or making things unfair."
Out in the field, it doesn't feel enormously like an XCOM game in terms of the way that it plays at first, although there are little details and visual indicators that help evoke a spot of Enemy Unknown, but 2K Marin are not exactly trying to play it safe. The key difference is actually the switch between turn-based strategy and real-time combat. There are so many things to juggle, to keep track of, that you worry it might seem overwhelming. But Battle Focus is such an intuitive feature that by the end our half-hour demo, we were really rather competent, zooming in and out of it with deft precision. Your use of the terrain -- high ground, vantage points, cover, a willingness to retreat and reposition when needed -- is just as crucial as it was in Enemy Unknown. And that makes us very happy indeed.
It's clear that the team have enormous respect for the series, and we're looking forward to seeing how that plays out in a narrative sense, particularly when Bihary hints that players will be able to affect the story. If 2K Marin can deliver on that promise in a meaningful fashion, if they can manage to avoid a feeling of repetition (which even Enemy Unknown struggled with) through diverse adversaries and inventive abilities, The Bureau might just rise from the ashes of this generation's conclusion this winter as something to be truly excited about.