The "XCOM" Franchise is Now Declassified & Deglorified Review

It has been a long time since I’ve experienced a game as outright frustrating as The Bureau: XCOM Declassified - and I don’t just mean that absurdly long title looking to remind people of the pedigree it sprang from. The concepts should appeal to me; on paper there’s no reason why the gameplay, setting, and characters shouldn’t combine to make one thrilling experience. But it doesn't gel together. The game also proves that sometimes the worst thing a developer can do is to squeeze in the wrong combination of elements to appease the hardcore audience. That crowd has no interest in the game already.  All the while, the developer is attempting to find that sacred cow known as “mass appeal.”

The Bureau (I refuse to use the full title ever again) is a prequel (maybe?) of the popular XCOM series that recently saw a resurgence of love thanks to the brilliant update of the classic title in XCOM: Enemy Unknown. What is bizarre about this development timeline is that Enemy Unknown wasn’t supposed to be made. The Bureau was originally going to be a FPS set in the XCOM universe done in a very Bioshock-esque manner. 

This decision left the older fans cold and grumpy. However, the tides of change were stifled when The Bureau entered development hell and couldn’t meet a deadline to save its own skin. Firaxis jumped in and gave the diehard fans what they wanted in Enemy Unknown. Meanwhile, The Bureau went through numerous internal changes that caused even further delay, making them unable to hit a window to capitalize on the success of Enemy Unknown.

Alright, the history lesson is over and it’s time to break open the final product and see what works and what doesn’t.

What is wrong with the game is apparent within the first hour of gameplay, something that’s never a good sign. The story lacks sense from the get-go, straddling players with a protagonist that seethes over-wrought dialogue through clenched teeth and never feels like anything more than a parody of the generic white-guy in all games these days. Agent Carter, quite simply, is boring.

The Bureau co-ops its gameplay from any other third-person shooter released after the behemoth Gears of War. Walk into an area with enemies, take up cover behind something, and proceed to shoot until they are dead. Rinse and repeat. The caveat here that is supposed to keep the game interesting is the inclusion of a command view that allows players to command their computer-controlled agent team. This is how The Bureau attempts to combine XCOM’s strategy with new-fangled shooting. . 

The feature makes it feel like you’re in the thick of it while commanding XCOM forces.  But the two agents that pair up with Carter have the AI mind-set of a potato. Unless the bossman, i.e. you, tells them where to go or what to do, they’ll simply sit there shouting out unclear warnings about being swarmed by enemies. If one is accidently positioned in the line of fire, they seem to revel in whining to their commanding officer about the poor decision, and they remain in direct enemy fire as a way to drive home their passive-aggressive way of reminding you how bad a commander you are. 

This typically leads to them dying and bleeding out, which if the count-down hits zero, that agent is dead and with him goes the needed experience points. So begins the endless and vicious cycle of exposing yourself, because the other agent is too incompetent to reach the downed friend in time, to enemy fire in order to revive him. Then the other agent goes down because you were too focused on saving the other one’s butt, and this is how these scenarios typically play out.

This problem vanishes once the agents reach higher levels and have access to skills that are actually useful. Sadly, this just presents the next problem of making the game too easy. Now every encounter becomes a check-list of using the proper skills, ones that aren’t affected by things such as cover or elevation. Once my sniper and engineer reached level 5, I was able to start making myself some tea during combat. The sniper could just sit back and magically head shot anyone regardless of their position or the wall between him and the target. The engineer’s turret made short work of anything else.  Quite simply, the maddening feeling of being overwhelmed and overpowered wasn’t gone, it was just reversed.

Then there are the weapons. I don’t understand the weapons in this game. Never once is there an indication of which guns are better than the others. Does that mean once I unlock access to the alien laser weapons that I should no longer ever use the human ones? Then why is the game constantly leaving a plethora of human weapon caches littered around every area for me to use? What’s the difference between the human machine gun and the alien machine gun? There is no effort made to differentiate any of the guns other than bullets or lasers leaving the barrel. From my personal use, once any of the alien guns are obtained, I never looked back. Not only do they seem more effective, but enemies drop ammo more consistently, making it so I never had to hunt for bullets.

The setting doesn’t do any real favors to The Bureau, despite being the perfect era for retro sci-fi. The 60s have a great potential for science fiction and while it nails the silvery look just right, it never goes further than that. There are a few allusions between the Cold War and invaders from another world, but the dialogue is stiff and campy in the way that isn’t fun. Don’t expect to be interested in anything anyone has to say with dialogue that spends too long never getting to a point.

As I mentioned before, Agent Carter is boring and it doesn’t help that he is surrounded by others just as bland. The only one that seemed slightly interesting is the sole female field-agent Weaver. She reminded me of Haylee Atwell’s Peggy Carter in Captain America. I was dismayed to find out I never got to bring her along for any missions and was then reminded that in all the character creation options, I never get the chance to use a woman in the field. I just get to create a wide assortment of different men. Every time I saw her, it just made me even more angry that I never got to add some variety to my created agents.

The Bureau shows the problem with trying to appease everyone. The design is meant to mimic enough visual aesthetics from the strategy game in an attempt to make it seem more like its brethren. Far from it, it’s just a mediocre cover-based shooter with extraordinary lackluster AI compatriots.  If the game had focused on making its elements work without feeling so beholden to the previous material, it may have had a shot. The underlying foundation seems sound enough.

The Bureau nevers comes together in the end. I struggle to think of any real strengths that it has that would raise it above being just mediocre, paling in comparison to its sources of inspiration. Sadly, no moment in the game nor any of the gameplay elements ever work better than passably. Most of them just show how completely flawed the concepts are when handled this poorly, in particular the team handling aspect. The Bureau is flawed and never inspires hope that more could be done with this franchise outside of its core genre. That is a shame and it is so frustrating to see such a mix of things that should work crumple when put together.

"The Bureau: XCOM Declassified" is on sale August 20, 2013 and is rated M. Shooter, Strategy. Developed by 2k Marin. Published by 2k Games.

Sep
11
2013

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