Quick Look: The Bureau: XCOM Declassified

Brad has a groovy time shooting aliens and wearing a vest, but that framerate? Most ungroovy.

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The Bureau: XCOM Declassified Review

3
  • X360
  • PC

An entertaining combat system props up this otherwise clunky, harebrained sci-fi action game.

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.

As William Carter, you are our last line of defense against the alien threat. Well, you and the two guys you constantly order around.

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.

Issuing commands to your squad is quick and easy, and the variety of abilities you have at your disposal keeps the combat relatively fresh from encounter to encounter.

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.

In theory, keeping your agents alive is crucial, though on most difficulty settings, I didn't have much trouble keeping them around.

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.

Alex Navarro on Google+
94 Comments
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Posted by DeadeyeMcCoy

Bit of a bummer! But I'll still pick it up.

Posted by sumjugei

I had hoped for more. Ah well, back to my backlog....

Edited by ColumnBreaker

Seeing the XCOM mythos from a close-up perspective is a fascinating proposition, but this really seems like they took the worst part of Mass Effect and slapped it on an underdone story. The balls to charge $60 for it.. man.

Online
Posted by Vance_Helsing

Haven't gotten around to playing Enemy Unknown, would be interested in snagging that & this in a bundle for < $30 or something. Still think this game has some neat ideas that'd make me willing to check it out down the line.

Edited by wumbo3000

From the quick look, the combat seemed fun enough. From the review, it looks like the story doesn't hold up its end of the bargain. Good review Alex.

Edited by UricTheOddball

This is one I'll probably wait to show up cheap on a Steam Sale... Bummer, really liked the initial idea of looking at the beginning of XCOM.

Posted by Encephalon

God. I need to know what happens in this game now.

Edited by MrGtD

If this was in Redbox, I would pick it up so fast. It seems like a great Steam sale/$15 "play it on a lazy weekend, enjoy it well enough" game.

Edited by mrcraggle

Despite people shitting over the original pitch, I thought it looked pretty interesting.

I was hoping this is what we'd get after the release of Enemy Unknown but in the end we got little more than a game that plays a lot like Mass Effect or Gears of War.

Edited by GaspoweR

I have feeling that if they just reined in some of the more ambitious aspects of the game and made it into a leaner, tighter and more polished experience than this would've came out a lot better than it is now.

Posted by Draxyle

I suppose it could have been much worse, given what it could have ended up being, but this is a game that probably could have done a lot better releasing a month or two earlier away from all these other bigger releases (which, of course, probably wasn't possible).

Posted by seannao

Thanks for the review! Maybe down the line some of those technical issues will get ironed out by the time it goes on sale several months down the line.

Edited by Chumley_Marchbanks

Just a quick heads up to anyone on the PC version: turn both of the PhysX settings as well as Screen Space Reflections off and then restart the game. SSR is a massive resources hog and, for some absurd reason, the PhysX features actually reduce overall GPU usage (and I don't mean they hog usage, I mean they basically cap it). You'll lose some of the nice reflections and particles, but it's either that or play a slideshow.

Posted by TheManWithNoPlan

It'll be a nice rental.

Posted by Code601

I am surprised you did not have a negative experience with the AI. For me the Agents seem to manage to get in trouble every time. They will just stand up and fire even if an enemy is already shooting at them, they only stay in cover to reload and then just stand back up if its safe or not. Unless I nurse them and set their targets or abilities they are useless at killing the enemy, I just find playing that way absolutely boring.

Posted by Rahr012

Alex "3outof5" Navarro strikes again.

Great review Wolf

Posted by Nekroskop

You are way too kind, Alex.

Posted by Irvandus

@mrcraggle: Agreed. Makes me wish it was announced after Enemy Unknown so it could have ducked under all the initial fan hate.

Posted by dOm_CaTz

I feel like if this was given a few more months to cook(either last week of november or 1st week of december) it would be a better game for it.

Posted by This_is_not_my_face

Will get it on a steam sale

Posted by ManlyBeast

I'm half way through this and this review seems legit . The combat is fun but aggravating sometimes. The same enemies over and over and I hate when my teammates move across the map without my orders! I'm playing on veteran and it's hard but not too hard. The story has been so so and hearing it gets worst isn't a good thing to read right now.

Overall it's a good game at times and a bad one at times. three out of five seems logical.

Posted by McGhee

Well I thought the faces looked really nice anyway.

Edited by vikingdeath1

Yup, once it's half off i'll give it a go!

Edited by fisk0

Despite people shitting over the original pitch, I thought it looked pretty interesting.

