A few weeks ago I took it upon myself to purchase the Universal ‘Monsters’ blu-ray box set. This tidy little package came with eight classics of the horror genre from yesteryear. Some of these rank up there as b-movie classics, while others, such as Creature From The Black Lagoon, are fairly gripping but ultimately throwaway entertainment.
The Bureau: XCOM Declassified sits firmly in this throwaway territory. Sorry if I may have offended any movie buffs with my analogy.
It’s fair to say that this game has seen a troubled path to release. Announced in 2006, it was simply known as an XCOM sequel before its first public showing four years later at E3 2010. It was demonstrated as a first person shooter very much in the vein of the original Bioshock, along with horror elements that immediately called to mind Silent Hill. Fast-forward through another three years of development hell and here we are with a tactical squad-based third person shooter.
The game has you controlling CIA special agent William Carter, working for the United States Bureau of Strategic Emergency Command, fighting off the alien invasion with your chosen group of two other compadres at any one time. The combat system during the opening sequence is initially quite overbearing and on the standard difficulty a little easy. The game chucks you in at the deep end as it were, giving you access to three max level characters to play around with and all the skills that this entails. Blasting through this bit isn’t too challenging but being lumped with all of these skills at the start of the experience was a fairly unsatisfying experience; I was unsure what some of them even did without further research.
Anyway, enough of my failings. Once the game properly kicks off you are firmly on terra firma and back to square one. You and your buddies are on your your first levels, losing the skill set available to you in the process. Luckily you won’t be spending the first few hours slaying rats in your neighbour’s basement as the game provides you with a satisfying sense of progression as you level up your characters, gaining new skills and learning how to adapt and use them in battle.
The orders you give out might not be anywhere near the same scale or depth as XCOM: Enemy Unknown but it is a refreshing change from the recent glut of thoughtless third person rampages seen elsewhere. Following on from that b-movie feel this game feels like it would’ve been right at home a decade ago on PC, it doesn’t bring anything drastically new or of a particularly high-quality to the table but it is fun in its own right.
The game operates in real time of sorts but a quick press of O drastically slows down time and gives you a tactical skills wheel through which you can give orders to your teammates. For example, as you enter a university campus you can run and take cover behind a wall before bringing the skill wheel up and queuing up orders to your teammates to follow in battle. You can send one to move down a flank and provide a critical hit from the periphery of the area, before setting up a gun turret to provide covering fire. All the while your other team mate can be ordered to mine up the other side of the map’s access point before bringing down a protective dome over the pair and boosting your attack skills with the aid of skim packs. With a quick button press you’re back to real time and your crew follow your orders, allowing you time to get to the real business of taking down the alien menace. These battles can offer moments of fleeting brilliance and it is a real joy when a plan comes together nicely, but beware there are cheap deaths abound and it can feel like many of the weapons have an unsatisfyingly minimal impact. Often it feels like you turned up to a nuclear arms race with a peashooter.
The shooting mechanics are solid if unspectacular, due to the strategy roots of the game some of the aliens can take many a hit to go down. None of the weapons really give off that meaty kick you crave from a game, even more so when you get access the alien’s mandatory ‘pew-pew’ weaponry. Despite this, their weapons are by some distance the best weapons in the game and you will quickly learn to bin off your now mundane rifle in favour of a laser-spewing death machine.
Between levels you are given the freedom to wander your underground base and interact with your co-workers. I use the word freedom in the loosest sense, the base consists of perhaps a dozen drab rooms and I really did not feel compelled to explore it much after my opening wander. Talking to some of the NPCs down here opens up a skill wheel in a similar fashion to the Mass Effect series but don’t go in expecting a level of quality anywhere near that. Most of the characters are bland and lifeless, akin to slightly animated mannequins, and the dialogue options rarely lead anywhere. The entire scenario would be better served as a cutscene or a strategic overview from which you can chat as well as customise your characters for the missions ahead.
Everything about it reeks of the b-movie sources from which it was inspired, so much so that it apes many of their qualities and failings. In taking the XCOM universe and twisting it into a third person shooter, it has lost many of the qualities that made the series such a classic.
Taken on its own merit, it is a moderately entertaining squad-based third person shooter. The 1960s Americana landscape has great potential in providing interesting environments, and the retro stylings act as a great juxtaposition to the alien invasions, flying saucers and high-tech weaponry.