A title with too much unfair criticism? Possibly.
This was supposed to be a short review. Instead, it turns into a full blog review. So, the next review is going to be planned to be a long one. Then I’ll make it short instead. Or it’ll be 10x longer than normal. I have a problem…I think. Anyway, you get to enjoy this review. It was tricky to do but I think I like the final form here.
A Paladin’s Steam Review: The Bureau: XCOM Declassified. It’s Really Not That Bad, For What It Is.
- Genre: 3rd Person Tactical Shooter
- Developed & Published by: 2K Marin and 2K Games
- Platform support: Windows, PS3 and Xbox 360
- Business Model: Base Game
- Copy purchased by myself
The Bureau has had a troubled history. It spent a long time in development hell, changing studios and the game’s design multiple times. Though its 1960s aesthetic was the only thing that stayed consistent during this process. It was originally titled “XCOM”, a first person shooter with some tactical play. It was originally intended to be the focal point of the series’ reboot. The reboot of a beloved turn-based strategy game with mechanics that had become legendary by this point and time. (Yeah, it doesn’t take a genius to see where 2K might have gone wrong). The response to “XCOM” was severe dislike, leading to the game to be pushed back into the shadows of the public eye. Instead, XCOM: Enemy Unknown was released by a different development team and became really successful. Potentially leading the series to a new and bright future. The FPS “XCOM” wasn’t anywhere to be seen and there was much rejoicing. A year later, The Bureau: XCOM Declassified stepped from the shadows. In all of it’s glorious 1962 aesthetic, 3rd person tactical squad based action. It largely got mixed or negative reception. So, the question becomes: did The Bureau justify that reception? Well, let’s find out.
Turn-Based Tactical Combat System
There’s no turn-based strategy here. There is a tactical commander’s view that let’s you order your squadmates where to go, when to use abilities and on which alien/enemy targets. A large chunk of your game time will be spent going from combat spot to combat spot. As a whole, the combat is simply ok and it works. It has its satisfying moments now and again but it’s not the most exciting. Especially if you’ve played games in this genre before. However, one thing that I did like were some of combos you could make with different classes. Though I felt like they barely scratched the surface with class synergy and I’d like to see more useful combos in the future. Oh, I didn’t mention this but there are four classes in the game. Commandos (your bruisers), Engineers (deploy turrets and mines), Recon (Snipers) and Supports (medics). Each class has their own distinctive abilities and weapons. The weapons are reasonably weighty with a good amount of impact and firepower to make them all enjoyable to use. They also try and encourage you to move around the level by limiting the amount of ammo you can carry. Thus requiring you to move around to find new ammo packs and this…mostly works. But can sometimes lead to aggravating situations. The cover system is a bit sticky and unwieldy at times. Far too often, I’d find myself trapped in a spot with no good way out. Or my agents would often find themselves in similar situations.
The squad’s AI is smart enough to be incredibly stupid. More than once, I would see an agent try and re-establish a decent cover for itself. Only for it to choose a spot that would put it right in the line of fire or directly in front of a giant Muton. Big surprise, he gets knocked down to the ground. So, you’re forced to either risk killing your one other agent to revive him or let the knocked down agent die. Which would then lead you to being screwed because you’ve lost 1/3rd of your firepower and you end up overwhelmed and thus dead. Oh and if you go down first, pray to whatever god you know that your squadmates survive long enough to revive you. It’s annoying as your squadmates will require a lot of micro-managment to be the most effective. This was probably intended behavior but holy moly does it get old, especially towards the end. Even when you expect them to take reasonable actions, agents won’t always do it. There were points where an agent gets knocked to the ground and require revival. You would expect his partner sitting right there next to him to do just that. 50% of the time, he will with no problem whatsoever. The other 50%, I have to manually order him to do so. I get that this was probably designed so that you would feel like a true commander of your squad. But I’m not their mother. I shouldn’t have to order every single aspect of what these agents should do. Though it doesn’t help that there isn’t a cancel order button, so, if we could add that in the next game, that’d be great.
Biggest sin the combat committs is the bullet-spongy enemies. Even on normal difficulty, Mutons and walking tanks require more than few bullets to put down. There’s an especially vicious couple of fights with souped up mutons that can be overly aggravating because the game doesn’t give you any tools to deal with them really well. It’d also be nice that the enemy reacted to our movements and ability usage, either countering with their own abilities or using a different strategy. For the most part, their AI is pretty brain dead and won’t do much more than shoot from beneath cover. Overall, I feel like the combat system was a nice idea, but it could have used more fleshing out.
One last note: The Bureau also gives you an option to send out your extra agents on their own field assignments. Which I really like this mechanic because one problem I’ve had with XCOM is that if you lose a good chunk or even your entire squad of agents, you’re basically stuck with a bunch of greenhorns. The Bureau attempts to fix this problem by allowing your extra squadmates the chance to gain experience in the field without your direct supervision, allowing you to catch up. My only issue is that no matter who you send, they’ll always succeed at your mission. It would have been nice if there was some risk involved.
Story and Characters
If there is one thing I can say about The Bureau, it’s a story of conveniences. Somehow I’m supposed to believe that an alien invasion of this size would be kept secret from the public. The only reason I can buy this is that it’s the 1960s and communication was severely hampered. That somehow, I’m supposed to believe that an alien we captured becomes our ally in a quick heartbeat. Somehow, I’m supposed to believe that we can capture alien weapons and items with the “Venn Brace”. Which I can only assume is a magical tool we carry on our arms. (Where did that Venn Brace come from again?). A lot of this is either swept under the rug or just goes by you so quickly I think they’re hoping you won’t notice because SHINY.
