The Bureau: XCOM Declassified is the poster child for troubled development. Originally announced in 2006, the original plan was for the game to be a more stylized sequel to the original XCOM rumored to be developed by BioShock mastermind, Irrational Games. It was officially revealed in 2010 at E3 as a first-person shooter and was now developed by 2K Marin (an Irrational spin-off). This was surprising considering the series’ roots in strategy and before long there was even talk that the game was more akin to the survival horror genre. It completely overhauled again in 2011 to include more strategy elements and by mid 2012, it was a first person shooter. Not until April 2013 did the game take mold in its current incarnation, The Bureau, a squad-based third-person shooter with strategy elements. Considering how many forms The Bureau took and that it likely came close to cancellation on multiple occasions, it’s a minor miracle it even exists. More impressive is the fact that it’s not a complete disaster, but a decent little shooter — albeit one full of flaws.
The Bureau takes place in 1962, where G-men aren’t the intimidating looking, mysterious arms of the law they are today, but instead wear hats, vests and even suspenders sometimes for good measure. The Bureau doesn’t include the stereotypical dark-haired gruff hunk, but instead middle-aged average looking men who seem like they should be ending every one of their sentences with “..see?” Protagonist William Carter is a washed-up CIA agent who was once one of the organization’s brightest until the sudden death of his family led him to the bottle and to escorting briefcases in menial assignments. One day, however, William discovers that he has no ordinary briefcase when a mysterious women shoots him in an attempt to steal it, only for him to wake up completely healed thanks to the case’s contents. Unfortunately for Will, he wakes up in a military base under attack from an unknown alien force (called the “Outsiders”) and has to both escape with his life and figure out just what the hell is going on. Soon William finds himself recruited into a mysterious government organization called “The Bureau,” which was created if an enemy were ever to attempt a takeover of the United States. The last line of defense for humanity, Will and The Bureau have to investigate what exactly is going on and defeat the enemy threat.
For a shooter, there’s a surprising amount of story involved. Of course, it makes sense as its developer, 2K Marin, has worked only on this and BioShock, a series that has arguably the most story in the genre. Not only is the main plot deep and intriguing, detailing the organization and the origin of the Outsiders, but there’s a ton of individual character conversations that expand it even more. Conversations are both optional and required and presented in branching paths. There’s generally one option that moves the story forward while three are there to provide insight on the topic at hand. The dialogue is generally well-written and there’s numerous interactive characters in the game. Fleshing out the story further are audio recordings and notes scattered around. It’s rarely emotional or philosophical like BioShock is, but there’s an interesting story here that could easily be the base of a television series.
Gameplay is a rather unique blend of third-person shooter and strategy elements. The basic game is a typical third-person shooter. There’s multiple areas in an environment that house enemies and plenty of cover to hide behind as they’re being disposed of. What makes The Bureau different is that you’ll need to also control other characters on the field to have a chance at succeeding. This is carried out through going into Battle Focus mode, which slows down time and allows commands to be doled out. Squadmates have a variety of skills that range from delivering fatal strikes to deploying turrets. New skills are unlocked as the game progresses, including things like summoning drones and even the ability to levitate or mind control enemies. A few generic agents are available from the start, but the majority are recruited through a character creator.
Four classes are available in this creator, each with a different advantage. “Support” allows squadmates to be healed, “Recon” boosts ranged attacks to snipe foes, an “Engineer” deploys ingenious devices (like drones or turrets) to assist the squad and a “Commando” is more aggressive and better at melee attacks. After selecting a class, a background is then selected. There’s “Gunsmiths,” who wield weapons more efficiently, “Grease Monkeys,” who have tougher long-lasting weapons, “Technical Training,” who can use abilities more frequently, “Combat Training,” who deal more damage with weapons, “Endurance Training,” who survive longer in combat and “Adrenal Conditioning” who recover from injuries faster. Typically, it’s best to pick a similar class and background, such as an Engineer with Technical Training. Once that’s straight, equipment is assigned and the name, appearance and clothing can be customized. It’s a neat system that allows players to tailor-make their squad to fit their strategy.
While the deepness of the strategy elements is impressive, it’s also a detriment as it means they’re an aspect that must be constantly relied on. Instead of simply taking cover and figuring out the best way to kill the bad guys, you must go into Battle Focus and assign the squadmates the most advantageous task, as they’ll otherwise weakly shoot at random enemies. This is interesting at first, but as some skills take only seconds to execute, you’ll find yourself constantly freezing the game to assign AI. It’s a bit of a double edged sword, as while its presence elevates this from being a generic third-person shooter, it also removes the main element that makes shooters so fun, which is shooting people. Unfortunately, that has issues as well thanks to an unresponsive aiming reticle and ammo that’s far too scarce. There’s moments in the game where both elements come together in exciting ways, but just as many frustrating ones where there’s so much going on screen that it beings to feel like a chore.
The biggest issue with The Bureau, however, is that it’s nowhere near as polished as it should be. Cutscenes get the worst of it, with weird slowdown, unnatural movement, rendering issues and unsynced lips. The character models look decent, so it’s a shame that more time wasn’t spent perfecting these, as it makes the game come off as second rate. There’s also constant screen tearing and freezing in-game; surprising, as this is not the most graphically advanced game. Environments are generic and assets are frequently reused. “The Bureau” aspects of the game are likely a recent coat of paint, so it’s understandable why they aren’t smoother, but it makes a game that’s been in development for several years seem like one that was rushed out in several months.
Considering its calamitous origins, The Bureau: XCOM Declassified could be a lot worse. Faint praise to be sure, but there’s an impressive tactical third-person shooter here in the midst of a buggy presentation. The story is surprisingly deep and elevates it from seeing like a generic third-person shooter. As a plus, seeing 1960s G-men with alien technology strapped to them is a sight to behold. While mixing strategy elements with shooter ones doesn’t always jive, those with long attention spans who love multitasking may find it appealing. It’s just a shame that the whole thing comes in a package that looks like a rushed movie tie-in, as with more time to both polish the visuals and perfect the gameplay, The Bureau could have been more than just a throwaway shooter with strategy elements tacked on.
Version Reviewed: Xbox 360