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The Bureau: XCOM Declassified Review

by Diogo Miguel August 20, 2013

The Bureau: XCOM Declassified had some challenging times throughout development. It even drastically went through some changes, such as being a first person shooter. But it seems 2K Games finally managed to salvage the project. Will this troubled development have a negative impact or was it worth the additional time spent on uncovering the truth?

It’s 1963 and tensions are high as the American population is faced with the imminent war against Russia. But American forces soon find themselves facing an even deadlier enemy from above. The Alien Outsiders invasion is real and that is where the secret organisation The Bureau(XCOM) comes in. Developments within this organisation are presented from the viewpoint of recently recruited chief field agent, William Carter.

Carter not only has to deal with his own inner demons, but also ensuring that two other agents make it through each of the missions. Fortunately Carter has a vital tool at his disposal that makes it easy to give orders to the other agents. The “Battle Focus Mode” consists of a command wheel where the player can give orders to other agents. This includes making use of any abilities and moving them to cover.

This system works exceptionally well and makes the player feel completely in control of the two agents. Any order given is usually completed with success. It does depend on how the player makes use of the different abilities though.

There are different kinds of enemies to deal with and each has a different weakness. What makes this stand out is the fact that each enemy type really is weaker to certain abilities. Finding out weaknesses is easily done by scanning enemies when the command wheel is active.

What makes the command wheel work so well is the fact everything is still running in the background – except time is considerably slowed down. This gives a fighting chance to anyone who isn’t exactly used to the strategy genre. Specially as it still puts the player on the spot to make a decision, but does so that there is time to create a strategy on the fly.

Another feature that makes the combat sections in The Bureau so memorable is the cover system. It’s incredibly simple and yet it is so effective that players will make use of it without even realising.
There are various weapons to make use of and although Alien technology proves far more powerful – most of the Alien weapons can’t hold a lot of ammo. The decision to only hold two weapons at a time is strange, but ends up being somewhat effective.

Effectively, what this means is that The Bureau is concerned with making players rely on abilities and team work in general. It does so in such a subtle manner that it feels natural to always open up the command wheel whenever approaching a group of enemies. Each fight never feels the same because the battlefield has changed and so it is required to apply new strategies.

At the same time this means that agents don’t cope so well when not being given orders constantly. It’s not rare to hear them cry out for orders, and that does give the impression the AI is somewhat not able to function as effectively, when left without orders.

The main missions are not many but will take a decent amount of time to complete. There are also various minor operations to keep players busy in between. These are actually worth taking the time to complete. Each contains a whole new set of objectives to tackle and prove entertaining(such as preventing a nuclear war!). Strangely enough it feels like The Bureau would have benefited from more minor operations.

The Bureau itself is a makeshift underground bunker home where Carter spends his days socialising with others in-between missions. Engaging in conversation is interesting, but it’s the subtle changes in the background that really leave an impression. A newly empty desk may signify another loss in the war. It’s moments like this where actions truly speak louder than words.

It’s possible to recruit a certain number of agents. These virtual heroes can even be sent on missions. Each of these dispatch missions requires a certain rank total. Each agent can level up to rank 5. Carter can level up to rank 10 and earn various abilities. Agents can also equip packs that give different boosts, such as extra health or ammo.

For some reason, they always returned safe and stronger from the various missions they were sent to. Perhaps a good indication of strong leadership or just the fact this is a simple process. Each of these missions lasts for the duration of one main mission/minor operation. It feels like the real challenge is to try and use agents so that they are properly levelled up; whilst also making sure to have agents capable to handle the next main mission.

Each agent has a different class, such as the beefy Commando, and it’s only possible to have two agents of the same class. Classes have unique abilities assigned to them and gain more by levelling up. The process of recruiting an agent is actually very personal. The player can pick a name, head and even the colour of clothing for each agent.

The twist is that each agent can permanently die when he is in a mission with Carter. There is a window of opportunity to heal a downed agent, but it becomes smaller and stricter as the difficulty level goes up. Think carefully about naming agents after loved ones from the real world . It’s irrational but seeing a Tony or even a Mark bleeding to death on the floor and thinking they might not make it is worrying. But it’s just as rewarding to see these characters develop into strong virtual agents.

But just what on Earth is going on in The Bureau? The government may have civilians fooled, but players will find out just how powerful the Outsiders really are. It’s creepy to explore the various locations that missions take place in. Specially since the aliens have turned most humans found into mindless drones, with black ooze leaking out of every orifice on their heads. The 60’s setting means that there isn’t a chance of it ever getting dull. The risk of adding advanced Alien technology pays off as tall menacing towers stand out amongst human landmarks.

It’s only a shame that it feels like most of the areas are quite restricted, as it’s often a pleasure to explore what is there to see. It’s great to see all the details from the clothing to the way that people speak, and how they seem to smoke like troopers. Conversation is an aspect of The Bureau that also stands out. Carter has the chance to choose different lines of dialogue on several occasions. Some of these choices have small but noticeable recursions felt later in the story. But it never feels like the kind of decision that will cause the story to completely change. If anything, it only seems to show how a player reacts to different situations.

The story itself is captivating and will make it impossible to not want to play for hours. However, there were a few occasions, where it felt like some of the story developments, didn’t quite fit in with what The Bureau set out to do from the beginning. It also didn’t help that some of the music tracks feel somewhat out of place. Specially during some of the combat sections.

The Bureau is exceptional when making the most of tools such as the tactical command wheel. There are moments where it seems to question itself, but The Bureau: XCOM Declassified is another quality entry in the XCOM video-games. It’s worth finding out the truth in this clever take on the Alien invasion scenario.

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