It’s that time again, when I inevitably fail to type ‘Xcom’, and have to reread everything, changing the misplaced ‘Xbox’ I’ve written in my stupidity. This time, it’s not for the Unknown so much as for the Declassified – a game that takes elements from its slightly older cousin, and throws them in a third person shooter. The strange thing is, The Bureau seems terrified of calling itself an Xcom game. Search for it in your Steam list, and instead of looking for Xcom: Declassified, you’ll be hitting the ‘B’ key, searching for Bureau. I understand that the title had a lot to live up to, but throughout the entire experience there’s a sense of hopelessness that isn’t really merited – it’s not a bad game. It’s not hopeless.
I tend to avoid the gossip before a games release, and look at things objectively, seeing a game for what it is, and The Bureau feels like a game that’s had many major changes in development, perhaps due to the positive reception of Enemy Unknown. Whilst it certainly doesn’t feel like an FPS, which I’m told is what it was originally going to be, it does feel as though the central teamwork mechanic was patched in a little later. I might be wrong, but that doesn’t matter. It feels a little tweaked at the last minute, and that would explain the bugs the game currently faces.
This can all be fixed, but when I tried to take screenshots after a heavy play-session, this happened. This is one of the many DirectX 11 problems currently plaguing the game. I suffered an incredibly low framerate on my GTX680, AMD 8150 OC’ed machine, and that’s really not supposed to happen. In DirectX 9, things are fine, but for me and quite a few others I’ve seen, Declassified should have remained classified for a little longer. This doesn’t help the sense of clunkiness throughout the game, but it’s a chunkiness that can be forgiven due to the dynamic of combat.
The combat, interestingly, is quite simple: Enemy Unknown, from the ground floor. If I wanted to be a bit of a dick about this, I could call Declassified a ‘casual version of the casual version of a hardcore game’, but I’d only do that if things didn’t work out so well. Strictly speaking, they do. Your squaddies can be created, customized, and specced up. They can die, be revived, and, depending on the difficulty level, be forgotten forever. You bounce from cover to cover, and you issue commands to your squadmates all from the third person perspective. For the most part, this is a modern Xcom game, strikingly similar to Enemy Unknown, and I’m almost sure more-so than they had originally intended.
In a move that’s a bit ‘if Activision made La Noire,’ Agent Carter finds himself in the middle of an alien invasion. This is a poorly written game, and although there are dialog wheels that can either give you mundane exposition or lead you to sort-of-side-quests, much of what is said and written is drole and uninspired. The thing about Noire films was that they were often fantastically written, but there’s no real atmosphere to fit the context in The Bureau. Because of this, the story isn’t great. It doesn’t chart the rise of earths secretive alien fighting corps as well as anyone would have hoped, and this goes in some way to the idea that it’s scared of being an Xcom game in its own right.
After a fairly grueling introductory session of blasting aliens with 50’s weapons, the game starts properly, introducing you to your base, where you’ve to make similar decisions made in Enemy Unknown. It’s nowhere near as in depth, but there are weapons to research and acquire, comrades to recruit and customize, and missions to discuss. It’s not a slice this time, and you’ll be walking the corridors like Mulder in a fedora being spoon-fed exposition and accepting new missions on a non-linear map. Pretty similar, right?
There are a few ‘moral-choice’ moments along the dialog wheel system, but these are really half assed like many ‘choice’ mechanics employed in recent titles, and when it gets down to it, The Bureau is solely carried by its squad-based third person alien shooting. Splitting the levels up between base duties, you and your team explore various maps to recover, destroy, or investigate. You run towards aliens, as aliens shoot you, hiding behind waist high cover, and planning your attack. The problem is, it’s not really a very strategic game, and not even as much as Enemy Unknown. For PC, accuracy is such that using the sniper rifle solely, and going for the head, will have you doing literally 90% of the killing, as the friendly AI feigns human mistakes by shooting slowly and inaccurately.
