The lights are on
It's taken quite awhile to get here since it's original inception, and its been beaten to the punch by an even greater XCOM reboot, however, the project we have now come to know as The Bureau: XCOM Declassified still has a few things going for it. Following pretty much in the shadow of XCOM: Enemy Unknown for most combat and features, XCOM Declassified does however manage to stand on its own in many other respects, even if some are more mediocre than those of the multitude of stronger aspects of Enemy Unknown. The game is an incredibly interesting experience to partake of, as it showcases many cool elements that- if they were further refined, would surely make the experience that much more enjoyable. As it is, the game provides a great challenge, despite some pacing issues, and has a pretty neat combat system and interesting story, even if some things fall flat. XCOM Declassified is in no way a bad game, and is in fact an excellent experience if you're willing to give it a chance.
The Bureau serves as a prequel game to the modern world of the XCOM games we have known and loved over the years, including 2012's Enemy Unknown reboot. The game features a mix of action and tactics oriented gameplay, also similarly based on Enemy Unknown's. What makes up the vast majority of XCOM Declassified's gameplay is a mutt-like mixture of many different elements strikingly similar to, or directly from several other successful games and franchises such as Mass Effect and Enemy Unknown. A circular weapons, commands, and powers wheel shows up during combat and the tense action, and even during certain dialogue options and presentations as well. The game is a tactical strategy game at heart, but also borrows many elements such as dialogue and leveling from role-playing games, and tells a pretty convoluted yet interesting narrative as the action progresses.
You play as special agent William Carter, a relatively common government 'jack" caught in the middle of a subversive alien invasion and the threat of nuclear catastrophe and soviet invasion. If it were any other era than the '60's, I wouldn't know what to think, but in my personal opinion, this just serves as a reminder of the early years before my life, and the middle ones of those of my parents'... I can recall a muted time period where Mad Men-like suits were commonplace and ordinary, and where things like television and radio were staples- and most definitely where alien invasions were never mundane. Therefore, against such a strikingly dissimilar backdrop, this air of death, destruction, and mayhem makes for an excellent starting point in my opinion. A government agency known only as XCOM (Extraterrestrial Combat Unit) is formed, and fights to stem the tide of alien invaders, all the while keeping the general populace in the dark so as to avoid panic and more otherworldly chaos. From the "advanced" technology of the time to the truly advanced alien tech, the setpieces and world itself is breathtakingly beautiful and cliched 1960's-ish to look at, which, in the vein of something like Bioshock, is quite the complement.
Just as an example to show you some of the elements that really screamed out at me "I'm from another game," I'll give a few items of interest that have obviously been implemented since the project's beginning. The circle-shaped conversational wheel, the third-person cover mechanics and covering options, and the many technologically enhanced powers themselves all scream Mass Effect- biotics and all. Now, this isn't a bad thing at all, nor is The Bureau the first game to "steal" some things from another excellent game- the only qualm I have with this is simple: it doesn't do any of them nearly as well as the source material did. Be that as it may, despite the semi-generic experience, these elements do transfer well in many scenarios- such as talking with your squad members and commanders back at home base, offering up some pretty lengthy conversations, as well as the powers at your disposal which boast some pretty interesting combinations during combat. All in all, gameplay wise especially, The Bureau doesn't lack for cool gimmicks or customization in many ways at all. Sure, it might not give you too many "true" choices in most scenarios, but then again, not all decisions have to be on the Mass Effect scale now do they?
The Bureau really shines during its biggest portion, which would be combat and infiltration gameplay. Just as it feels in Enemy Unknown, the awesome feeling you get when you successfully flank and mow down your enemies is often amazing and short to last, but quick to turn ugly if you get too far ahead of yourself. The difficulty can be startling for rookies, even on easier levels, which is certainly a testament to every strategic XCOM game I've played to date- and equally challenging and exciting to think of. Sure, sometimes that one enemy might seem to take a massive amount of damage, or dole it out in return with some heavy death tolls and retribution, however, it is a role-playing strategy hybrid, so there's bound to be some good old hacking and slashing away involved- even if it is with guns and powers. Far from the traditional third person shooter and tactical espionage game, XCOM Declassified forces players to open up their powers and command wheels whenever they wish to move their partners around to certain places or launch off deadly salvos. This can be both annoying and helpful, as it was in Mass Effect with squad commands. It'll rub off on you as you go, and you'll get more used to it, but it wouldn't have been so bad if your allied AI functioned a bit more responsively to said commands- or were more intelligent and could think for themselves.
As with Enemy Unknown, you can bleed out if ignored for long enough, and you will encounter some permadeath along the way. This isn't really as depressing or as engaging as Enemy Unknown's permanent deaths, mainly because you aren't so much in a tactical situation where it literally counts against you right off- as you face a more action/tactics hybrid here, where you as one man can affect the playing field drastically based more so on skill than percentages alone. Sure, the tactics still counts, but only about sixty percent of the time instead of eighty-five or more. Getting used to the controls and tools can take players a little while longer than they might like- making some of the first battle situations much more tedious and annoying than they should be, however, once you get things down pat, and you rank up a few weapons and powers- you'll soon enough feel as much like an unstoppable badass as you're ever likely to in a game bearing the XCOM label. One thing that definitely gets my attention every time I pop in the disc is the level layout and placement, which is just as great (and sometimes, even better than) as that of Enemy Unknown. Again, The Bureau seems to have been created with high difficulty and challenge in mind, as you won't always walk away from every situation intact or with a full squad- especially on the higher difficulties.
Sure, occasionally I was nearly completely lost in the story, as it hopped from place to place with no real end-goal or objective in mind, as far as I could see. However, as it neared the final hours, many things became clear, or at least clearer to me, and I saw the light so to speak- and was pretty impressed with it. Some things didn't really go as I would have done them myself, but I can definitely testify that they were interesting to say the least. If only the game could maintain the tension and frantic exploits of the final few hours throughout, then it would truly have been a solid masterpiece, or at least a better title than it is. Still, I've got to give it credit for what it has accomplished, so that's why I've given it the pretty decent score I've deemed it worthy of here.
Concept: Create a story that serves as a prequel to the modern XCOM gaming exploits that we know and are familiar with, while creating some new takes on certain elements and the gameplay itself, as well as presenting entirely new options and characters.
Graphics: It has a similar art style to that of XCOM: Enemy Unknown, and yet colors in The Bureau are slightly less colorful, and contrast more with their environment- presenting some interestingly vivid and muted combinations here and there throughout the alien battlefield.
Sound: What would surely be a tense and suspenseful musical score is undermined at nearly every turn by the sounds of reloading, healing, and taking out enemies. Sure, these sounds are all well and fine, in moderation anyways.
Playability: It truly gets better as you go, as you'll later feel naked without your learned abilities and powers in the first few battles, should you choose to play the game over again. As you progress and learn new tricks and upgrade some older ones, the gameplay also gets a bit easier to handle and becomes more fun. As it is at the beginning however, it could serve as a major turnoff to many players unwilling to give the game a second shot later.
Entertainment: 2K manages to craft an entertaining and exciting gameplay experience, even with the myriad of issues that often tags along with it in terms of story and combat. Beyond that all however, it is an excellent tactical concoction.
Replay Value: Moderate.
Overall Score: 8.0
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