The Bureau: XCOM Declassified

The Same Tense, Tactical XCOM Feel From A New Perspective
by Mike Futter on May 13, 2013 at 02:00 AM
Publisher: 2K Games
Developer: 2K Marin
Rating: Mature
Platform: PlayStation 3, PC, Xbox 360

In a way, we have the Russians to thank for our survival. We expected it would be the Commies who would be trying to march through New York and Washington. We never would have guessed the invaders would be coming from much further away.

The year is 1962. John F. Kennedy is president of the United States, and we our relationship with the USSR is at its coldest. Formed in secret to react immediately to a foreign invasion, The Bureau stands ready to clandestinely protect the American public. When the aliens arrived, the organization had to quickly adapt. Agent William Carter and his team are all that stand between sovereignty and slavery.

The Bureau: XCOM Declassified is a squad-based, third person shooter with heritage in great genre titles, including Ghost Recon, SWAT 4, and Brothers in Arms. The principles and core tenets of the XCOM franchise are woven throughout the experience. Each encounter is a high-stakes battle, and failure to properly command the squad will result in death of the most permanent variety.

In the field, Carter has two other agents by his side, each in one of four classes. The commando can taunt enemies out of cover, stun a group with a pulse wave, and equip a personal shield. Recon forces can specialize in either distraction techniques or cloaking to maneuver into flanking position. Support agents tear apart enemy armor or shields while also enhancing squad performance. Finally, engineers can rip through mechanical enemies, lay down mines (perfect when combined with the commando’s taunt), and place laser and rocket turrets.

Each ally can rank up five times, with skill choices at levels two through five. Just as in XCOM: Enemy Unknown, these are binary choices and cannot be undone, allowing players to create multiple builds in each class. Teammates can be customized in name and basic appearance, with each class having distinctive attire. Carter will max out at level ten, with improvements to his healing and levitation abilities, the option to bring in a combat drone, or even summon a friendly silicoid (an adhesive and voracious alien).  

Carter can access his skills, and those of his teammates, through the “Battle Focus” wheel. Anyone who has played Mass Effect will be familiar with the concept, though in The Bureau, time is only slowed, rather than paused. Using abilities in tandem will make foes vulnerable and award an experience bonus. The otherworldly skills are conferred by the backpack you’ll see Carter wearing in screenshots. There are different blueprints that can be found, which offer a variety of passive perks in combat once constructed. 

In the segment I played, Carter and his team search for an agent that has missed his check-in. Through the streets of a small town in middle-America, I encountered familiar XCOM foes, including Sectoids, Outsiders, and a very angry Muton. The area was largely desolate, as the population has been infected by the aliens and put into a sleepwalk-like state. I was told that some of the sleepwalkers could be sleeper agents (pun intended), and it’s important to stay on guard. Each of the battles I encountered was tense and satisfying, as the demo moved me down abandoned streets, past businesses, and through a car dealership.

The crescendo of the demonstration was a pitched fight against waves of enemies commanded by an outsider with abilities similar to Carter’s. Thankfully, I also was able to call on my previously missing comrade to detonate smartly placed bombs around a large plaza. After clearing out the threat, a lull in the combat brought a series of dialog choices. These, too, are handled similarly to Mass Effect, with variable outcomes depending on player decisions. The concepts work in the XCOM universe, and although the inspiration was clear, the design choices fit.

When players aren’t in the battlefield, they’ll be back at base choosing how next to progress the war effort. This isn’t as granular as it was in XCOM: Enemy Unknown, though.

“This is a place where we've really simplified from Enemy Unknown. Our theory there is that in Enemy Unknown you are dealing with a much more fleshed out, global organization with more resources to put into play,” explained Alyssa Finley, producer on The Bureau.

“In our timeline, XCOM is basically waking up and figuring out what the hell to do. The player doesn't have the same direct involvement. That happens narratively over the course of the story, but it is not something we're asking the player to manage. We played around with those mechanics. We had them in the game, but we found that if someone finds a cool gun on the field, then they should be able to pick up that gun and use it.”

Players will be able to choose missions from a large map of the United States (hologlobes haven’t been invented, of course). In addition to narrative-progressing primary missions, Carter can take his team on experience boosting secondary tasks or dispatch individual agents in a manner that reminds me of Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood. These options are also a safety net should a player make poor choices in combat and lose senior operatives. Secondary missions and dispatches can help get rookies up to speed.

Despite the differences in approach from Enemy Unknown, 2K Marin is creating something that absolutely feels like an XCOM game. They aren’t doing it in a vacuum, either.

“Over the course of development, we have been talking with Firaxis,” Finley told us. “One of the great things about working for 2K is all the development teams do have access to each other. We can do things like share builds and have conversations, so that's absolutely been happening. Both teams have had ideas that have resonated and influenced the other.”

My time with The Bureau was too brief, and there is much more I look forward to exploring as we grow closer to the August 20, 2013, release date. For now, I’m content to share that from what I’ve seen, The Bureau: XCOM Declassified is worthy of the XCOM name.