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Uncovering the Secrets of The Bureau: XCOM Declassified

After an extended disappearance, 2K Marin's XCOM shooter has resurfaced, and Alex had a chance to sit down and play it.

Sometimes, things just take a little longer than you'd expect. Take The Bureau: XCOM Declassified. 2K Marin began working on this tactically-minded shooter based in the XCOM universe around the same time Firaxis began its own work on its straight-up strategy game based on the original XCOM titles. However, we learned of 2K Marin's project long before XCOM: Enemy Unknown was ever unveiled to the public, mostly through a series of trailers and developer-controlled demos. The reaction to Declassified (then more ambiguously known as just "XCOM") was mixed, with some expressing distinct concern over the game's shooter gameplay, given the franchise's tradition as a pure strategy series.

Set in 1962, The Bureau aims to reveal the origins XCOM.
Set in 1962, The Bureau aims to reveal the origins XCOM.

Then, following a demo at E3 2011, 2K went radio silent. As the PR campaign for Enemy Unknown began to ramp up, many wondered if 2K Marin's game had simply been cancelled in the wake of the excitement surrounding Firaxis' game. As it turns out, it was actually the polar opposite.

Over the last couple of years, 2K Marin has been revamping significant parts of The Bureau in anticipation of a release date later this summer. Initially presented as a first-person shooter with third-person perspective moments tossed into the heat of battle, the developers decided during the course of development that it was all just too much. The constant darting in and out of perspectives made The Bureau unwieldy in a way that nobody intended, so it was decided that the game would revert to a strictly third-person perspective. Normally a publisher might bristle at funding such a fundamental change to a game already deep in development, but as has been the case with other recent 2K projects--most notably, the long-delayed, but generally acclaimed Spec Ops: The Line--2K Marin was granted the time and resources necessary to make the game they wanted.

The Bureau made its first appearance since 2011 at a recent press event, which also marked the first time anyone outside of 2K and its playtesters had actually been given the opportunity for hands-on time. I spent maybe 30 minutes playing through a few battle encounters and story beats, and came away pretty pleased with what I saw.

In The Bureau, you play as William Carter, an almost comically grizzled federal agent of the newly formed agency dedicated to eradicating the alien invaders that have begun to take over America. These aliens are, of course, of the same general type and design found in Enemy Unknown, a conscious decision made in collaboration with Firaxis. According to the developers, the two teams worked together to ensure that the aesthetics and content of the two games lined up, while still offering alterations inherent to The Bureau's status as a kind of prequel to the whole franchise.

Taking place in 1962, The Bureau follows the story of the first alien invasion on U.S. soil, AKA the event that helps spark the formation of the international XCOM seen in Enemy Unknown. In this invasion, giant towers have sprung up in numerous U.S. locations, and in the level we were shown, residents in the vicinity of these towers have been turned into mindless, mostly functionless zombies. Not the flesh-eating kind, mind you, but more the morose kind that just sort of wander aimlessly, trapped in the moment before whatever's infected them completely takes hold. If you ever saw the old Kids in the Hall movie, Brain Candy, it's basically the same comatose state that those who took Gleemonex suffered from, albeit without the benefit of being trapped in their happiest memory.

The mission I was allowed to play took place in a small town in New Mexico. Carter and his squadmates are dropped in to find out what happened to a previous team that had gone missing in the town. Right away, trouble arrives in the form of sectoids and mutons who are out for any human blood that dares wander into their field of view.

Battle Focus lets you command your squad on the fly, which, even with slowed time, can make firefights pretty hectic.
Battle Focus lets you command your squad on the fly, which, even with slowed time, can make firefights pretty hectic.

While The Bureau is, at its core, a pretty traditional third-person shooter, the tactical nature of the game's squad combat gives it a bit more of that distinctive XCOM flavoring. Pressing the "Battle Focus" button will bring up a command wheel in battle, which you can use to direct your squadmates to specific cover points, task them with specific targets, and have them engage special attacks. Carter himself was equipped with a kind of "lift" attack, which would bring a single enemy helplessly off the ground to get shot by everyone, whereas other team members could knock numerous enemies over with a single shockwave, or deploy turrets to help distract big bads away while also dealing decent damage. All of these attacks have significant cool down times, however, so you have to be mindful about when you choose to employ them.

Making smart use of your squad is integral to success. You can lone wolf it to a certain degree, as your compatriots will at least find quick cover and shoot back at enemies sans any orders from you. However, your purpose on the field is as much to command as it is to attack directly. 2K refers to your role affectionately as a "combat quarterback," where you're calling the plays on the field. If you're careless about how you deploy your associates, they'll end up badly injured, or worse.

In other games, you'd likely just get any fallen friends back at the end of the level and that would be that. But this being an XCOM game, perma-death is very much in play. You will have the chance to revive your men on the field, which in my experience wasn't too difficult to do, so long as you were careful about your movement. On normal and easy difficulties, revived squadmates will jump right back into the heat of battle. On hard, I'm told that the enemies will stay down for the duration of a mission, and only become available after your next trip to the command center. If you fail to revive a team member in time, that character will die for good. As with Enemy Unknown, you'll be able to add new recruits to your squad and level them up over time, so if you have a particularly strong squad member and he goes down for good, that's going to sting.

I never lost an ally during my battles, though that was mostly due to rigorous reviving and me being as careful as I could not to get blown away in the process. Granted, I only was given access to a pair of relatively early battles in the game, and while I went up against a few fairly tough enemies, I found that simply keeping a steadfast eye on the battlefield was enough to make sure my team never got overwhelmed. It helps that using the Battle Focus slows down time to a crawl, ensuring that you have just enough time to get each guy to the cover point you want, while not getting shot to hell in the process.

You will find plenty of familiar alien scum to eradicate.
You will find plenty of familiar alien scum to eradicate.

What I played of The Bureau: XCOM Declassified was pretty fun, and that's coming from someone who doesn't play a lot of tactical shooters. Commands are easy to use and generally quite effective, and the actual shooting--whether you're using earthbound weaponry, or any of the alien guns--felt good. Having never actually played the game when it was still a first-person thing, I can't say as to whether the shift in perspective has made any noteworthy improvement, but in its current state, the action on the battlefield felt fluid, frantic, and exciting.

If I have any concerns, they really only pertain to the game's difficulty balance and progression, which I wasn't able to really grasp onto during my brief time with it. If the developers at 2K Marin can manage to force players to stay on their toes, and constantly adjust strategies from encounter to encounter, then The Bureau could be awesome. If it relies too heavily on the same tactics and strategies throughout the game, then it could easily become a bit tedious.

Bear in mind that I am no XCOM purist. I only barely played the originals, and as such, any outrage that might have sparked when 2K first announced this shooter never managed to infect me. However, having enjoyed Enemy Unknown quite a bit, I was mostly pleasantly surprised by how The Bureau manages to evoke the basic vibe of that game while shifting both the time period, and the mechanics pretty drastically. It's a shooter that takes place in the '60s, but it still feels like the XCOM name totally belongs attached to it. We'll see if others agree when the game launches this August for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC.

Alex Navarro on Google+