Goodness, what a retcon. The Bureau’s been tweaked and retrofitted so many times now that the poor thing suffered a downgrade from reboot to prequel. What once styled itself as the shiny new face of alien invasion now finds itself a background story to last year’s successful, unexpected resurrection of the turn-based strategy genre, which we’re pretty sure presented itself as first contact at the time. Still, within the ignominious diminishment of prestige lies an opportunity. With XCOM’s long-term fans sated thanks to Enemy Unknown’s tactical charms, The Bureau can freely be its own game.
It does it in style. Sixties style, to be precise, and 2K Marin has captured the era’s cigarette-smoke-filled air of paranoia and pointed in the direction of a different invasion to the one the real America was readying itself for. In a sense, the themes are all wrong: the Cold War was about paranoia, distrust and McCarthyism, elements better encapsulated by the creeping dead and suspicion of Invasion Of The Body Snatchers than in The Bureau’s much more literal, lasers-and-abductions take on alien invasion. But, well, the style’s there: you get to dress up main character William Carter like your very own early-seasons Don Draper, and he does look rather dapper in that fedora. More importantly, perhaps, while your home base might lack most of the tactical decisions found in Enemy Unknown, it’s still a lavishly decorated set to visit between missions, themselves set in quaintly charming small-town America, where the hay’s never looked so golden nor the homecoming banners so welcoming.
Still, what you do in that base remains limited. Without Enemy Unknown’s management and base building, The Bureau’s HQ occasionally feels like a hangover or, worse, a limitation. You can engage in conversations with the scientists and military brass hanging out in the period-authentic labs and command centres, but you can’t chat with your agents, since they’re disposable bundles of stats and perks. When you do talk, there’s Mass Effect’s dialogue wheel but none of its relationship building. Every now and then you can perform an ‘Investigation’, an anaemic errand-boy quest within the base, one of which was so laughably simple we couldn’t quite believe it. Sent to search for a secret compartment in an AWOL agent’s office, we strolled into their workspace only to be confronted by a gleaming painting, highlighting its sudden interactivity. The code to the safe was on the shiny picture tacked to the opposite wall.
It’s an atmospheric space filled with incidental touches all the same: engineers work in hallways, radio operators smoke cigarettes to the stub, new recruits can be a bit sexist, and everyone’s face is lined with Cold War tension and topped with period hair detail. The base also contains the mission select menu, which does in fact feature some strategy. Alongside main missions – drawn-out, cutscene-heavy and crucial to the story – you can take agents on optional missions that usually offer experience alongside some technological rewards, and even send squadmates not currently in your party on missions of their own. This is as strategic as The Bureau gets. Each of these side-missions has a points value that the combined level of the agents you send must be equal to. It’s a little less complicated than the Assassin’s Creed games’ assassin management, but it successfully provides a layer of asset control to the game while also conveying that very XCOM-feeling that there’s more going on than you can handle alone.
To be fair, protagonist William Carter can handle a great deal alone, and even more with two other agents by his side. The agonising impotence of watching a Muton blast your point man’s face off isn’t present in The Bureau, since it’s been swapped out for the rarer, but equally frustrating, experience of watching them bleed out from across the room. What 2K Marin has done here is taken Mass Effect’s cover-heavy, squad-power-based combat and built a tactical shooter around it, handing over finer control of party members to the player. You can queue instructions: sending an engineer into a specific position to summon a turret, for instance, before using a commando to taunt an Outsider Elite into its killzone. You’ll need to make use of these power combinations too, since aliens pour into arenas with alarming frequency. You get swamped regularly in The Bureau, especially on higher difficulties, where battles quickly turn into sieges as you desperately hold the fort with your defensive powers while waiting for your offensive ones to recharge.
It’s challenging, then, but often not particularly tactical. Despite flanking bonuses and abilities designed to utilise them, The Bureau’s most dangerous foes aren’t the Sectoids and Outsiders, which try to use cover, but things like Mutons and Sectopods, which effectively charge at the player while soaking up ammo and all the powers you can throw at them. Equally reticent to stay in position are your very own teammates. We can tolerate them needing babysitting and direction – that’s rather the point – but their autonomy is inconsistent. One moment they’ll wander away from the flanking position you suggested; the next they’ll stare a Muton defiantly in the eye while making a suicidal last stand.
The Bureau’s focus on squad management and abilities gives it a rhythm distinct from other thirdperson, cover-based shooters, and combat provides a solid, often intense and engaging core on which to hang 2K Marin’s terrifically well realised ’60s America. It’s a slick slice of B-movie alien blasting, in short, but we’re glad it’s standing alongside a more authentic take on XCOM rather than wearing its visage but not quite acting the same.
The Bureau: XCOM Declassified is released on August 23 in the EU, and is out now in the US for 360, PC and PS3. PC version tested.