The Bureau: XCOM Declassified never quite presents a clear vision of what it wants to be. That might seem like an easy criticism to lob at a game that's spent numerous years in development under different directions and genres, but the final product's issues seem less the result of a team harried by constant delays, and more the result of an underlying concept too outsized for its own good.
The simple logline for The Bureau is that it wants to tell the story of the earliest days of XCOM, the world's united force against alien invaders most recently resurrected in Firaxis' excellent strategy game XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Whereas that game took place in a sort of near future vision of Earth, The Bureau goes back to the 1960s, when the alien visitors first came looking for trouble. Throughout the game, you play as Agent William Carter, a gruff, no-nonsense ex-CIA operative who finds himself in the middle of a burgeoning war between our planet and extraterrestrial forces almost entirely by accident. After surviving an initial assault, you're recruited into XCOM and given a team of agents to command.
This is the aspect of The Bureau that most closely resembles the strategy games of old. Eschewing the turn-based methodology of the other games, here you'll be in real-time combat as you command your duo of agents around the battlefields of America. Simple commands like moving agents into cover or picking specific targets for them to focus on eventually give way to more intriguing abilities. Your agents, depending on what class they work under, can launch gun and missile turrets, lay down mines, knock back enemies with pulse weapons, develop one-shot kill abilities, and even call down airstrikes. Meanwhile, you have your own set of alien technology-culled abilities, which range from simple lifts of enemies out of cover, to straight up mind-controlling enemy combatants.
This is also the part of The Bureau that works the best. The sheer variety of abilities at your disposal ensures that combat sequences are hectic, but almost never overly confusing. Only a game-ending battle between an overabundance of enemies really tests the nerves. The rest of the time, you'll be out on various missions, either story-focused or side ventures. Most of these are pretty breezy, though cranking the difficulty up will certainly enrich the challenge. You'll need to be on the higher settings if you really want the game's version of the XCOM permadeath system to mean anything anyway. On all settings but the highest, I rarely had any issue keeping my agents alive and well-stocked between missions, which made me wonder why the system was even there in the first place.
The only real issue with the combat is that the game's level designs rarely allow for much surprise. If you find yourself in a big open area with lots of cover points, odds are you're about to find yourself in a fight. If you're just about anywhere else, you might find one or two scattered enemies floating about, but nothing you really need any tactics for. One of the tenets of the XCOM series is its pervasive sense of dread, the notion that a team-destroying threat could be awaiting you at just about any turn. The Bureau has almost none of that, focusing instead on its deeply silly sci-fi storyline to keep you engaged between bouts of shooting whatever happens to be alive and in your field of vision.
About that storyline: While the idea of exploring the roots of the XCOM division is a nifty one, The Bureau handles this exceptionally poorly almost right from the beginning. One problem is the game's sense of scope. It goes straight for the apocalyptic jugular right from the start, meaning there's no real room to explore, get to know the characters you're working with, or really understand what the hell is going on until the game gets around to info dumping a bunch of exceedingly dumb junk on you toward the end. It's hard to explain the endgame of The Bureau without just spoiling it, but suffice it to say it pulls from a gaggle of well-worn sci-fi cliches, and uses them all rather poorly.
It's a shame, because The Bureau captures the atmosphere of its setting rather well. The game crafts a nice balance between its early '60s time period and the invasive alien technology surrounding it, and a solid cast of voice actors do a decent job of keeping you interested, even as the script devolves into absolute nonsense. There's a great soundtrack too, mixing a period-appropriate score with a few pop hits from the era.
But that atmosphere is all but wasted by the jumps in logic, bizarre character decisions, and plot holes the size of an alien mothership. The script constantly tries to talk its way out of ludicrous situations, but never does so in a way that feels satisfactory or even halfway sensible. Even when you think the game is finally wrapping itself up, it keeps finding ways to keep the adventure going, falling deeper and deeper into a rabbit hole of inexplicable nonsense that it doesn't really even bother to try and climb its way out of.
The game's various tech issues don't help much either. I played The Bureau on both the PC and Xbox 360, and both versions featured frequent frame rate drops and hitches that got worse and worse the more enemies the game decided to throw at me. Animation glitches (especially from downed enemies, who have some real issues due to the ragdoll physics employed), audio hiccups, and even the occasional seemingly missing cutscene reared their head as well. If I had to pick a favored version, I suppose it would be the 360 one. The PC version generally had a very hard time running on a PC I usually have no problems with.
Somewhere, buried underneath years of reworked development, scrapped and revamped ideas, and a whole host of problems, is a version of The Bureau worth getting excited about. Maybe if it had scaled back the scope of its X-Files-meets-the era of Mad Men concept, focusing on the earliest incursions of the massive conflict brought to bear in Enemy Unknown, it might have helped rein in some of the crazier, stupider, and more aggressively junky portions of the game. As is, The Bureau makes for a decent enough 10 hours of alien-obliterating combat, but all the way through you'll find yourself lamenting the many aspects that feel like they could have, and should have, been better.