The Bureau: XCOM Declassified is unlike any game you’ve ever played. With a little imagination, you can likely find touchstones for individual features. The third-person shooting and cover mechanics are fairly standard, and the way the game merges these real-time mechanics with a larger tactical approach calls to mind Valkyria Chronicles. The brutal combat philosophy, permadeath, and the menagerie of alien foes borrow from Enemy Unknown, while your headquarters evokes memories of Mass Effect’s Normandy. But the way it straddles, combines and rejiggers genre conventions feels unexpectedly refreshing and entirely distinct.
Of course, novelty isn’t everything, so it’s a good thing that much of what The Bureau tries to do actually works. Take Battle Focus, the radial interface by which you issue commands to your three-man squad during combat. Swapping between direct control over the game’s main character, William Carter, and the two randomly generated soldiers you pick to join you in the field could’ve been an absolute nightmare, but it works surprisingly well in practice, seamlessly shifting perspectives and allowing you to queue up commands without any unnecessary complications. While the aiming cursor will still occasionally get hung up on a wall, The Bureau largely succeeds at offering a successful blend of real-time action with the positioning and combat mechanics of traditional turn-based tactics.
The end result is a game that feels almost nothing like a standard shooter, even if you spend a good deal of time aiming down your sights and popping off headshots. No matter how accurate you are, you’ll still need to keep a close eye on enemy locations, flanking opportunities, and ability cooldowns to have any hope of succeeding. It’s a challenging experience, but not in the chaotic way of the earlier, purely tactical XCOM games, where your best-laid plans could fall apart if the dice rolls didn’t come down in your favor. So long as you manage to stay on top of what’s happening on the field, you’ll be able to count on success, but that can be a tall order, especially in the later battles when the game throws everything it has at you. The specifics may differ, but there’s no question The Bureau still taps into the grand XCOM tradition of making each victory feel like a genuine accomplishment.
The other asset working strongly in The Bureau’s favor is its narrative, which plays out like something Arthur C. Clarke would come up with if you brought him back from the dead, tied him to a chair, and forced him to write a videogame story. It’s a slow boil that starts methodically and builds to a third act that’s heady, character-driven, and brilliantly conscious of the medium in a way few games are. Along with the striking 1960s aesthetic and decent environmental storytelling, it’s one of the few things that was clearly inspired and enriched by 2K Marin’s earlier efforts on the BioShock franchise.
The trouble is, for all the things I love about The Bureau, I can’t pretend that it doesn’t have its fair share of glaring faults. This is clearly a game that was pushed out the door in a bid to stay relevant before the new consoles hit this fall. While the art direction is solid across the board, the visual polish is incredibly uneven, with a few textures, particle effects, and animations that look woefully out of place in a game of this caliber. There are moments when it’s clear that important content was left out entirely, like when a character talks about showing you something, only to stand in place with no cutscene or prop to indicate what they’re actually talking about. The voice acting varies from barely adequate to downright awful. Certain key aspects of the experience are, for lack of a kinder term, bad.
With another six to 12 months of work, The Bureau would probably have been one of my favorite games of this generation. As it stands now, it’s a definite diamond in the rough. But as I’ve taken a few days to reflect upon the game, as I’ve wrestled with the painful task of reducing it to a single number, those obvious shortcomings haven’t stuck with me as much as I thought they might. The one sentence that’s popped into my head, again and again, is simple and unvarnished, but it’s probably the truest way to sum up my feelings.
I wish there were more games like The Bureau.
There's no sugarcoating the fact that The Bureau lacks much of the refinement we expect from modern triple-A games, but anyone who looks past the flawed surface will find a game bursting with brilliant ideas. With smart, engaging tactical combat and one of the most compelling sci-fi narratives the medium has seen to date, this one's destined to become a cult classic.
M – Mature
|The Bureau: XCOM Declassified is available on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC. Primary version played was for Xbox 360. Product was provided by 2K Games for the benefit of this coverage. EGM reviews on a scale of one to five stars.