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The Bureau: XCOM Declassified - Review
The Bureau: XCOM Declassified is a product of an awkward development history. After numerous delays and constant changes, it looks very different to the initial title announced back in 2010. Of course, the other elephant in the room is XCOM: Enemy Unknown, given that game's success, and The Bureau's later release date, it's unfortunately relegated to the disappointing level of spin-off, with Enemy Unknown taking most of the glory.
Of course, this wouldn't be a problem if The Bureau was actually good...but it isn't. In theory, the idea of a third-person XCOM games sounds potentially exciting; enabling us to get a boots-on-the-ground-view of the soldiers we casually ordered about in last year's Enemy Unknown. In reality it involves moving through dull, repetitive environments whilst attempting to keep your rag-tag band of AI-controlled lackeys from getting shot in the face by a laser rifle.
Mechanically, the game is comparable to Mass Effect, where combat requires not just that you have a solid aim but that you exploit the synergy of your squadmates and the various tactical powers that they bring to the table. In The Bureau's case you have access to Commandos who function like tanks, being able to draw fire and have the most health, Engineers who are similar to Enemy Unknown's Assault class, with the additional benefit of having deployable laser-turrets. Meanwhile, the Recon class is the typical sniper and the Support class functions like a medic, with the ability to throw performance enhancing combat-stims into the thick of the fight.
Unfortunately, these classes don't work as intended. It's as if the developers simply mashed together a collection of Mass Effect and Enemy Unknown concepts without thinking how they would actually work. The Engineer and Support are almost useless in certain situations and, since you can only take two characters with you on a mission, you never know in advance what you'll need. Furthermore, the Recon highlights the game's emphasis on establishing flanking attacks, with his ability to turn invisible for a limited time and open up new avenues of fire. However, since squad members can actually die, you're loathe to have them move far away from you in case they need to be revived quickly.
All of this is made more infuriating by the useless AI. It's almost impossible to make it through certain areas without issuing commands to squad; ordering them to take cover or target a specific enemy. However, it's not uncommon for your teammates to jump from cover seemingly at random and then scream for help after they're met by a barrage of alien weaponry. As a result, you spend more time baby-sitting your squad than you do exchanging shots with the enemy, making the game feel more like a poor person's strategy game than a bona fide tactical third-person shooter.
Enemies are drawn straight from XCOM lore: Sectoids, hulking Mutons, and the robotic Sectopods, along with a smattering of other foes and upgraded variants. Battles with Mutons in particular become a real headache, once again due to the stupid AI that'll have your men standing stock still in the face of a shotgun blast. Sectopods at least provide a different change of pace but still require an endless amount of time fiddling with the command wheel in order to take down efficiently.
Ironically, for all the influence that Mass Effect has on The Bureau it forgets the most crucial element: likable characters. Set in the 1960s, you play as gravel-voiced William Carter who, after some events at the beginning of the game, is tasked taking a leading role in Earth's defences following an alien invasion. The '60s era is completely wasted, with any references to the Cold War being paper thin. It's a wasted opportunity too, throughout the early portion of the game there's a lot of time spent investigating who's been infected by an alien plague that allows the invaders to control their victims. This would have been a great way to emphasize the paranoia that was rife in the USA at the time, but no, The Bureau couldn't be bothered.
Furthermore, cutscenes are ruined by some awful lip-syncing and awkward audio mixing, making the characters sound as if they're conversing in a warm studio rather than, say, war-torn Texas. The plot never really goes anywhere and since none of the characters are at all likable you're never given any reason to care. Despite this the game constantly has you selecting dialogue options from a conversation wheel, even though your choices will have no long-term impact on the game.
Every so often they'll be little glimpses of what could have been a good game in The Bureau, which makes it all the more frustrating to play. Whether you're after a story-based RPG, or a smart third-person shooter there's plenty of more enjoyable options. What's more, with XCOM: Enemy Within arriving soon, there's very little reason to play The Bureau for your alien invasion fix.
The Bureau: XCOM Declassified was released, in the UK, on August 23rd for Xbox 360, PS3 and PC.
This review is based on the Xbox 360 version.
© 2013 LudoLogic