Let me start this review with a confession: When this XCOM reboot was first announced, I was less than excited. I considered the classic turn-based strategy title to be one of the best games ever made and words cannot describe how disappointed I was to see it turned into a first-person shooter. After waiting so long for the rebirth of this beloved franchise, it felt like a kick to the gut to see it become just another BioShock knock-off. I longed for a traditional XCOM.
And then, completely out of nowhere, Firaxis announced a brand new turn-based XCOM. Suddenly I didn't care if the first-person shooter existed; I got the update I always wanted. XCOM: Enemy Unknown
is a masterpiece, easily one of the best games of 2012. I was too busy trying to keep my squad alive to pay close attention to the long-delayed shooter.
Here we are nearing the end of 2013 and, after years of mixed signals, the XCOM shooter we were promised has finally been released. However, it's not the first-person shooter we saw all those years ago, but rather a third-person squad-based shooter that digs into the origins of the secretive alien-fighting organization. After going from rage to indifference, I finally found myself intrigued by The Bureau: XCOM Declassified.
When it comes right down to it, an XCOM reboot makes a lot of sense. The idea of fighting aliens in the turbulent 1960s is a good one, as it allows the storyteller to explore race relations, women in the work place and all of the other plotlines you see weekly on Mad Men. And when it comes right down to it, I've always been a little curious how the organization got its start.
You see XCOM's beginning through the eyes of William Carter, who has been tasked with delivering a secretive package. When things go horribly wrong, Agent Carter is taken to a hidden underground base and quickly brought up to speed. As it turns out, Earth is under attack by aliens and this organization is doing everything they can to push back. Seconds later William Carter joins XCOM and takes part in an adventure of a lifetime.
Things start out relatively simple, with a few alien sightings here and a couple hostage missions there. Carter is constantly being ordered to fly all over the United States shooting down a group of extra-terrestrials known as the Outsiders. Thankfully he's not alone in this battle. In every mission, Agent Carter will be joined by two other XCOM recruits, who you can customize and level up from mission to mission.
Instead of being just another Gears of War clone, the developers tried to mix in some of XCOM's tactical elements. On top of being the typical third-person shooter, The Bureau allows players to slow down time to set the squad's every move. While they'll act on their own, this game gives players an impressive amount of control over how the action plays out. But don't think you can just run and gun your way to victory, because the only way to beat this game is to learn how to properly utilize the entire team.
Thankfully things aren't as hopeless as they appear. Each character has a set of unique abilities, which can be used to turn the tide in battle. Agent Carter is able to lift aliens off the ground and even perform mind-control in later levels. His partners also have useful abilities, such as weakening the enemy shields and creating a giant protective barrier around the squad. And with a bunch of different soldier classes, there's a lot of variety to the characters abilities.
If any of this sounds familiar, it's because The Bureau lifts a lot of its gameplay elements from the Mass Effect trilogy. There's even a branching text wheel that looks suspiciously familiar. Given the reboot started its life as a BioShock knock-off, XCOM's continued identity crisis doesn't come as a surprise.
If only ripping off Mass Effect was The Bureau's most egregious problem. Despite occasional good looks and some truly killer sound effects, this XCOM shooter is far too repetitive for its own good. Every level plays out exactly the same way. You watch a cut-scene, race through narrow corridors, find a big open area with lots of ammo drops, battle several waves of aliens, rinse,repeat.
I don't point out that formula flippantly; that really is how every level plays out. You'll quickly realize that every time you see a large open area, a battle is guaranteed to follow. Making matters worse, you'll see a lot of the same enemies repeat from one skirmish to the next. It often feels like there's four hours worth of content stretched out over a dozen hours.
If the repetitive battles don't get you down, the horrible checkpoint system will. While there are a few exceptions, The Bureau usually only saves after every battle. Unfortunately, those battles can have several waves, which can take up a substantial amount of time. It's heartbreaking to die in combat, as it means you'll have to repeat a large chunk of the level over again. This becomes less of an issue as each character levels up, but it never ceases from being a truly demoralizing speed bump.
It doesn't help that your computer-controlled teammates aren't always useful when left to their own devices. Admittedly, the game specifically wants you to command the squad, but that comes with a few annoying quirks. For starters, time doesn't completely stop when issuing your commands. Ideally I would be able to chart my plan and then watch all three players execute my orders, but that's not how it works in The Bureau. Because time is merely slowed down, one character will jump into action as soon as the orders are given, not even waiting for me to tell the other guy what to do. This screws up my sneaky tactics every time.
You can also issue simple commands without slowing down time. You can tell your squad where to go and what to focus their fire on with the push of a button. Unfortunately, it's the push of the same button. Both of these useful commands are mapped to the up button on the D-pad, which proved to be fatal. It's entirely too easy to accidentally send your squad into the heart of the alien swarm when you really meant to have them direct their fire in that direction. This happened so frequently that I ended up abandoning the shortcuts all together.
I would normally be willing to put up with the repetitive and unrefined combat if the story was any good, but I never connected with William Carter like I should have. It doesn't help that we never really get to know his co-workers. Everything is about the war, so there's very little time to develop the characters. It doesn't help that we're in the dark for most of the game, simply letting the events happen around the three-person squad.
And then there's the late-game twist. Without getting into spoiler territory, the last third of the game takes an extraordinarily goofy turn. The final act is a roller coaster ride full of dumb science fiction cliches and eye-rolling revelations. It's also an information dump, grinding the pace to a halt for no reason. I'm thankful XCOM: Enemy Unknown didn't bother with this type of novelty ending.
After so many years and iterations, it's a shame the developers couldn't make it work. There are a lot of good ideas hidden throughout the game, but it never gels into a cohesive package. What we're left with is a repetitive action game that runs out of content half way through. What should have been an intense romp through the 1960s quickly becomes an exercise in tedium.
The good news is that this is not your only XCOM choice. No matter whether you're a fan of turn-based strategy games or not, you owe it to yourself to pick up XCOM: Enemy Unknown. And if you've already experienced one of last year's best games, then start counting down the days for Enemy Within, the full-scale expansion pack coming in November. The Bureau is an interesting experiment, but not on the level we've come to expect from the franchise.