Developer: 2K Marin
Publisher: 2K Games
Release date: August 20
Price: $59.99
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Score: 8/10

The Bureau: XCOM Declassified takes the rich conspiracy theory canon of the XCOM universe and plunks you right down in the thick of it. No longer is the player the world-builder with a godlike view of the battlefield; now you’re part of the war machine. You won’t be building any bases in The Bureau, you’ll be building soldiers who you’ll spend the rest of the game trying desperately to keep alive.

The Bureau is set in 1962 America, a country and world split by the Cold War and in the midst of racial divide. While the story addresses these issues, some directly and others more off-handedly, in the end they're non-essential to the story, but add to the ambience of the era.

We start out by meeting agent William Carter, a Clint Eastwood-like Korean War vet who’s worked for the CIA keeping the Red Menace off our backs. Carter is transporting a mysterious package when he’s caught in the opening engagement of an alien incursion, to use classic XCOM vernacular. Carter seems like a generic character in the beginning and this isn’t helped by his corny, everyone I ever loved is dead type back-story. Which is only truly revealed in readable notes that are located around the world that give personal insight into events. Carter’s redemption evolves as the game goes on, turning him into a more complicated character than we’ve seen in most games of the genre. The difference being that while Carter may be out to save the world he’s ultimately out to save and understand his own personal demons.

With last year’s success of XCOM: Enemy Unknown many gamers got their first taste of the XCOM universe. I would also consider it required play before you pick up The Bureau for two reasons: The first being that unlike all other information heavy XCOM titles, The Bureau just throws you into the thick of it without explaining too much about the enemies you’ll face and doesn’t contain the huge info databases of previous games either. Secondly, after becoming proficient at Enemy Unknown there is something ultimately terrifying being face to face with a twelve foot tall Muton in The Bureau.

 A Dark World

The first thing you’ll notice about The Bureau is that the world it takes place in is much darker than its predecessors. The developers intentionally toned down the comic colors and turned up the creep-factor, the game gets quite dark. From the opening tutorial levels you’re treated to a destroyed Groom Lake testing range and offices that have been ransacked by the Outsiders. You’ll come upon scenes of dead soldiers being mangled by Sectoids–little gray men-in dark, smoky rooms.

The art and environmental design is top notch. It achieves a perfect mix of American pie and modern alien noir. One of the first levels illustrates this perfectly; in the middle of a homecoming parade on a college campus, the Outsiders have gutted the entire town. When Carter arrives there are colorfully decorated floats askew in the street, dead citizens sit alongside Sleepwakers, ashen-faced infected humans oozing out black nanite tears, and citizens hung from lampposts by black blobs.

The set pieces provide some of the most memorable aspects of the game. An underwater alien base, a virus production factory built on top of mass graves and detailed alien towers Carter must ascend and take over. Playing through, we had flash backs to our favorite moments of X-Files and War of The Worlds. There are also lots of details hidden in the world to make the story much deeper and more personal, but players could easily skip past if you weren’t looking for them. A dead teen that was hiding in a tree house for days or a family who committed suicide together so as to not be tortured by the Outsiders.

 
Dictating the Pace of Battle

The Bureau is not an easy game. At the end of the opening tutorial missions, where you’re given medium level agents, you may start feeling a bit cocky. Though rest assured you’re about to die. A lot. At even the easiest settings you may find yourself running out of ammo and being picked off in hit-and-run melee attacks amid a constant hail of pulse grenades.

The developers channeled games like Full Spectrum Warrior for its focus on surviving as a team and the simplicity of squad controls similar to basic actions from Brothers in Arms. But unlike those tactical shooters where players can simply set up your team to suppress the enemy while you flank them, The Bureau isn’t that straight forward. Players must carefully judge their agent’s abilities and the tactics of the enemy force, most of the time you cannot simply shoot your way out of the situation, you have to flank or lure the enemy into ambushes. Rushing in with Carter gunning is ill-advised. Enemies are strong and easily take down any of your team if you make the mistake or running into the open

Carter carries a special armband scanner that allows for the slowing down of time. This Battle Focus mode replaces the classic turn-based systems of its predecessors but is by no means the same. One of the most surprising things about The Bureau is how fast-paced battles are. Levels are set up as a string of engagements, players enter and level, get info and scope out the lay of the land, then when spotted your agents will find cover, do battle then move on to the next engagement. The fields of battle are relatively small, making engagements quick and violent.

