Ever wondered how the alien fighting, world saving, ass kicking XCOM got started? Ever wished you could be a part of the story as the organisation fights off the very first attempt by the greys to dominate our world? Ever thought that XCOM would be a great third-person shooter? If you answered yes to these three questions then The Bureau: XCOM Declassified is the game for you. Even if you only agreed to the first two and are a bit iffy on XCOM being anything other than a turn-based strategy game take a few moments to read on – you may be surprised.
The Bureau is set in 1962 as an alien invasion on a global scale devastates the United States defence organisations forcing the XCOM program to be activated. You play as William Carter – a disgraced ex-CIA agent haunted by having his family die while he was on deployment. He just happens to survive an attack and get called in to lead a team of agents against the other-worldly adversaries. The Bureau utilises the Unreal engine to good effect – agents are modelled in period pants and turtleneck sweaters and environments are classic sixties locations – from the cars to the architecture. In fact one of the positives of The Bureau is how well it nails its 1960s period. For some reason there is noticeable screen tearing which is most apparent outside missions. Not enough to ruin the aesthetic, but a little odd given that the environments are not super-detailed texture-wise.
As Agent Carter you will directly command a team of two other agents and can choose from a roster of several others. Agents can be one of four different classes: Support, Engineer, Commando and Recon. Each class has its own unique perks that are unlocked as the agent levels up (maximum level 5, Carter can go to 10) by gaining experience in the field. Any agents you have not assigned to your own squad can be sent out on missions of their own – during which they will gain experience and potentially bring back equipment and/or new recruits.
Once Carter and his team are in the field you will notice the dramatic departure from the XCOM series’ turn-based strategy to a real-time squad-based cover shooter. You can direct your agents’ using a command wheel (think Mass Effect) which allows you to move the agent, target enemies and use abilities.
The gunplay in The Bureau is good without being outstanding. There is the stock standard terrestrial equipment (remembering this is the ’60s) including pistols, rifles, shotguns and sniper rifles. You will quickly toss these aside however, once the extraterrestrial weapons become available. The laser and plasma upgrades are significantly better and include some heavy hitting variants (personal fave: the heavy plasma pistol).
Cover is plentiful and fairly well designed – but the areas are so clearly battlefields you will know as soon as you step into them that something is about to happen. The Bureau really encourages team combat…really, really encourages it. Flanking is an important part of gaining the upper hand, but it would be helpful if your squad AI helped out a bit. While the ability to command your squad is well designed and reasonably implemented (the afore-mentioned command wheel), you will find that you have to use it almost all the time to get your team to do what you need them to. Quite often you will be trying to position your teammates on opposite flanks, but if you decide to move to better cover (forced by a grenade, for example) your teammates may end up following you. They also seem loath to take any initiative and use their abilities. Useful most of the time as each ability has a cool down time, but considering the number of times they get in trouble surely a bit more aggression could be needed. With the similarity in numerous ways to Mass Effect (the dialogue is also done using a wheel ala Mass Effect) sometimes it would have been nice to borrow another concept – programmable AI.
It is the abilities of your agents (and yourself) that really make the combat fun though. Combining talents to lift an enemy and then use your Recon agent’s Critical Strike ability, or get your Engineer to throw a mine directly underneath then deploy a rocket turret. You can deploy drones that can either Lift or Heal (depending on which perk you choose to lock in), heal your squad or even mind control your enemies. The first couple of missions can be a little tricky with minimal health and perks to play with, but unless you are on the highest difficulty you will find that it is easy enough to keep your agents alive.
Unlike Firaxis’ XCOM: Enemy Unknown (the traditional turn-based strategy game that dropped a few months earlier), permadeath is a little harder to avoid in the Bureau. Since Autosaving is the only option, you have the choice of reloading from the last checkpoint (often some time ago) or proceeding on with just one agent. At lower levels you can replace your agent at mid-mission resupply stations; higher levels only allow your squad to be replenished after the mission, which can make it very difficult. Your agents are a bit faceless though. There is no attachment to them so if they do die sometimes you will just shrug your shoulders and go “that’s fine, I have another Engineer”.
The missions are fun though and the story emphasizes the “end of the world” nature of your fight at every opportunity. Tensions continue to build as the plot takes some twists and threads a few loopholes and often ignores some inconsistencies. As a shooter The Bureau does a decent job, but as an XCOM game there is something lacking. Some traditional XCOM features like researching alien technology and corpses to advance your knowledge is basically done behind the scenes so when you visit your scientists and they tell you they are already building a UFO it can be a bit of a shock. The storyline at times seems so illogical and inconsistent you wonder how the characters don’t laugh. There seems to be no attempt to tie the game into future XCOM timelines (such as explaining why you have to research aliens again), and the name XCOM is also never explained.
Overall, The Bureau is a fun romp that at times feels more like a retro Mass Effect than an XCOM game. 2K Marin have put enough in here however, for most people to overlook the flaws and enjoy the postives gameplay-wise. XCOM fans may feel a little less impressed with both the non-traditional gameplay mechanics and a storyline which takes massive leaps of logic to progress the story. 
Platform: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC
Publisher: 2K Games
Developer: 2K Marin
Classification: R16 – Violence