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Hands-on with ‘The Bureau: XCOM Declassified,’ a fresh game built on old style

Silo_Issue_OrderFor some, the post war era in America, throughout the 50s and into the early 60s, is considered a “Golden Age.” It was a time when the country was coming into its own, when, as Churchill put it after World War II, America was “at the summit of the world.” The nation was in the midst of a boom it thought would never end, as technology took us into space and Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway System helped to define America while connecting it. Of course, a closer look at the era reveals a darker truth, with racism running rampant, McCarthyism ruining lives, and sexism so blatant that it’s laughable by today’s standards. Yet despite it all, the era had style.

It’s in this pocket of stylized Americana that The Bureau exists. The game doesn’t shy away from the negatives, but it revels in the positives. It has a swagger in its look and presentation. The characters are hard-nosed stereotypes of tough men and dishy dames, but that’s just the jacket. Underneath is a game made for gamers. It may not offer the mass appeal that many other triple-A games have, but it offers a fresh take on third-person tactics that should thrill XCOM fans, and create new ones in its wake.

Story/Concept

The World on a String. Before there was an XCOM to fight off a global alien invasion, there was The Bureau, a secret organization originally created to prepare for the possibility of a Soviet invasion of the United States, but repurposed when a global communications blackout is revealed to be the harbinger of an alien invasion. That same blackout also means information disseminated to the public can be controlled. The aliens want something specific so the attacks are localized rather than global, which means the ongoing intergalactic war is a secret one.

Prelude_Approach_Lab_EncAll for one. The Bureau is all about teamwork when it comes to gameplay, but the story revolves around William Carter, a once promising FBI agent and former war hero whose life took an ugly turn following the death of his family. Even with the specter of alcoholism and apathy hanging over him, The Bureau’s boss, Director Faulke, trusted Carter enough to keep him on the short list for initiation. When aliens attack the military base Carter and Faulke are both on, Carter earns the truth and becomes a team leader in the only agency prepared to fight back against an overwhelmingly powerful alien enemy, even as he wrestles with his own demons.

Welcome to the Bureau. In the Bureau’s clandestine base, Carter is free to wander around between missions and interact with characters, tinker with his team and weapon loadouts, and then select an assignment. There will always be a main storyline for him to accept, but standalone sidequests will pop up, offering a bigger picture for the overall events, as well as giving you the chance to level up both Carter and his pool of supporting team members.

Lab_Sectoid_Drop_PodGameplay

Third Down. The Bureau is a third person shooter, but it also demands that you treat it like an RPG and a tactical game. There are even multiple endings based on your play and your choices. The aliens have the ability to infect humans and render them docile or even take control, so you will occasionally be faced with a difficult choice that involves the life or death of characters you know well. You control Carter, and the two characters you take with you on each mission obey commands you issue them via a radial command wheel you can pull up at any time, which slows the gameplay to 10-percent normal speed, but doesn’t stop the action. You can try – and you may be tempted – to let the AI take charge of your teammates and simply let them dodge and fire back, but it will get you killed. The Bureau is not an easy game, and it constantly requires you to adapt.

Signal_Approach_Leffelman'sDon’t get attached. The pool of teammates you can choose is comprised of randomly generated characters, or characters you create – although there is no benefit to creating your own characters beyond getting a sense of personalization. Every potential teammate falls into one of four classes: Commando, Engineer, Recon, and Support. Each class has its own abilities, but each one is static, so once you level them up, two characters in the same class function identically – which is good, because when they die in the field, they are lost forever. If you want even more of a challenge, you can play the “Commander” difficulty, which allows you to stabilize wounded teammates for extraction, but not revive them. Leveling up several characters you can fall back on is essential.

Power Through. When you start with teammates at level one, they will be mostly relegated to flanking and using their firearms. As they progress to level five, they unlock abilities based on their class; the engineer can lay turrets, the commando can taunt, the support can throw down shields, etc. Each class can be useful in a specific setting, but it also comes down to personal preference. Carter also can be upgraded, but this will happen simply by playing the game.

Weapons up. Once your team is in the field, combining abilities, flanking, and choosing your attacks is key. You also need to constantly be on the move. Staying in one place will get you rushed. Enemy AI is reactive. If you outnumber them, they may stay under cover, but if a shield generating enemy orb appears, they may take the advantage and charge. It’s easy to just rely on Carter’s shooting and get lost in the competent shooter mechanics. But it takes more than just firing quickly to survive.

Presentation

Mad Men. The era of the 50s and early 60s has a distinct visual flair, mixing art deco designs with the imagined future inspired by the dawn of the space age. It also projects the concept of a cleaner and simpler time… as long as you don’t look too closely. The so-called “Golden Age” of America is fondly remembered by those who wrote the history – generally middle and upper class white men. For everyone else, it wasn’t all that great. The game tackles that. It’s always a background issue compared to the alien attacks, but 2K Marin doesn’t hide from it, and there are echoes of it thoughout – like the misogyny the female second-in-command faces, or the plight of a character that is gay.

Dairy_AgentsHats off. Putting aside the real historical issues of the time, the game romanticizes the era, creating an intriguing world that feels fresh compared to the litany of modern, space-based, and historical shooters. It also highlights the best of the period. The characters have style. When a behatted Carter is knocked back and loses his fedora, he will stop to pick it up, then smoothly place it back on his head. He smokes, he drinks, he doesn’t take guff. It all works, and odds are you’ll end up yearning to consume some other media based on the time, maybe a movie or book set in that time frame.

The Rocket Age. One of the tricks in keeping the era feel immersive is in using period-specific items, from ads to posters to music. That also defines the weaponry, and 2K Marin was very deliberate in this, going so far as to avoid things that may have been possible, if not common. For instance, in 1962, the year the game is set, the Colt M16 was a prototype. It wouldn’t officially be adopted for another year, but it could have been justifiably included. Instead, 2K Marin made certain to feature the M14, which was in service at the time. You’ll still find plenty of sophisticated alien weapons you can use (that’s why Carter wears a gauntlet), but the attention to detail was exact. There are a few exceptions though, like the Air Force’s top secret, futuristic looking experimental Project 1794 aircraft, which was actually built in 1956, and is ironically the only flying saucer in the game. 

Takeaway

Signal_KNOV_Enc_01_JWAt its center, The Bureau is a third person shooter. For the rest of the game to have a chance of succeeding, 2K Marin needed to nail this aspect, and it did. The primary controls are solid, which makes the inclusion of the tactical options less of a chore and more of a way to keep you constantly engaged. You can’t fake it, you need to learn to think as a team, or you will die, and often.

The Bureau is a fresh and intriguing take on third person shooters, but it isn’t as accessible as a game like Max Payne 3 or the Gears of War franchise. This may make it a harder sell for mainstream audiences, but it is a refreshingly deep and original look at a shooter that will stand on its own, even if you’ve never played an XCOM game before.