A huge disappointment for fans of both the XCOM series weakly held up by some sub-par combat
Whenever a game’s development cycle is so lengthy that the original game gets completely scrapped, it’s safe to assume that the game won’t bust any sales charts. Unfortunately, the Bureau: XCOM Declassified isn't an exception to this rule and I think it’s fair to say that the troublesome development is what ruined this potentially good game. The Bureau plays around with some interesting ideas but fails to successfully execute them, making it a pretty huge disappointment for fans of the XCOM series.
The Bureau aims to explain the origins of the alien ass-kicking XCOM program by tracing it back to its Cold War roots. It reveals that the XCOM program was already in place as a back up plan to defend against the Russians, but aliens invaded Earth their priorities changed. The story does a pretty poor job of actually explaining the origins of XCOM, however, as it skips many details (such as where the name XCOM comes from) and many of the details that are revealed are lazily explained. The Bureau’s story is nothing to get excited about and eventually falls off into unbelievable nonsense later on. Most of the characters are just boring clichés especially William Carter (that’s you) who’s nothing more than your average hardened war vet with a tragic past called back to duty for some catastrophic event (in this case its aliens).
For some reason, the Bureau isn't happy with just being a tactical third-person shooter and so decides to throw in a dialogue wheel ripped straight out of Mass Effect. The dialogue wheel acts as nothing more than a filler in-between each mission; it feels completely out of place and unnecessary, with most the dialogue being far too boring to listen to anyway. Much like the clichéd characters and lacklustre story, the writing in this game is pretty poor with some corny sprinkled on top so that the wartime clichés don’t get lonely. The out of place dialogue wheel would be bad enough if it wasn't for the disappointingly mundane world. The lack of exploration in missions, bad writing, and boring dialogue make the game too unengaging to actually want to find out more.
The main thing that 2k Marin were hyping up about this game was the tactical combat that would supposedly blend with the 3rd person shooting to make some great combat, and to be fair to them the combat is best part of XCOM Declassified. When you’re not shooting spaceman with your depressingly underpowered rifles you’ll spend the rest of combat in the “tactical wheel” (it’s actually more of a tactical action bar if you’re playing on PC) issuing commands to your brainless companions. Much like in Enemy Unknown everybody has an assigned class that will determine what abilities they can unlock, but unfortunately that’s pretty much where the similarities between the two games end. There’s a very limited progression system where you allocate skill points, but characters can only level 5 times and the skills lack the depth that made Enemy Unknown’s skill points so much more interesting.
Using the tactical wheel is, for the most part, fairly responsive and you really can’t get through the game by just shooting everything. Combat can get quite frustrating at times, however, since you can still be shot when using tactical mode and friendly AI will immediately fire off abilities instead of allowing you to queue them up with other abilities. In the heat of combat trying to use abilities becomes a desperate scramble to fire off as many as possible before getting shredded by alien lasers. One of my main frustrations with the combat is that when you deploy a turret or want to throw down some combat stims in a specific area you have to actually manoeuvre up stairs and around walls, which can cause it to get stuck on barriers and completely ruins the flow of combat.
XCOM, I almost feel guilty calling this an XCOM game, has quite a colourful aesthetic that does a great job of capturing the 60’s setting of the game. Level design is often quite bland with many areas being repeated throughout the game. The game generally looks okay and on PC it runs pretty well on medium to high settings with some major FPS drops when screen reflections are enabled. The sound design is generally pretty good: voice acting is poor in most areas, but Lee from Telltale’s The Walking Dead makes a quick cameo to up the standard a bit before it goes back to being bland and boring. Weapons sound okayish and certainly pack a nice kick and the soundtrack is the usual over-the-top high octane action movie noise.
Overall, The Bureau: XCOM Declassified only manages to declassify how not to do the story, progression, exploration, writing, and pretty much everything else in a video game. The combat is the only half-decent thing in this game and even that is riddled with frustrating issues.