That all being said, as a whole this story isn’t that bad. I’m not usually the biggest fan of the 1960s aesthetic or time period. But for some damned-if-I-know reason, it works. The story is largely about how people in this time would survive against an invading, massively technologically superior species. About how Agent Carter is succeeding where few other agents don’t. There’s even side conversations and little storylines of people talking about the events that are going on and how it’s personally affecting them. So, when you combine it all together, it’s a pretty decent story. It’s true that it doesn’t take too much poking and prodding for some of the threads to fall apart.
A lot of the character development is largely focused on Agent Carter. A father who lost his family in a fire who has lots of anger and issues about it. I don’t particularly like the character. He swaps rapidly between I will kill all the aliens to oh, I’ll be this alien’s buddy, no problem! Part of this is the fault of the game trying to have its cake and eat it too. You know, I can sum up a lot of this game that way. It wants to have a strong protagonist for everyone to root for, but allows too much of his personality to be directed by the player. It wants to be XCOM but it also wants to be Mass Effect. It wants to make you to care about your squadmates. However, when they die, I largely didn’t care because I was given so little interaction prior to their death
It’s interesting how different perspectives and storytelling can change one’s personal connection to an NPC. In the isometric XCOM games, you get very little interaction with the individual squadmates. For the most part, you just get the initial cosmetic customization of each soldier, give them their weapons & equipment and order them about. While the Bureau essentially does the same thing, it makes the mistake of trying to interweave a narrative with Agent Carter and other XCOM personnel who aren’t your squadmates (outside of select missions and select characters). So, when you do finally get around to these random grunts, you don’t feel anything for them. Especially since you can easily replace them with other generic grunts. This is where borrowing XCOM’s mechanic didn’t work out so well. Since all I get is a surge of irritation when agents end up dying, often by their own stupidity.
The story is a twisty, turny road as you try and fight a difficult bunch of missions against the aliens. There’s quite a few surprises to be had in this game and for it’s nearly 20 hour length, it’s a surprisingly competent story. Most of the characters are pretty good. Agent Weaver was the one I found most surprising. She comes off as a cold and calculated individual but you find out why she is the way she is. Even after you find this out, her character still has a few surprises left. One nice thing about her is that she doesn’t actually romance/get romanced by Agent Carter. All of which make her the stand out character for me. Dr Alan Weir is the optimistic scientist who works out a way to the alien homeworld while Dr. Heinrich Dresner is the ever typical German scientist that builds a
alien saucer ship. But he does present quite a bit of humanity than most stereotypical “mad” scientists. Director Faulke is the stereotype of a paranoid director who’ll do anything to win. He’s not unlikeable, just not all that interesting. Leon Barnes, the pilot is mostly a generic guy with regular concerns. I never feel like he gets much of a character or agency in the story. As a whole, the cast of characters have enough variety and personality to keep the story moving along.
There is one last thing and I hesitate to even mention this because it’s a spoiler. But at one point, you’re no longer Agent Carter and you can choose to be one of three new people. It’s surprise twist of events and it’s one of several times The Bureau’s story does that.
I didn’t play the DLC and from what I can see, they don’t seem worth paying or plaything them. One is a gun pack, the other two are short uninspiring missions. I can’t help but feel like these were possibly cut from the final product to be sold as DLC. I didn’t feel any particular compulsion to pick these up.
PC Settings & Optimization
The Bureau has a lot of graphical settings. There’s a reasonable amount of screen resolutions to choose from. Windowed mode, v-sync and film grain that can be turned off and on. It also supports up to 120FPS if you’re wanting that. Field-of-view is supported from 65-100 degrees. Any larger changes have to be made in a .ini file. PhysX is featured in the particles & clothing and can be disabled. You’ve got texture, world, shadow and effect detail sliders as well as anti-aliasing, anisotropic filtering, decal persistence, ambient occlusion and screen space reflection sliders. For the most part it’s a pretty decently optimized game. Though I did have several areas of combat situations where the framerate dropped pretty hard. A DX11 mode also exists that makes the game look somewhat better. However, it’s an incredibly costly mode for not a lot of gain which I couldn’t get it to run at a stable framerate.
It’s a good thing that 2K didn’t lead their reboot of the XCOM series with The Bureau: XCOM Declassified. Not to knock too harshly on the developers, but this would have killed the franchise dead. Now? I actually kinda want a sequel to this. [u]A good sequel that stays with these developers, doesn’t get passed between multiple teams and doesn’t go through development hell[/u]. I think they have a good foundation started, but could use some more work to flesh everything out.
As for XCOM Declassified currently, well, it’s just not that bad. It’s got a pretty good story and a decent enough combat system. It does try to be XCOM though it does lack many of the features of XCOM. There’s no research, no base(s) management, you can only command two other squadmates, it’s got less customization and less of the XCOM experience than it should. But for a 1960s take on the XCOM universe from a different perspective, I still kinda like it. It’s got a story with some pretty unique twists and turns, a pretty diverse cast of characters and seventeen hours of enjoyment.
Thanks for reading this review of The Bureau: XCOM Declassified. Check out my other reviews if you want.