Powers will be your main weapons in The Bureau. Carter’s powers – as well as the agents – are customizable to some extent, but really only have two main trees: helping themselves, or, helping others. Carter has his own set of abilities that allow him to support and heal the squad as well as throwing out drones and mind-controlling enemies. Agent’s abilities are based on their class, anything from turrets to throwing shields and holographic decoys.

While Battle Focus slows down time, it doesn’t stop it and your enemies are fast and aggressive. Staying in one spot or not immediately dictating the pace of the engagement will leave you dead in seconds. While your agents AI is intelligent, they seek cover if you send them in harms way, they’ll quickly relocate somewhere safer but by that time they’re probably already been downed. Agents can be revived but you must stand over them to do so, so being downed in the open is a guarantee that you’re going to lose both agents. The aliens are aggressive and do not hide from a fight, strategically retreating and reengaging.

In Battle Focus, a radial wheel will display Carter and your agent’s abilities. Moving over an agent will snap to their perspective and targeting cursors will snap through enemies and objects of interest. The command wheel itself has been worked on carefully, making it easy and intuitive to use which only becomes apparent later in the game when you’re tossing out five or six orders at a time, all the while running away from enemy forces five or six times the size of your squad.

 

Agents, perfect hair and lit cigarettes

Agents are the commodities of The Bureau. The game has no economic factors making it different from previous games; players must recruit and groom agents quickly as losing them is a real possibly. Agents fall into four categories: Engineers, cable of using turrets and mines and are equipped with close range shotguns, Commandos, are your heavy units, sporting automatic weapons and high health bars and an extremely useful push ability which throws back assaulting melee units. Support troops are lightly armed but carry shields and an ability to degrade enemy armored units, and finally the Recon unit which is a sniper, able to deploy decoys and make long-range critical shots. Since Carter can only take two agents at a time it’s up the player which agents will make the best gameplay sense for them. We found ourselves sticking with the aggressive set of Commando and Engineer, which is a completely different way of playing than with Recon and Support, which would result in a defensive long-range engagement.

You won’t be strapping on armor this time around. Customization of your agents is mainly found in their special perks. We can switch out class-based weapons, such as machine guns, pistols and rifles. Armor has been replaced by powered backpacks that give agents different abilities, such as higher health bars or carrying additional grenades. There are tons of backpacks available. They’re also non-class specific meaning you can further customize specific units to your style of play.

A big deal has been made about the permanent death of units in The Bureau, and while it definetly affects gameplay, there is a built-in feature that makes this possibility less painful. When starting the game players can choose to immediately recruit all their other agents. Two units of each class are available and more can be gained from completing optional side missions. Certain side missions are only available to your agents and not Carter. Meaning that players can send them out to get experience and gain new perks while Carter and his team is also deployed on missions. This keeps all your agents leveling-up at close to an equivalent rate. So when permanent death hits, it doesn’t have to be as dramatic, but if you choose to play hardcore, it’s game ending. Without a full team, Carter will never survive.

Adapt, Survive, Win

Survival in The Bureau relies on your ability to be quick on your feet and designing a team and a strategy that suits your style of play. This open availably of agents and free roaming battles make it repayable as many times as you like; As your strategy changes so too will the game.

The Bureau also allows players to get deeper into the XCOM world by reading letters, documents and listening to audio logs around the world that tell the tale of survivor’s last stand and Carter’s checkered past. But story doesn’t play a big part until late in the game, and The Bureau doesn’t force you to run around reading all these notes. If players want to jump into battle without delving into the story they can do so. We played all the side missions and tried to seek out all the bits and pieces of story in the game, the reward being a more stratifying ending. Choices late in the game lead to one of the multiple endings in which players must ultimately choose which parts of their team they’re willing to sacrifice to save humanity.

While we found the game fun and challenging - more challenging than we expected - there were a few issues. When we spoke to lead narrative designer Erik Caponi back in June during our preview of The Bureau he stated that there had been a deliberate effort to make the game darker and more horror driven. This previous version sometimes shows through. The most obvious example being the ship players have access to near the end of the game which looks like an Ed Wood version of a flying saucer was a real let down after the cool classiness of the Skyranger we see early in the game. Another issue is that the ending may confuse some, tying the series together but attempting a transcendent moment that really doesn’t work. These things said, the game is entertaining and the story holds up well enough and is revealing of many of the games details once exposed but never really gets in the way of what’s important, putting plasma rounds into Aliens.

The Bureau: XCOM Declassified, the prequel to the entire XCOM franchise is out today for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and Windows PC.