I was hoping this is what we'd get after the release of Enemy Unknown but in the end we got little more than a game that plays a lot like Mass Effect or Gears of War.

Yeah, I really loved what they showed back in 2010. I bought this hoping there would still be a semblance of that in there, somewhere.

In the review Alex talks about the other X-COM games as if they were all turn based strategy games, which wasn't true though. Only about half of the previous X-COM games were turn based (X-COM: UFO Defense, X-COM: Terror from the Deep and 2012's XCOM: Enemy Unknown), the others were straying into all kinds of genres - X-COM Apocalypse kept somewhat close to the series' roots by being a real time strategy game, but set in a cyberpunk mega-city with corporations fighting each others and the aliens. X-COM: Enforcer was a goddamn terrible third person shooter and X-COM: Interceptor was a space sim with X-COM's base building and research stuff thrown in. I wouldn't mind if they gave Interceptor another try, by the way, it's issues were mostly in the execution, especially it's many bugs, rather than the concept, which I loved.

Posted by GermanBomber

After watching the Quick Look three stars is kinda what I expected...I'm actually more excited for Enemy Within now, but I'll probably pick this up for 30€ just because it says XCOM on the cover.

Good review, Alex.

Posted by MATATAT

I thought it would be cool if they had both the ME style squad tactics as well as like a paused overview tactical setup that would look more like XCOM.

Edited by clush

I got enough fun out of this for its money, and the performance is just fine on my humble PC. This review seems fair... best parts are really the combat and the atmosphere, the rest is serviceable at best.

I don't think this game deserves all the hate it seems to be getting, it's got some cool things going for it. 3 stars seems about right.

It might not be what people were hoping for, but that doesn't mean it's trash. If you think you might like this game, don't be too scared to give it a go.

Posted by Sin4profit

I feel like this game originally had a three act structure and they axed the first act when they realised their gameplay was boring, and frustrating in spots, while trying to bolt pieces of the story back together to get it out the door.

Online
Posted by mrcraggle

@fisk0 said:

@mrcraggle said:

Despite people shitting over the original pitch, I thought it looked pretty interesting.

I was hoping this is what we'd get after the release of Enemy Unknown but in the end we got little more than a game that plays a lot like Mass Effect or Gears of War.

Yeah, I really loved what they showed back in 2010. I bought this hoping there would still be a semblance of that in there, somewhere.

In the review Alex talks about the other X-COM games as if they were all turn based strategy games, which wasn't true though. Only about half of the previous X-COM games were turn based (X-COM: UFO Defense, X-COM: Terror from the Deep and 2012's XCOM: Enemy Unknown), the others were straying into all kinds of genres - X-COM Apocalypse kept somewhat close to the series' roots by being a real time strategy game, but set in a cyberpunk mega-city with corporations fighting each others and the aliens. X-COM: Enforcer was a goddamn terrible third person shooter and X-COM: Interceptor was a space sim with X-COM's base building and research stuff thrown in. I wouldn't mind if they gave Interceptor another try, by the way, it's issues were mostly in the execution, especially it's many bugs, rather than the concept, which I loved.

I'm not so versed on the XCOM series so when people raged about this, I didn't understand. I just saw something that looked potentially interesting and still does even with the release of this game. Even when they last showed this game as a first person shooter, it did look like they had moved away from this original concept. This has been one weird generation where we've seen some cool stuff with a lot of potential but the game either fails to live up to those expectations (Aliens:CM), is canned all together (Prey 2) or changes core concepts to work (Bioshock: Infinite).

Posted by amir90

10 hour, not as good as the former XCOM, and it demands full price?
Also the EURO went up, like a lot. Holy shit, what a bad day.

Posted by Cold_Wolven

It's a shame it turned out like this but I still want to give this game a go, perhaps through a Steam sale and the frame rate has been fixed with updates.

Edited by BeachThunder

All aboard the Enemy Within train!

Edited by AngriGhandi

I can't believe they took the obviously correct premise of "it's like Men in Black, but with Mad Men" and turned it into "Independence Day, but with Mad Men clothes, kind of."

I mean, doesn't the "Area 51 Cold War paranoia" backdrop perfectly suggest that the game should be about conspiracies and deniable operations, and not full-blown warfare?

And it was the early days of the agency, too! Wouldn't it make more sense for them to start small and--

Arrg, nevermind, fuck it; I'll just rent this game.

Posted by HerbieBug

Ah, that's disappointing. This game had potential to be something better.

