The elevator pitch for The Bureau: XCOM Declassified is marvelous. Mass Effect by way of Mad Men! Science fiction, character drama, and three-person squad-based shooting that emphasizes strategic use of special abilities over raw gun play, all with a patina of 1960s-chic slathered on top. Fedoras plus a levitation ability! And all of that boosted by the beloved XCOM brand. Like the 2K Games executive that approved the game’s development, you can practically smell the money and critical acclaim that would greet such a game were it made to meet that pedigree.
The sad truth: The Bureau is no Mass Effect and it’s no Mad Men. It’s not even up to par with last year’s brilliant XCOM: Enemy Unknown from Firaxis. While the game that The Bureau desperately wants to be sometimes shines through, bad writing, troglodytic artificial intelligence, and overly familiar shooting play fell the complete package.
Welcome to The Bureau, Agent Carter
The Bureau‘s star is FBI agent William Carter. He’s a lantern-jawed veteran with a tortured past and scratchy voice, a familiar combination that puts him in league with Solid Snake and Adam Jensen as the latest video game lead that sorely needs a throat lozenge. The game lurches to a start when Carter escorts a mysterious briefcase to Myron Faulke, director of the United States’ clandestine XCOM. Faulke’s group was originally founded to counter Soviet espionage in the 1950s, but it’s moved on to fighting an alien threat by the time the game picks up in 1962. The first level is a scramble through the Groom Range military base as the unknown alien army invades the country en masse.
As first impressions go, The Bureau is a champion. Everything about the game seems spot on. From the reference to mid-20th century alien ephemera — the real life Area 51, rumored resting place of marooned aliens, is located by New Mexico’s Groom Lake — to the fashion and architecture of the facility, with leaders like the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover smoking in a dark command center, The Bureau seems to nail its Cold War ’60s style.
The play also feels right in these opening scenes, if a bit too lenient. As he rushes to rescue the VIPs on site and escape Groom Range, Carter meets up with two companions that possess array of distinct skills. Your new AI-controlled pals are like those in Mass Effect, able to act alone, but subject to your commands.
If you’re doing a period piece, especially one set in an era so culturally distinctive, you have to embrace it in full.
You issue orders by pressing the Battle Focus button, which slows down the action and brings up a circular command menu. From here you can use Carter’s own skills, such as team heal, or issue action and move orders to individual team members. The strategic options are robust enough for you to, say, send the recon unit to flank a Sectoid attacker and flush him out, allowing Carter and your engineer to catch it in a pincer. Even more strategic options open up later, when you have access to other classes like commando and support.
The Bureau presents you up front with a game of cover-based shooting that appears to be strategically richer than Mass Effect’s action and faster-paced that XCOM: Enemy Unknown‘s strategy. It’s a little too easy, but it also feels right. It turns out to be a misleading first impression.
Agent Performance is Less Than Satisfactory
The Bureau‘s initial mistake is in fumbling the story. 2K Marin has narrative ambitions aplenty, but none are realized in a convincing way here. After the game gets going and Carter is brought to XCOM’s secret underground command center — complete with labs, meeting rooms, an armory, and a communications room just like the base you build in the original strategy games — Marin abandons its attention to the ’60s setting.
Some levels are generic nowheres, like the aliens’ typically angular chrome bases that could have been pulled out of Resistance, Halo 4, Dark Void, or any other sci-fi video game. The same could be said of The Bureau‘s aliens, the Outsiders, which just look like Mass Effect‘s Garrus but with vertical mouths.
Other locations, like some side missions in Montana and New Jersey, take place on nearly identical farms. Any big story levels that do try to capture the era, as those in New Mexico or a Georgia college town do, feature classic cars and old diner signs are the lonely token window dressings used to mark the era. If you’re doing a period piece, especially one set in an era so culturally distinctive, you have to embrace it in full.
