The lights are on
I've made no secret of my anticipation for 2K Marin's The Bureau: XCOM Declassified. Speaking with members of the team, including lead narrative designer Erik Caponi, and playing a sample level both served to turn my skepticism into a belief that would rival The X-Files' Fox Mulder.
One thing was missing, though. While 2K Games has emphasized the challenge inherent in turning a classic strategy series into a squad-based shooter, I hadn't really experienced the game’s true difficulty. My last hands-on preview left me feeling pretty cocky after taking down a hulking Muton and waves of Outsiders and Sectoids.
2K Games set out to humble me this time, and has even upped the ante for tactical thinkers. In addition to the three difficulty levels already in place, the team has added a Commander tier that places limits on reinforcements mid-mission in addition to making opposing forces that much deadlier.
I chose the Veteran difficulty for my experience with the first three hours of the game, and it put my strategic thinking to the test. The opening moments offer a look into Agent William Carter's past, including the loss of his family at home while he was on a covert mission overseas.
Following the tragedy, Carter becomes more disruptive and unreliable, ultimately being put on delivery duty at the Groom Range base. He is unwittingly thrown into action when the base is attacked by aliens.
Joining up with two experienced XCOM agents during the 45-minute tutorial gives a taste of how the game will play later on, once regular teammates have advanced abilities. Unfortunately, Carter parts ways with them before the first main mission, forcing deeper tactical reasoning early on in the campaign.
Starting from scratch with a squad of new soldiers limits your options in terms of special powers. Later on in the game, you'll be able to command teammates to lay down turrets and mines, cloak, and more effectively tear through armor and shields. At first though, each class has a single ability that field commanders must take advantage of to progress.
Crowd control abilities like Taunt and Scatter are used differently when there aren't gun emplacements and mines to deal out additional damage. Early on, those skills are best used to flank and create crossfire situations.
2K Marin has warned that The Bureau won't be an easy romp for those that like to run-and-gun. I tested this out for myself and found that assertion to be true. Charging a single Sectoid left the little grey menace dead, but not before it inflicted a concerning amount of damage.
Tackling more advanced foes, like rampaging Mutons or a devastating Sectopod, will end quickly for the less tactically inclined player. I haven't been this challenged by a third-person shooter since the early days of Ghost Recon and Rainbow 6.
The Bureau's narrative prowess is evident on the battlefield as Carter speaks with his team, the sky ranger pilot, and Director Myron Faulke. Mid-mission NPC encounters provide much-needed breathers while also providing touchstones with what's going on in the outside world. XCOM's mission is to minimize terror amongst the populace, and without actually interacting with civilians, that directive would be meaningless.
The narrative arcs take a more prominent role in the XCOM base, which functions like a traditional RPG town or castle. There are small side quests that further flesh out the narrative. Letters, photos, and recordings pepper the base and the mission environments, and are understandably reminiscent of the audiologs found in Bioshock (a series to which 2K Marin contributed).
Many of these won’t offer experience that furthers Carter's development, but they do provide story moments that make them worth the effort. In an early example, Carter hears a strange radio broadcast. With the assistance of the base communication expert, the team locates refugees and dispatches a squad to assist them.
From start to finish, this beat lasted about two minutes. In that time, it helped fill in the blanks of the world outside the base that is coping with the invasion.
In addition to experiencing some of the narrative flare for the first time, I noticed new inclusions in the user interface. When ordering teammates to move around the battlefield with Battle Focus, a familiar shield icon still denotes areas safe and dangerous. While this was present before, for unsafe destinations, a new intuitive indicator has been added that shows where fire will be coming from.
This made it much easier to prioritize targets by aiding identification of the most pressing threats. The build we played was a month old, and we've been assured that even more polish has been added since then.
One month remains before The Bureau finally arrives at retail on August 20. It's been a long road, with a shift in player perspective, creative reboots, and a change in name. Based on our hands-on experiences with the game so far, the time and effort put into aligning this title with the rest of the XCOM franchise is paying off.
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