Edited by Baal_Sagoth

Yeah, that seems about right. Very much in line with the impressions I got from the QL, QLEX and various first impressions unfortunately. I might still give this a shot at some point but I rather doubt it. Also, the magic brace that seems to conveniently give Carter Mass Effect abilities really infuriates me to an irrational degree. The universe already offers psionic abilities hidden in the human genome! Why go this nonsensical route? Though, for all I know they might explain that away at some point. Would've been really cool if they'd pulled of an outstanding game after all the development trouble and skepticism in true "Fuck the haters" fashion. Seems like they ended up with a decently competent but ultimately generic and mediocre game.

Edit: I just read up on what seems to be a signficant lategame twist because I needed to know. Not being aware of the in-game context, and presuming the internet didn't lie to me, I'd say that seems potentially really dumb in a good way? It sounds like plot-hole heaven and far too convenient to deal with all the prequel problems but it makes me slightly more interested in the SciFi cheese I suppose.

Posted by Undeadpool

Sums up my reaction pretty well:

Posted by Undeadpool

Sums up my reaction pretty well:

Posted by KittyVonDoom

Imagine if people had reviewed XCOM EU and counted the ridiculous story, cartoon characters and logic holes against it.

Posted by xxizzypop

Imagine if people had reviewed XCOM EU and counted the ridiculous story, cartoon characters and logic holes against it.

It's almost like there were other factors in EU that completely made up for how cheesy the story was, like gameplay or something.

There are plenty of people who (as they should) hold EU to negative criticism for it's god awful endgame though.

Posted by DedBeet

Shame they weren't allowed to create their original game. I would've liked to have seen how that one turned out.

Edited by Parsnip

I like dumb sci-fi, and marry that with the 60s, this might be a good half price game for me.

Assuming they patch some of the technical issues out.

Posted by LarryDavis

@branthog said:

Back to SR4, I guess . . . even though that has been disappointing. SR4 is no SR3.

You are a maniac.

Posted by mewarmo990

Drew Scanlon, Real Games Journalist!

Posted by SilentBob251

That's unfortunate. I thought the latest build of the game looked truly promising. That Mad Men-60's feel is an atmosphere so ripe for video games. It looked like it was going to be a great game to explore and figure out. I guess my hopes were too high that they would be able to pull it off after that crazy development cycle. I'm still super interested in checking it out, but after buying SR4 and Splinter cell, and with the upcoming release of GTA V, I'll let this one fall to $20. I'm sure it will get a heavy discount either on or before Black Friday. I agree with Patrick that I just have to see how it all ended up after rebooting that game several times. A brilliant failure can be just as fascinating as a brilliant success.

Posted by InfamousBIG

@branthog said:

Back to SR4, I guess . . . even though that has been disappointing. SR4 is no SR3.

You are a maniac.

It's definitely no SR2.

/joking?

Edited by WeaponBoy

To anyone experiencing performance issues on the PC:

Turn off reflections and set shadows to medium detail!

Seriously, those two settings turned my i7+Radeon 7950 from a pathetic 15-30 FPS to 60-70 with no noticeable drop in quality (I found the shadows stuttery as hell, anyway).

As for the game, I don't get why people are acting like this is somehow a terrible awful very bad game. I mean, 3 stars is not a 'bad' score. The combat is fun (though a bit rough in the first couple of missions) and offers as much complexity as you want with a pretty dumb story tacked on. As long as you're ok with something more like X-Files/Outer Limits and not 2001, then you'll be fine.

The odd thing to me is how they tried to hype the difficulty. Odds are good that in any situation where you lose one guy you'll probably get killed yourself which means you load the last checkpoint and everyone is alive again. It's not even savescumming, it honestly seems like it is next to impossible to lose a teammate because of this.

Posted by bybeach

There is a bitter tone in the review that correctly is not reflected in the score. I've only played 45 minutes of it so easy to dismiss me, but I can already understand in the tech issues. I am becoming game-wise depressed about the story. Thankfully Killzone 3 waited till near the very end to self destruct. I will have to see for myself, sounds like it starts earlier in Bureau: X-Com Declassified..

Posted by Tajasaurus

I've been having fun with it, though you team mate's AI can be pretty infuriating at times. Also occasional shitty checkpoints. I'm not bummed I bought it, though.

Posted by Brendan

@dedbeet said:

Shame they weren't allowed to create their original game. I would've liked to have seen how that one turned out.

It's not that they weren't allowed, it's that they couldn't do it. They tried for years. Certain things could have played out differently, but the initial ideas were too unwieldy, and the amount of time and freedom they were given only allowed time for damage control rather than a measured refocusing of core concepts.

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