Even characters feel temporally noncommittal. Communications director Chulski seems to have modern-style blonde highlights in her hair. One of Carter’s dialogue choices in a conversation is, “Later.” The Bureau should immerse you in a fiction built around this culturally distinct period, but the writing and narrative contrivances frequently pull you out.
Left to their own devices, Carter’s squad mates will run around the game’s cramped shooting arenas like panicked birds, squawking about how they need orders.
Awkward dialogue is partially to blame there. When Carter speaks with his officemate, agent DeSilva, he repeatedly insists that the two communicate on a first name basis. If this were developed over a long period, and the two characters actually got to know each other, that little discussion about etiquette could be meaningful, but no.
After a couple of brief chats, DeSilva doesn’t reappear until near the game’s halfway point when he’s under siege from aliens. The peril that he’s in is supposed to make the player feel tense, but with no time spent to build a real, complex relationship, the attempt at pathos is wasted. Why should the player care about these people when the game doesn’t?
If it’s hard to care about the game’s named characters, it’s even more difficult to muster up affection for your actual AI teammates in the field. Even when commanding a squad of leveled up companions that you’ve named yourself, these dumb dumbs make your job far harder than it needs to be.
Your high level characters from the opening are taken away in the game, and you can recruit two characters in each of the four classes available. At first, they’re mostly distinguished by what gun they use (machine gun, SMG, shotgun, etc.) but once they hit level 2, their unique skills develop, making them more valuable resources.
An engineer or commando maxed out at level 5, though, is still incredibly vulnerable during the game’s shootouts. Why? They’re morons. Left to their own devices, Carter’s squad mates will run around the game’s cramped shooting arenas like panicked birds, squawking about how they need orders. Giving them what they ask for only helps a little, though.
Slow the action and order your vulnerable support character to retreat from the giant tank enemy he’s standing in front of and he’ll take a route that goes right through another enemy’s field of fire. He’ll get behind cover, but if you don’t give him new orders right away, he’ll pop right back out and get shot.
Keeping these guys alive is one of the game’s more frustrating burdens. Like in classic XCOM, your teammates die permanently if not revived fast enough in the field. In XCOM: Enemy Unknown, the loss of a character you built up over a long period of time felt like losing a resource and a friend. In The Bureau, it’s mostly just an inconvenience.
New high-level characters can be earned by sending teammates not in the field on side missions – agents also level up from these side missions – and you always have a backup of each class. When characters inevitably die, as in cheap mid-game boss fights like the giant floating laser that can kill you in one hit and disintegrates cover spots, it’s a hassle rather than an emotional moment.
This isn’t to say that The Bureau isn’t sometimes an emotional experience. Sometimes a shootout can be deeply satisfying when the AI stops disregarding its safety. Pinning down a group of aliens outside a barn with well-placed grenades, or abilities like Carter’s blob helper that bonks enemies on the head, and sending two teammates in to flank them is an A-Team moment; you love it when that plan comes together.
The Bureau‘s bright spots are all too rare. The deeper you get into the game, the more frustrating it becomes. It may not be fair to criticize a game for being something it isn’t, but it’s not unreasonable to expect a certain level of quality from your story-driven gameplay. Why didn’t 2K Marin focus more on character development? Why wasn’t there more emphasize on 1960s technology and culture? Why not try to make more distinctive aliens and alien weapons rather than just making stuff that looks so familiar from a plethora of other games?
In the case of The Bureau, these questions have to be asked since the bones of a better game can be glimpsed underneath the piled bodies of your dim-witted squadmates. It could have been Mass Effect by way of Mad Men. Instead it’s just another shooter with aliens and a scratchy-voiced main character.
- Cool 1960s setting
- A novel twist on Mass Effect’s three-person squad shooting
- Plenty of fedoras
- Game-ruining artificial intelligence
- Poor writing and storytelling
- Generic settings and creature design
(This game was reviewed on the Xbox 360 using a copy provided by the publisher)