Ever wondered what it would be like to the take the role of one of the soldiers in XCOM: Enemy Unknown? To actually run from cover to cover while shooting plasma weapons and keeping the world safe from aliens? Well, neither did I, but someone over at 2K Marin sure did; so they made The Bureau: XCOM Declassified. Turns out it was a cool idea that needed just a little more polish.

Unlike Enemy Unknown and most other XCOM games throughout history, The Bureau isn’t an isometric turn-based tactics game set in the near future. Instead, it is a somewhat tactical third-person shooter set in the 1960’s. I say “somewhat tactical” because as a shooter, The Bureau is pretty decent; heck, it’s even quite fun. However, as a tactical shooter… Let’s just say you’ll have to do all the heavy lifting, while consistently babysitting your teammates as they run around helplessly on the battlefield. I had to remind myself time and time again that they can’t hear me when I’m yelling at the screen.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The Bureau: XCOM Declassified follows the first days of the XCOM Project through the eyes of Special Agent William Carter. Agent Carter is among the few government agents who survived a vicious alien attack on American soil and then recruited by The Bureau – the last remaining US force against the invaders. Of course, Agent Carter won’t be a worthy protagonist material if he wasn’t special in any way. Luckily for us, he seems to be connected to the aliens through a strange (and probably alien) artifact that somehow saved his life. As an added bonus, he is also tormented by a tragic event in his past (like all true American heroes). On a larger scale, the story of The Bureau is pretty standard stuff – aliens attack, humanity endures, humanity fights back. We’ve seen it a thousand times before, true, but The Bureau succeeds in giving the familiar formula a fresh twist that completely caught me off-guard.

This being a third person shooter, humanity, and Agent Carter in particular, fights back in real time – one battlefield at a time. Each mission takes Carter and his squad to a new location, where they tread a linear path sprinkled with enemy resistance. There’s little exploration to be done, and the few branching paths usually lead to a new type of equipment and a short firefight. What’s strange is that the game seems to tease you with the possibility of exploration, but never really delivers: trails of black goo disappear into walls and bloody footprints lead to doors you can’t open. It’s weird, and a little bit frustrating, but it does manage to make each level feel a little more alive than it actually is.

Combat maintains a lot of the familiar XCOM flare, but is much faster (not being turn-based and all). Shooting alien scum in the head is as satisfying as it sounds, and when your squad is working together in complete harmony – it becomes pure joy. Cover and flanking are still an important strategy, as well as choosing the right equipment for the job and knowing which special ability to use when. My squad usually consisted of a sniper and an engineer (yes, you can only take two additional agents with you) equipped with the most advanced alien weapons I had in my disposal. There’s little need (or options) for customizing your allies beyond that. Since Carter can use any gun in the game and also heal his comrades in battle (and much more), the other two classes, Assault and Support, felt pretty redundant, at least for my play style.

Carter can issue orders using “Battle Focus” – a popup menu that slows down time and showcases each agent’s abilities (similar to the one in Mass Effect). At first, there isn’t much to choose from, but as your agents gain more experience, they unlock some very neat abilities, like mines, energy shields, plasma grenades and even artillery strikes. Mixing these abilities together can lead to some very satisfying results, like lifting a turret in the air so it can fire on enemies behind cover, of “force-pushing” an enemy straight unto a mine. Orders can be stacked, so Carter doesn’t need to keep checking on his fellow Bureau agents constantly; in theory anyway.

In reality, your squad mates can be pretty useless. Once they execute an order, they’ll mostly just stay behind cover and wait for you to point them at a target. Plus, they have a tendency to wonder off if not kept under check. I can’t even count the times I positioned my sniper behind me for cover-fire, only to find him two minutes later running all over the place, getting hit and screaming for a medic. These moments did become less frequent once I learned not to let my teammates think for themselves. And once they hit level four they became much more useful – mainly because I had more options when engaging the enemy. Still, even though the combat is much more fast-paced and chaotic, it somehow feels less exciting and intense than the turn-based variety of the recent Enemy Unknown remake – if only because you’re too busy reviving your agents instead of kicking alien butt.

What XCOM Declassified may lack in excitement, it makes up for in atmosphere. Despite the changes in perspective and combat, the game feels deeply cemented within the XCOM universe. Everything is just in a much smaller scale then we’re used to. You won’t get to dispatch your forces all across the globe, but don’t worry – there’s still plenty of alien-killing to do within the continental U.S.

Having to face your enemies up close (and not from above) also gives you a better look at the aliens, agents and environments. Character models, both human and alien, all look good and distinctive (more so for the humans). I could immediately recognize every character and every enemy type in the game from just a quick glance. On the other hand, the environments you fight in are mostly bland and visually unimpressive. Not artistically, mind you – the combination between the sleepy American towns and the stark alien towers of light and metal never gets old; it’s the textures that look so boring. Mind you, there are some impressive touches like fog and particle effects, but not nearly enough. The graphics just feel outdated at times, especially in the pre-rendered cut-scenes. But then again, maybe it’s all the next-gen stuff we’ve seen lately that’s clouding my judgment.

As far as the sound and music go, The Bureau is equally as unremarkable. Carter has the mandatory gritty voice all game protagonists have these days, and most other characters don’t sound much better (except for maybe a couple). The soundtrack is also quite lacking, with music usually kicking in at the wrong time (e.g. after the battle is already over) or just when one of your teammates in down for the count. Even then it is all pretty generic stuff.

The Bureau: XCOM Declassified is a fun, if a bit generic, third-person shooter. The tactical gameplay, the one aspect so crucial to any XCOM game (at least according to the fans) feels tacked-on and is mostly unnecessary.  In fact, it is only helpful because of the poor friendly A.I. that can’t do anything useful by itself. It’s hard not to compare The Bureau to Enemy Unknown, since they both symbolize the rebirth of the franchise, but it can be a somewhat unfair comparison. The Bureau: XCOM Declassified tried something new (albeit not too innovative) and managed to deliver where it counts: creating a third-person shooter that truly feels like an XCOM game. And that is a truth nobody can erase.


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