The lights are on
You got your chocolate in my peanut butter. The phrase, I think, exemplifies a surprisingly satisfying mix of two dissimilar things. The Bureau: XCOM Declassified manages to mix strategy and shooter elements, but ultimately falls victim to balancing issues and technical errors galore. Seal the package with a story that often fails to be coherent, and you've got the new XCOM game from 2K and 2K Marin.
Let me start out by saying that fans of XCOM will probably appreciate the spin-off; the story deals with the creation of XCOM itself, which has always struck me as an interesting idea. Granted, the answers are still pretty ambiguous, since you play as a lowly special agent, but it's a neat time all the same.
The story throws players right into the role of Special Agent Will 'Call me William' Carter. He reminds me of a cross between Cole Phelps from LA Noire and Nelson Van Alden from Boardwalk Empire, only less homicidal. This tainted my playtime with images of Michael Shannon, fabulous actor though he is. Carter is your typical damaged antihero, blaming himself for the crippling loss of his family. It's kind of hard, for me at least, to sympathize with such an irrational impetus. The only thing that saved the character from being distant was the fact that I was in control for most of it.
The rest of the cast is actually fairly solid. Against the suspicious and paranoid director of the Bureau and your occasionally wacky fellow-agents, I can level few complaints. Interpersonal dialogue was pretty good, but when it came to the main story, things could get a little awkward. At the forefront is the first conversation the player has with an alien, wherein the Outsider is understandably hostile until, suddenly, he isn't. The transition doesn't really take place. There are plenty of spots throughout the game with such issues, making the story a little hard to swallow at times.
My most nagging complaint is one that's addressed with so much hand waving. During the initial attack on Earth, the Outsiders are able to jam communications throughout the entire continent of North America, if not the planet itself. How, then, do XCOM agents communicate via walkie-talkie? The player is told that "our station is operating at 90% efficiency because our equipment rocks," but I have a hard time believing that we had magical jam-proof radios in 1962. At least not in such a compact format.
Now we can get to the good part. The Bureau's gameplay is exemplary. The controls are smooth and extremely easy to pick up, and many of the levels compliment the style perfectly. More particular gamers will probably criticize the stiff animations, and even I need to complain about the unbearably repetitive dialogue, but for the most part, combat shines. Players take control of Carter, who is able to issue commands to his two squadmates. Each class will have special abilities to use against the alien threat, and these abilities can be used at the player's discretion. Surveying a battlefield and ordering agents into strategic positions is a thrill, and it's especially great to note that enemies will take additional damage if flanked or otherwise taken unawares. For the first time in recent memory, I can provide suppressing fire for my teammates. Why wasn't this a thing earlier?
The only thing that really irks me about the combat is how hard it can be, and quite suddenly. I found myself stuck fending off waves of enemies and super enemies with no ammo and a terrible position, simply because they wouldn't stop coming. Balancing issues big and small plague an otherwise gripping shooter experience.
Graphically speaking, the game looked fine on my Xbox. Obviously, we won't be getting ground breaking console graphics until the next generation rolls out, but it's nice to know that a major studio can still produce par visuals. There were some animations that could have been smoother, but I fear I've been spoiled by mocap.
From a technical standpoint, this game needed more thorough treatment. There are, for lack of a better word, glitches, in which the character dialogue will refer to some animation, I assume, that never ends up playing. In a conversation between the director and Agent Carter, the director says that our space ship has a cool trick. Watch. Immediately afterward, Carter says, hey that was neat. I had to choose the dialogue option again to make sure I didn't miss it. Issues like these should be a priority for games like this, which dedicate so much time to storytelling. You just don't ship without all the cutscenes working, simple as that.
All said, I must admit I enjoyed my time with The Bureau. I found the strategy/shooter blend to be well worth all the trouble, and I would happily play a more polished sequel. The problem is, the game took so much time to come out in the first place. It was announced in 2006, meaning it's been in the works for over seven years now. My impression is that they didn't know where to go with it, and the runaway success of XCOM: Enemy Unknown prevented the project from being scrapped. It's an unfortunate state of affairs, but The Bureau aspired to do so much. Even if the team had met all of their announced goals for the game, it couldn't have followed the series' reboot. The game sat for years in stagnation, destined to fail and doomed to release.
The Bureau provides a satisfying combat experience which suffers from balance issues throughout. Graphics and soundtrack were fine, but animations could've been smoother in most cases. Will Carter looks like Agent Van Alden and Cole Phelps, which I guess is appropriate given their respective eras. Ultimately the game is plagued by technical issues and confused storytelling, but the game's original promise shines through when it comes to character interactions and level design.
For these reasons, I give The Bureau: XCOM Declassified a 6/10.
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