Review: The Bureau is a mediocre action game that sullies XCOM's good name
Set in 1962, The Bureau: XCOM Declassified nails the atmosphere that makes the XCOM setting special. This game gives you a glimpse of what might have happened had aliens invaded Earth during the height of the Cold War and the space race. Unfortunately, the perfectly-executed anachronistic appearance and tone can’t make up for The Bureau's biggest flaw: it just isn’t fun.
At its core, The Bureau isn’t that different from classic XCOM titles; it just allows for free movement from a different camera angle. While this shift in perspective doesn't inherently detract from the game, it just doesn’t feel like an authentic XCOM experience. Despite the attractive setting and a few decent third-person combat scenarios, The Bureau fails to replicate the tense tactical challenges posed by previous XCOM games. Worse, it misses an opportunity to tell an interesting, character-driven story in the XCOM universe in favor of spinning yet another generic alien apocalypse story that falls apart in the end.
Space marines in three-piece suits
As Agent Carter, you’re tasked with going into the field to attack extraterrestrial aliens and keep them from taking over the United States. At first, each mission feels new and vital to the freedom of the United States. That sense of fresh adventure fades as the game opens up: you’re given a map with varying mission types that you or your squad mates can embark on, and it becomes clear that there isn’t much variety in the types of encounters that you can have.
Most missions boil down to a simple fetch quest where you’re tasked with dropping into a heavily-occupied area and activating some switch. It doesn’t get much deeper than that. You’re repeatedly ridding each area of alien activity and assumedly freeing it from their control, but as you progress, the map doesn’t really show that. Instead, the aliens blithely continue taking over the US, making each mission feel like a waste of time.
Early on the challenge of combating aliens on the ground feels difficult and rewarding, as your characters are regularly upgrading their abilities and stumbling across new weapons as the story progresses. But the feeling doesn’t stick around long, as even with new abilities, there isn’t enough variety to the encounters to keep missions from feeling like the same level again and again.
This sense of frutration and futility is compounded by the troublesome repetition of environments. It’s understandable that if you’re returning to similar areas of the United States the environs would feel similar, but I couldn’t help feeling like I was constantly running through areas that had been recycled from previous outings. This is especially evident near the end of the game, where the last few excruciating hours are spent running from corridor to corridor, often leaving me confused and feeling as if the game had reset me to an earlier stage of the game.
Wrestling with outdated technology
See, I thought I might have traveled back in time against my will because whenever I died and chose to reload from my last checkpoint, the game selected an older checkpoint that was hours behind my current progress, forcing me to manually reload the last autosave that I could find. It didn’t make sense and only added added to my sense that The Bureau was frustrating me on purpose.
This little saving snafu, as frustrating as it was during my review period, is far more forgivable than the seemingly foolish design choices that led to The Bureau's nonsensical weapon swapping and cover systems. The button to reload your current weapon and pick up a new one is the same, for example, and with the ground consistently covered in weapons of fallen enemies, I constantly found my character picking up whatever random weapon was lying around whenever I tried to reload my weapon of choice, which fell to the ground instead. The button to make your character dive for cover is the same button that makes him sprint, so it's not uncommon for you to die unfairly as your character tries to bounce into and out of a random hiding place while you're trying desperately to charge an enemy soldier. It’s nothing short of infuriating, especially when paired with the problems previously mentioned.
All of this could be forgiven if the story was somewhat intriguing or even comprehensible, but alas, it goes off the rails in a pretty unattractive way. It's too bad, because near the end of The Bureau combat finally starts to become fun and challenging, as you finally have enough powers to effectively chain together attacks using your squad members' different abilities. Right about then, the plot takes so many confusing and superfluous twists that I found it almost impossible to care about finishing the fight for Earth.
Unless you're really jonesing for some basic third-person combat against alien scum in a beautiful alternate history of '60s-era America, avoid The Bureau. It’s filled with uninteresting characters, troublesome controls and seemingly pointless fetch quests that somehow help mankind rid Earth of a space alien menace. The Bureau: XCOM Declassified feels like a mediocre shooter aimed at pulling in fans of the classic turn-based series with the false promise of a great, original take on classic XCOM gameplay, and that’s downright insulting.