Developer: 2K Marin
Publisher: 2K Games
The Bureau: XCOM Declassified is far removed from the strategy roots of last year’s much-loved XCOM: Enemy Unknown. It was off to a rough start when originally revealed as an FPS, before the internet threw its toys from the pram over a few minutes of footage.
Fans were appeased when 2K released Enemy Unknown, and since then The Bureau transformed into a third-person shooter and the tactical side of the game was given some much-needed emphasis in the build-up. After all the fuss and returns to drawing boards, 2K may end up annoying fans anyway. There’s no escaping that this is essentially a third-person shooter with squad commands stapled on.
The story is standard alien invasion fare, but with an unusual setting for most video games, the early 1960s. This gives the early parts of the game something of a unique identity. The sharp suits, the hats, the cars, the picture perfect suburban homes and even the music all feel spot on. Mad Men fans will adore it.
You are Agent Carter, a badass grump who, like the rest of his colleagues at the Bureau, doesn’t seem particularly fazed by the sudden appearance of little green men. This was clearly the time when men were men rather than skin-care product enthusiasts.
Holding back the alien invasion in small suburban towns and seeing the devastating effect they’ve have had is handled really well. The alien virus that has affected most of the population has turned citizens into 'Sleepwalkers.' All they can do is wander around in a daze with black ooze leaking from their eyes. They seem to be locked in a disturbing loop of their last memory. Walking through a barbershop, I found the owner constantly shaving a live customer's bleeding face.
Sadly, scenes like this raise your expectations too high, as before long the game starts to recycle generic alien bases made of your favourite shades of grey. Essentially, it loses all design personality by the half way point. But how does it all play?
As a three-man team, you lead two agents around the battlefield against numerous types of aliens. Holding B slows the scene down to sub-bullet time giving you lots of time to issue commands in the Battle Focus menu. Each of your fellow agents has a number of abilities for you to select from a radial menu. Early on, you'll be sending them to cover, press forward or focus on specific targets.
I'd like to say they're a sensible bunch, but damn are they dumb. They constantly need to be told to follow you or you'll start to issue a command only to realise they're way behind and out of range for specialised attacks. They’re also strangely keen to ‘take cover’ in gaps between walls or even on the wrong side. The enemy couldn’t believe their luck. There’s no option to tell them to hold their fire, making flanking the enemy before engaging a rare occurrence.
AI agents are terrible shots too. The stats at the end of a stage show just how much of a crappy job they've done. By the end of the second hour-long mission, I had 57 kills, Jennings 3 and Pitman 5. Later on, this improved slightly to 76, 17 and 13. Go team!
They do have some extra skills and attacks that do prove useful though. They can call in plasma ring ground attacks, artillery fire (even indoors), and place mines or turrets. Defensive abilities include shields or stat buffs for allies. Later, you can even have them stun enemies or shatter their armour. Abilities recharge after a reasonable wait, so they're worth using on a regular basis.
You have your own skills too, the most useful of which is healing the entire squad, regardless of their whereabouts. Another lets you lift up enemies from behind cover. This can even be used on large Muton miniboss enemies, which is a real lifesaver just slowing them down as they take a lot of firepower to kill.
You and your allies can be downed on the battlefield, but can be revived if someone comes to your aid before you bleed out. To be fair the AI did a good job of helping me out here. Higher difficulty settings involve possible permanent death for any of your fellow agents that bleed out. As you'll be doing most of the heavy lifting yourself, playing the game on these settings isn't much fun at all.
New agents can be recruited though by completing extra missions. You can even send inactive ones out on their own missions in a very similar way to Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood. To be fair, they level up quicker this way too, unlocking better abilities like invisibility and turrets.
Stages get tougher towards the end by spamming harder enemies, like the heavily armoured Mutons. Aside from your fellow agents’ special attacks, they’re a bit of a liability under heavy fire and need a lot of babysitting. Matters aren’t helped by the incredibly clunky running. The sprint button is mapped to A rather than LS and the camera gets flustered in tighter spaces -not helpful when your cover’s been blown by a jetpack-wearing beast.
Cover controls themselves are suitably slick. I particularly like clicking the left stick to shuffle around a corner. So many TPS games make corner transitions awkward, but it couldn’t be smoother here. The weapons have a great sense of weight and impact to them too. The alien ones you can seize are particularly powerful and the health bars above your opponents help you to pick out a few firm favourites.
The only weapons I found to be useless were the shotguns as their range is way too short for the middle to long distance firefights. This was a shame as the Engineer agents couldn’t equip anything else, but I wanted them in the team for their deployable turrets. That said, the sniper and commando agents don’t exactly rack up kills anyway.
Given the team-based nature of the game, the lack of any multiplayer options was something of a surprise. I would have thought the game would have lent itself well to three-player co-op. Or if an extra agent was added to the team, two players could have issued commands to one AI partner each. There was a chance for the game to carve out some unique territory of its own. As it stands, Brothers in Arms: Hell’s Highway remains the only true strategy/shooter hybrid on consoles. That came out in 2008.
Depending of the difficulty setting, you’re looking at about 10-13 hours to get through the game. The last third feels too long though as the game breaks numerous promises that it’s all about to end. If the last few missions weren’t so repetitive and dreary to look at, it wouldn’t have felt like such a slog. But they were, so it was.
- 60s setting is great (when taken advantage of)
- Solid third-person shooting
- Surprisingly strong story
- Teammates are idiots
- Dreary final third
- No multiplayer
The Short Version: The tactical side of the game needed more work and options as the AI Agents are exceptionally poor at keeping quiet until you tell them. And when they do open fire, they rarely make it count. The 60s era setting starts well and paints a suitably bleak picture of a peaceful suburbia turned upside down overnight. But lazy art design soon ditches this for generic grey corridors. At the end of the day, The Bureau is a solid if unspectacular third-person shooter with a mix of babysitting and rechargeable abilities.