The lights are on
It was the game no one wanted. When it was announced in 2010 (after four years of speculation), 2K Marin's XCOM was slated to be a first-person shooter, borrowing familiar foes and firearms from the classic series. The title drew the ire of strategy fans desperate for the return of their favorite alien invasion simulator.
Perhaps it was the fate of two other "re-imagined" franchises (2007's Shadowrun and 2012's Syndicate, neither of which were overwhelming hits with critics and players) that kept staying publisher 2K Games' hand. The title met delay after delay until fans received the best possible news: Not only was a faithful XCOM strategy title coming, but genre champion Firaxis was at the helm. The game received abundant critical praise (Metacritic: 89) and catapulted the series back into the public eye.
Now, three years after it was first announced, 2K Games is ready to re-unveil a new take on the XCOM world, with a new name and completely revamped play mechanics. The Bureau: XCOM Declassified is coming this August, and we've got the first information about how it's been transformed.
Earlier this week, we had the chance to speak with Morgan Gray, creative director on The Bureau, and Andrew Dutra, associate producer on the game. They shared with us their vision for infusing the pillars of XCOM into a third-person shooter. The team iterated multiple times to "find a real-time reinterpretation of the XCOM DNA without disrespecting the core premise of the franchise," Gray told us.
When the title re-emerged for its second showing in 2011, it already bore the early hallmarks of the tactical "Battle Focus," which is used to direct squadmates and trigger their learned abilities. Since then, the game shed its first-person view and its original name. The setting for The Bureau has not changed, though.
The game still takes place during the height of the cold war during John F. Kennedy's presidency. Americans are braced for war, but with a nuclear Soviet Union, not an alien incursion. The titular Bureau was founded (in secret) to be the first line of defense. As William Carter, you'll have to fulfill your mission to protect the populace from physical threat and mass panic, but not in any way the American government could have foreseen.
The Bureau: XCOM Declassified is not a game of obvious chest-high walls. Much like XCOM: Enemy Unknown, battles play out as a struggle for tactical advantage. High ground, choke points, and terrain are crucial to defeat an enemy that Gray calls "a superior force technically and in numbers."
Thankfully, each of Carter's squadmates (who are just as fragile as their XCOM: Enemy Unknown counterparts) can earn experience and learn new skills. Techniques can only be acquired after agents experience them on the battlefield. New technology can also be salvaged and equipped between missions, but research is handled more like an RPG than it was in XCOM: Enemy Unknown.
"The war is constantly moving," Gray told us. "There's no time to sit and wait for days for something to come online. The Bureau has its back against the wall, and America is about to be punched in the throat."
The progress of the story, which details the founding of the XCOM initiative and how it was put in moth balls after accomplishing its first goal (so as to keep the events secret from the American people), is non-linear. Players choose missions from a map of the United States, and as real time goes by, so progresses the overarching narrative.
Once on the ground, missions do play out from point A to point B, though the tactical nature and constant threat of permanent death for seasoned agents forces smarter play. Along the way there are secondary objectives that will also broaden the missions. "It plays out like a combat puzzle," Gray explained.
Along those lines, Gray told us that they used titles like Rainbow Six and Full Spectrum Warrior as their inspiration for a more measured, cerebral approach. "It's about how smart you are," Gray clarified. "It's about how you use your tools and the landscape. There are consequences, which is unique in the third-person space."
When asked about whether The Bureau: XCOM Declassified would offer multiplayer, Gray offered a refreshing answer. "We wanted to focus on the single-player without distracting ourselves with multiplayer," he said. "We didn't want to screw over single-player by distracting ourselves, so we went all in. Hopefully the days of tacked-on, bullet-point multiplayer are over for the industry."
The Bureau: XCOM Declassified used to be the game no one wanted. Now, we want to believe.
The Bureau: XCOM Declassified arrives on August 20, 2013 for PC, Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3. It will retail for $59.99.