It’s pleasing, though, even though weapons such as the machine pistol seem ridiculously OP, with low recoil even at great distances. As mentioned, the low framerate really doesn’t help things, but I can tell you that The Bureau most certainly doesn’t have that “just one more mission!” allure that Enemy Unknown had. The lack of enemy variation and methods of killing them make this something that gets fairly tiring relatively quickly, but leveling up your characters helps to some degree – even if the better skills of the first mission are instantly stripped away from your teammates after the introduction. Having that turret and crit-strike at the start of the game would have been desirable. Instead, for a while you’re forced to just standard-third-person-grind through a lot of things you’re told are supposed to be tactical.
Unfortunately, the campaign itself is shallow. There’s too much crappy exposition and walking between some fairly uninteresting characters, and I’d come close to saying 40% of the game is spent out of combat. For an 8-9 hour campaign, there’s a lot of cheap filler thrown in, possibly because of the delayed release. With a solid underground base and dialogue wheels, it feels as though The Bureau is half the game it was supposed to be – as though someone high up decided to bin a lot of the key ideas that would have made this a much bigger, better title.
When it comes to who you want with you, you’ve a familiar choice of Support, Recon, Engineer and Commando. You can customize their names, faces, and clothes, but I never really got the same sense of dread if one of them was lost in battle, possibly because this is all in real time and any mistakes made that got them killed were because the game’s fairly clunky and because the AI decided to run into enemy gunfire. They die because of scripting, not because of choices I make. Even though you can tell them which skill to use, or where to move.
Because I don’t care about their deaths, and it’s unlikely that you will, what was supposed to be a deeply tactical shooter becomes more of a Mass Effect 3 style shoot-a-thon with cut-and-paste AI partners. Removing (I know it hasn’t technically been removed) the commander view and making things real time makes this a situation whereby the computer kills whoever it decides to kill. Not my problem. I can replace them, and they’re no big deal to me. If any of you guys genuinely connected with your guys, then I’d like to hear about that.
So instead of charging forth with a competent team, relying on directly giving out orders, you’re actually just left with some weak (at the early stages, anyway) AI drift-wood you feel more obligated to keep alive. They’re rubbish at killing anything, and your head-shots with rifles do all the work. Everything seems to flawed, and you really have to want to love the game to not see that really it’s about as strategic as Mass Effect 3 – it just takes less to die.
That said, later in the game when you’ve leveled everyone up, things get a lot more interesting. Automated turrets, shields, the ability to call in an ally alien, and air-strikes make things much more interesting. The game plods along far too slowly to that point, though. For much of the game, hitting space to go into tactical mode which slows down time seems redundant, unless you want to move a target from one cover to another to coax the Sectoids out from their cover.
For the most part, the glowing ‘target’ you move around to issue orders works quite well, but it acts like a person in that you can’t move over cover, you’ve to go around everything. This makes complex commands quite difficult, and time doesn’t slow down that much, people can still die. I found quite often that my teammates were dying from enemy grenades quite often, because they were too stupid or slow to jump out of the way.
The game engine feels over-worked, and the pacing is all off in The Bureau: XCOM Declassified. It’s an amalgamation of ideas, and market risk. It had to live up to Xcom: Enemy Unknown, and people were expecting elements of a sequel. When it was announced as a first person shooter, it had a soul – but so many changes have happened since then, that you can really tell what’s new, what’s been taken out, and what was meant to be there in certain places. The entire project has been compromised, but it’s something really different.
This is sort of the key point. If you really loved Enemy Unknown then you’ll probably not be too enthusiastic about this release. If you’re not accustomed to Xcom at all, then this is a genuinely unique third-person-shooter that you might enjoy. The problem is, critically, it’s a bit of a mess. It’s still fun though, and really, as strange as it may seem to say it so openly… ignorance is bliss. Tackle this without expectations, or without knowing the gossip, otherwise you’ll probably be left feeling a little let down.