The Bureau: XCOM Declassified is a far cry from the turn-based strategy of its massively popular namesake, but there are enough good ideas packed into XCOM Declassified to warrant a look by XCOM lore enthusiasts. That’s because XCOM Declassified is a brilliant example of origin storytelling done right–within minutes, we’re introduced to an intriguing (if needlessly gruff) main character through whom we witness the Outsiders’ first invasion and the birth of the XCOM initiative. Stellar voice acting and environment design bring a nostalgic ’60s sci-fi aesthetic to life and decorate a plot that plods along with good intentions. Unfortunately, the rest of XCOM Declassified is alienating. Please excuse the pun: the word has scarcely been more appropriate.
You see, the gameplay hybridization of real-time strategy and third-person-shooter looks great on paper for gamers of varied interests. I’ve had my fair share of great moments with both genres, and XCOM Declassified manages to capture some of the separate strengths of each. Agent William Carter rushes into battle with grace, as sprinting and taking cover feel familiar and smooth. Headshots are easy to pull off with the game’s tight aiming. A host of interesting weapons litter the environment, and class skills of Carter and his squadmates complement each other to liven up the shooting with biotic-like powers, turrets, mines, and more. On the strategy side, giving orders to A.I. teammates–which slows the game to a crawl and brings up radial menu of class-specific orders–is intuitive, fast, and precise. I rarely gave a wrong order in urgent moments, and queuing up actions allowed me to make sure everything was set correctly before a plan was executed. From moving to a specific piece of cover to dealing critical damage or planting a decoy, your teammates respond rapidly and rarely fail to do (or at least attempt) exactly what you tell them to.
Problems arise at the intersection of these two demands (a precise trigger finger and RTS sensibilities) because both are required for success and that makes XCOM Declassified unlike any game I’ve played. If you focus too much on shooting (and, why not? The action plays well), your unguided teammates will be perma-dead in seconds. If you go the other way, giving detailed instructions to your squad and executing upon the best-laid plans, it’s easy to get consumed by micromanagement and forget that when Carter goes down, the jig is up.
Well, not really. Your teammates will attempt to revive you, but they possess none of the human ingenuity that says dashing in an unprotected straight line to your dying friend’s side is rarely the smartest way to reach them.
Unfortunately, the game didn’t encourage me to straddle the line between two extremes and figure out the right way to play. XCOM Declassified is just hard enough to necessitate a healthy dose of squad management, but there are dozens of situations where good gunplay will do you just fine. As a consequence, when the game’s difficulty bit back, I was taken by surprise and my own strategies felt used against me. There’s certainly a right way to play XCOM Declassified: frenetic squad orders, adaptation, and an intersection of careful planning and shooter reflexes. But it’s a complex cocktail, and I never felt like the game was fostering that approach. Instead, it played nice with my instincts while punishing them at random moments.
This gameplay, always unsure of what it wants to be, yields my biggest issue with XCOM Declassified: the total lack of multiplayer options. With three human players acting in concert, the potential would exist for serious cooperative thrills. Each player would be free to manage their own class skills, deploying field equipment and abilities at useful times, while being free to concentrate on XCOM’s shooting action. Sure, it wouldn’t be in the spirit of XCOM and might undermine Agent Carter’s identity as a purposeful field commander, but The Bureau is already XCOM in name alone; what’s another change, if it resolves the frustrations of a strange gameplay hybridization?
I don’t mean to digress with what the game could have been, but this multiplayer example helps demonstrate the nuisance of a system that pulls in too many directions. Outside of combat, though, The Bureau plays with interesting ideas. Between missions, Carter can explore the (small) XCOM headquarters and interact with teammates who offer bits of story exposition, ask for help with menial tasks, or introduce secondary missions. There’s no hiding the Mass Effect influences here, as even dialog is driven forward by a conversation wheel that reflects positive (Paragon) and dismissive (Renegade) attitudes. Meanwhile, agent recruitment and customization keep with XCOM tradition, and perma-death adds weight to every decision–if you can’t reach a squadmate to revive him in time, he’s lost forever, and all progress down the agent’s (limited) skill tree will be lost.
At least The Bureau doesn’t suffer many technical problems, although its production values are underwhelming in most respects. Stiff animations don’t do Carter’s squad or home team any favors, and bland textures remove you from otherwise atmospheric settings and cutscenes. And since I literally can’t recall a single music track from the game’s score, let’s just call it forgettable. Moment-to-moment thrills are deflated when no rousing music exists to lend intensity.
At the end of the day, your enjoyment with The Bureau: XCOM Declassified will hinge a great deal on why you love the series in the first place. If you’re in it for the lore, The Bureau offers an engaging origin story that fills a piece of the XCOM puzzle with likable characters and a dozen or so hours of interesting, if never exciting, missions. If you only care about XCOM for its gripping turn-based strategy, you’ll find little to love in The Bureau’s Frankenstein combat sensibilities. If you’re new to the series entirely, this isn’t the place to start. Enemy Unknown was highly praised for good reason, and The Bureau isn’t good enough at third-person shooting or real-time strategy to compel enthusiast fans of either.