By Andrew Dodson on September 14, 2013 at 2:00pm
The squad presses up against the cover, silent as can be. Peeking over the edge, they get a view of the alien patrols that wander the Small Town, USA street – the tiny squad of three is easily outnumbered five to one.
These odds aren't anything new, though.
Times slows down as William Carter, the commander of the mission, whispers his commands. "Spread out. Take flanking positions." He has one soldier throw out a turret on that side of the street to flush the outsiders out of cover. The other, armed with a sniper rifle, he has targeted an opposing sniper on the far end of the street. ommands given, Carter targets a shielded unit mid-street, and using some advanced technology strapped to his wrist, plans to lift him up into the air to be used as target practice.
Time returns to normal, and in unison, the squad moves and begins their planned attack.
The outsiders don't stand a chance.
"The Bureau" is the latest addition to the XCOM series of strategy-based, humans vs. aliens games. What separates "The Bureau" from most of the other games in the popular series is how it puts you on the ground with your squad as an individual, rather than a commander seeing everything from above. You're given a third-person perspective of the battlefield, and you're allowed to move around freely like in any other shooter. Unlike any other shooter, however, you're also given the responsibility of giving commands to your squad, lest they stand behind cover and take badly aimed pot-shots at the enemy until the End of Time.
That responsibility to command your squad is what makes "The Bureau" an irrefutable part of the "XCOM" series and is also one of the more frustrating functions of the game. "The Bureau" is not a turn-based game. You aren't able to stop the time once a mission begins, which makes timing squad commands a very difficult thing to manage, especially in the middle of a particularly rough firefight. As a bit of an aid to the player, time does slow down when Carter goes into "command mode," but it doesn't ever seem to be slow enough. Without the top-down view of the battlefield, it's much tougher to send your squad to the exact area that you need, which I suppose is more realistic given your on-the-ground commander perspective of the game, but it also occasionally leaves the player sending his squad to locations where they stand idiotically next to cover and get riddled with laser fire.
For that reason, the game really does reward the player for being strategic and patient during the fights in the game. The only problem with that is that the fights start becoming really predictable. You'll be traveling through war-torn America and turn down a street with a view of the road covered with rows of flipped cars and boxes and other types of cover. And suddenly, aliens appear and start running at you!
That is how each mission basically goes. You walk around, have two to three fights in carefully prepared battlefields, and then you win. Occasionally, they throw a new enemy at you or some reinforcements drop down in a flanking position so you have to rethink your strategy, but it's never horribly difficult to get yourself out of those situations.
If there was ever a reason that I lost a battle, it was because I made a mistake trying to rush through it. A lot of fights feel exactly like the last fight, and you end up just wanting to get through them to get to the other side.
There is the RPG element to the game, which is very similar to what was seen in "Enemy Unknown." There are various squad classes, and each one has a skill tree they are able to climb up to get new abilities. That tree is very small however, so the decision process is kind of underwhelming, and any strategy you have during character advancement is rather limited.
Like in "Enemy Unknown," you have the ability to customize your squad mates when you hire them, which is a feature I really like in games like this. I love building up teams based on my real-life friends, and I do it every time a game gives me the chance. Typically, those characters are always the first to die, but I still try to do it. I always get attached fastest to characters that I'm able to create, and that bond to to your squad is a key part of the "XCOM" games. The player is able to customize a lot about their squaddies, down to the color of their tie in the suit that they wear into battle. The one thing they can't change is gender. "The Bureau: XCOM Declassified" is a boy's only club, which I suppose goes with the atmosphere of the era the game is set in; just about everything was a boys only club in that time. There is a female NPC character that occasionally helps Carter in battles, so the potential for female teammates was there, but the players just don't get to have access to it. I guess we'll just have to chalk it up to adorable/nostalgic 1960's sexism.
One of the things that I found cool and amusing about "The Bureau" is what the typical "XCOM" squad wears into battle. They don't rely on kevlar or any kind of body armor. They go out in their suits. Sure, some do wear camouflage, but most of the squad classes are dressed to the nines for their battle against invaders from space. Agent Carter goes between being dressed like he's a character in "Mad Men" to looking like a twin of Sterling Archer (black turtleneck and all). The "XCOM" squad, Earth's only defense against complete and utter annihilation at the end of super advanced aliens, has never looked as good as they look in "The Bureau."
The story of "The Bureau" starts off as nothing special. Earth gets attacked by an alien force, the military is destroyed, and it comes to the brand new XCOM team to overcome this threat. You do all the cliche things that a team working as Earth's last hope would do. You rescue the guy that's an expert in the alien technology. You do your best to save civilian populations. You capture a live outsider. And eventually, use their own technology against them to do an "Independence-Day-Shut-Down-Everything" type of mission. It's really standard stuff with completely average voice-acting carrying you through it all.
That said, there are a couple redeeming things about the story. You encounter the first pretty early on - a mysterious virus from the outsiders that infects civilians population and turns them into "Sleepwalkers." They ooze black stuff from their eyes and just walk around in circles repeating whatever it was the last thing they were doing before the ailment completely took hold. They don't attack you; they just continuously mutter their "last words" and walk around aimlessly. It creates a lot of creepy atmosphere in the destroyed American towns in which most of the game's missions take place.
In the final act of the game, the story veers dramatically off the path of the predictable and does some crazy stuff that I did not expect. I won't go into it to avoid spoilers, but it's an alright twist with multiple possible endings.
I played through "The Bureau: XCOM Declassified" trying really hard to like it. It was interesting at first, but the average story and clunky game play really strayed from what I loved so much about "Enemy Unknown." This newest addition to the "XCOM" series was definitely a risk by developer 2k Marin, especially with the fantastic and immensely popular formula for "Enemy Unknown" sitting right there, and I'm not sure that risk paid off. "The Bureau" just isn't a very interesting game in comparison. It has its moments for sure, but those moments are fleeting and in the end, they're not really memorable. If you're a fan of the "XCOM" series, you probably shouldn't miss what "The Bureau" adds to the series, but if you're looking for something as strategic and difficult as "Enemy Unknown," you're going to be disappointed.
But at least you'll be dressed well.