The long-awaited XCOM ‘action’ title is finally here, and guess what? It’s pretty great.
There are more than a few XCOM fans out there who not only didn’t want this game to actually make it to store shelves, but were downright worried about it. Honestly, who can blame them? It wasn’t all that long ago that the XCOM brand got reawakened from its long slumber with an excellent strategy game that harkened back to the ’90s originals and added just enough ‘newness’ to make the massive fanbase (that was also slumbering) very happy indeed.
Then 2K games announced that an action game featuring the XCOM universe (that was actually first announced before XCOM: Enemy Unknown hit shelves) wasn’t dead after all, but was instead very much alive and on the way to consoles and PC. But would it carry the XCOM name proudly, or would this prequel to the reborn XCOM mythos get buried in a perceived generic mess of a FPS?
The title opens up in the 1960’s as Special Agent William Carter delivers a top secret briefcase to Groom Range, a military installation in the American southwest. Without giving too much of the plot away, things go south fast and Carter finds himself on the wrong end of a surprise attack from a sleeper agent. Saved from a gunshot wound by a mysterious flash of light emitting from that same briefcase, the flawed and self-loathing Carter awakens to find that he’s been plunged into the midst of a secret war and that aliens of unknown origin are threatening the Earth’s sovereignty and actually colonizing the planet. The answer to this new threat is, as the title proclaims, XCOM. This new, super secret organization activates to the best of its ability and wages silent war against an alien union called Mosaic.
If you’re into conspiracy theories or UFO/real-world alien lore at all, then you’ll likely recognize huge parts of The Bureau’s story as being adapted from actual (and at times historic) accounts. Even the base at Groom Range from the opening is a nod to the (formerly) super-secret military base at Groom Lake- Area 51. I personally haven’t played an XCOM game since 1995’s Terror from the Deep and I was really impressed by all the history that 2K Marin managed to squeeze into The Bureau. More than a few times, I noticed a moment or element lifted right out of the UFOlogist’s handbook or an episode of the X-Files. And that’s a good thing by the way.
For the most part, The Bureau’s aliens and agents look pretty good too. The character models are great across the boards with some great alien designs (the Sectoids are terrific) and the no-nonsense agents of XCOM all look suitably ’60s-cool under pressure. I also really liked the settings for the game’s missions. The areas vary greatly from alien installations to campgrounds to towns and it all gets across the message that The Bureau’s world is much simpler than the modern one that we live in now- and all that much more susceptible to something like the fantastic events of the game. At times throughout, The Bureau’s graphics will make you sit up and take notice and maybe even elicit a few ‘oohs’ here and there. At times anyway.
Other times, you’ll actually come close to facepalming as a digital actor’s lip-synching is borderline horrifically off cue and your squad-mates blink into existence in front of you when you go through a door instead of walking up behind you where they were a second before. If that doesn’t sound so hot, it’s because it isn’t and to make matters worse, The Bureau is full of such moments. Even little things like characters shifting in place as they talk to each other is an issue since they make the same motions over and over (and over) again. I actually would have greatly preferred that 2K Marin just use pre-rendered cut scenes that made people look like people instead of the talking-heads type conversations that we ended up with.
Fortunately the sound effects and voice work have no such problems. Though I did have a glitch where vocals weren’t playing for the remainder of an entire level (it was mercifully close to the end) and I ended up missiing a small amount of story, everything was fine with just about everything else, auditorily speaking.
The musical score is excellent in The Bureau too, as are the sound effects; above all though, it’s the voice work that really shines. The cast in the game is as perfect as can be across the boards and does a bang up job all the way from Mark Hildreth’s William Carter down to the random (or custom made) teammates that will have your back throughout the game’s missions. Also pretty terrific in The Bureau is the control scheme. The basic controls of firing and using cover should be easily recognizable to fans of Triple-A shooters in the current age of gaming and all work well enough here too, but beyond that The Bureau really shines with it’s on-the-fly tactical squad commands.
Carter can command his agents (you get a team of two per mission) as you play, to carry out commands of both the basic and pretty complex types. Each agent in XCOM levels up as you play right alongside Carter as well. While the main man can get all the way to level 10 however, agents are capped at 5. This doesn’t mean that they aren’t useful in the field though as each agent type has a set of special abilities that they can utilize at your discretion.
It’s not quite the level of strategic control that you have in a game like XCOM: Enemy Unknown, but it’s way more than any third-person shooter that I’m aware of and just a really fun mechanic in general. Squad shooters usually have you issuing commands like ‘go there’ or ‘shoot that’ to your guys and/or gals, but The Bureau has you ordering your men to take cover and then execute a kill shot on a target… followed by throwing down a shield around an injured teammate then moving in and healing them. You can’t do all that in one take, but you get the idea.
Everything couldn’t be any easier to utilize either and is as fluid as you could imagine, even in the heat of battle.
There’s a lot to like about The Bureau, even with its problems.
If you’re an XCOM fan, I can’t imagine you could find major fault with this game other than the fact that it’s not a turn-based strategy title. And if that’s the case, then I imagine it’s more the genre that you enjoy rather than the universe that developer Firaxis has re-birthed and 2K Marin has now expounded upon.
The bottom line is that The Bureau: XCOM Declassified is a flawed but solid shooter that strives to be more than the sum of its parts. Framed with a fun and surprisingly intricate narrative that any sci-fi fan should get a whole lot of enjoyment out of, XCOM’s origins are more than worth your time.