The original XCOM games were all about revisionist history, secret missions to Mars, underwater alien craft sinking ships during WWI. The opening scenes of The Bureau: XCOM Declassified starts with another, sputnik in space during the 60's, when it had burned up years before. This being said, The Bureau storyline can become as intricate as you want it to be, but it doesn't force it on you unnecessarily or get in the way of what's really important - putting holes in aliens.
You start out as agent William Carter, a Clint Eastwood-esque washed up ex-solider pulled from his desk at the CIA to report to The Bureau only to get caught in the opening assault of an alien invasion. Carter's back story is revealed through readable items and recordings made around the base but quickly gets tiresome as you can only hear how capable and dark old Bill is, in fact it gets so dark in regards to his family that it gets a little funny. But William is a more complicated character than you would find in your average shooter, he has needs, wants and a deep love of headshots.
Unlike previous XCOM games, the camera and narrative get pulled down to the personal level. You won't be building any bases in The Bureau, here the emphasis is on building up the perks and abilities of your squad. Agents are assigned different classes: Engineer, Commando, Support, Recon. Then outfitted with new weaponry and abilities ready for you to take them out and watch them die.
One surprise is that after the tutorial levels where your agents have powerful abilities – an engineer, who can throw out turrets and mines, and a Recon agent with sniper rifle and cloaking abilities - are abruptly taken away from you. The first real mission of the game starts off with the lowest level agents who without careful strategy will fall quickly. At lower difficulty levels agents who die will simply be unconscious for the rest of the level as long as their stabilized, but on medium and high levels you will permanently lose these units. Making late-game assaults nearly impossible if you’ve killed off all your veterans. The emphases is to spread out your abilities and weapons among many and build a strong team.
Battles in The Bureau, even at the lower difficulty levels, are aggressive and the new Battle Focus replaces turn-based planning. Battle Focus slows down and highlights visible enemy units and objects but do not think that this makes the battles easy. Though there is no limit to the time you can spend in the Battle Focus mode the bullets and lasers keep whizzing. The AI is aggressive, constantly charging and flanking your positions. Enemies can also take a lot of damage, as you unload your rifle in the face of an oncoming alien, five or six rounds won't drop it.
Commanding your agents and deploying their abilities feels very easy, being a testament to the hard work it took programming the color-coded radial interface. When a unit is selected the camera jumps behind them and highlighted enemies can be picked through. This ease of interface allows you to focus more on an overall strategy. Your AI agents will defend and pick their own targets but will soon be overcome, even if behind cover, by a constantly shifting force.
The environments and set pieces in The Bureau really stand out. After the initial attack you're treated to an apocalyptic sunrise with alien craft bombing the burning ruins of your former base. From the earliest missions it's a mix of 1960's apple pie meets modern alien horror. Walking through a recently interrupted homecoming parade, in one of the first missions, with dead in the street and infected humans standing ashen-faced, ooze coming down their faces staring at the sky – is not just a little disturbing.
Speaking of which The Bureau is a lot darker than the XCOM you're used to. An effort was made to take down the comically colored aliens and goofy uniforms and it makes the overall feel much more ominous and fear-driven.
Overall The Bureau offers an easy-to-learn yet difficult to master strategy experience that may be a little short on story details but keeps the action coming, all wrapped up in sleek three-piece suits and perfect haircuts. It keeps to the XCOM franchises history of strategy while bringing the narrative and play down to the level of a single solider, something that's not been successfully done before.
The Bureau: XCOM Declassified will drop August 20 for Xbox 360, PC and PlayStation 3