bhlaab's The Bureau: XCOM Declassified (PC) review

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20% okay 80% miserable

When The Bureau was first announced as 'XCOM' it met with an understandable backlash. People assumed the publisher was trying to replace their favorite turn-based strategy game with an action shooter where you fight blobs with shotguns. But that was then. Nowadays we have two 'real' XCOM games behind us. Beyond even that, we have indie games like Xenonauts for the extreme purists. What I'm suggesting here is that the traditional XCOM audience is now well-served and I think there's room in the series for an action-tactics spin-off game that plays like Mass Effect.

The Bureau just is not it. It's not that I didn't have fun while playing it, because I did. For about two cumulative hours of the ten I spent with it. Unfortunately, the remaining 80% was absolutely miserable. And to be honest, those two hours were average at best.

The big problem is that the game only approaches fun when you and your two squad-mates have hit the level cap and completely filled out your special powers. When that occurs, you have some decent choices for approaching combat. You have summons, AoE attacks, mines, turrets, decoys, mind control... it's all pretty bog standard stuff, but it gives you something to do. On the other hand, when you don't have those things and you're a level 2 dorkling, The Bureau is a complete mess of a generic cover-shooter that is obnoxious in its punishing stupidity. The difficulty curve is inverted, with the very first post-tutorial mission being one of the game's most difficult and the late-game missions being fairly relaxed.

In the early goings it comes down to is this: if you or your teammates leave cover, you get destroyed by a barrage of enemy fire. If you stay in cover, you get destroyed by grenade spam. Because the AI acts like it's in a cover shooter, the enemy aliens are not intelligent adversaries to be outwitted. Instead they are a dumb instrument of brute force which, without the requisite levelling, can only be survived and outgunned, not out-strategized. You and your squaddies start the game as fragile and clumsy, to the extent that issuing orders seems meaningless. Regardless of their class, your squaddies begin with only one special ability apiece. Once used, it's put on a cooldown timer. During this cooldown, the squaddie is of no real utility. Ordering them to move across the battlefield in the hopes of finding a flanking position will only get them killed, which can have them removed from the game permanently depending on your difficulty level. One saving grace is that the main character starts the game with a spell that fully heals the party on a 60 second cooldown. It's so necessary that it ends up feeling like a band-aid in the game's shoddy design.

The growth in your allies power is simply that they begin as useless and end as competent. The enemies offer little in the way of growth on their own, which is perhaps why the difficulty is so off the wall. The very first mission puts you up against three major bosses you'll be facing throughout the entire game. There's a Muton, a Sectopod Tank, and a Gunship. Initially, these all go roughly the same way: they have too much health, they have complete movement dominance, and they can kill you and your squaddies in a second at any range. If you play to the end of the game you'll find that the final encounter is two Mutons wearing more armor. Before that you fight two Sectopod Tanks. That's the game's method of scaling difficulty and introducing new challenges: doing the same thing twice as much.

The interface and controls aren't great. Movement orders and Area of Effect-based powers require manually dragging a cursor around the arena with the WASD keys (as opposed to quickly steering with the mouse). It's a slow process made even more obnoxious by the fact that your selection cursor actually has collision with the environment. On elevated structures your cursor will have to take the stairs to reach lower levels. The cover system is poor. It's one of those third-rate cover shooters where sometimes the button to take cover doesn't work because it's at a yucky angle or something. Combined with the punishing difficulty, this is not ideal. I've died multiple times because the cover system refused to work. Navigating while stuck to walls is also a nightmare. Touching any of your squaddies in this state will bump them out of cover, which will have severe consequences for them. I've also had instances where the action for vaulting over the top of cover refused to work.

Missions are comically linear, with the aliens having carved convenient trenches through the world for our heroes to venture through. The basic gist of each: you go through hallways, then find yourself in a square room with a bunch of waist-high walls, and you start fighting the same enemies you just fought in the last mission again. If it's early in the game you go find which one of your squaddies has died and heal him, then wait for the other squaddie to come heal you when you've died trying to save him. If it's late in the game, you immediately proc all of your abilities at once and then shoot at whatever enters your line of sight while you wait for all the buttons on your hotbar to cool down.

Between missions you're sent back to the XCOM base. Unlike mainline XCOM games there is no sort of basebuilding whatsoever, so the main activity you'll be doing at your base is nothing. There are a few times you're obligated to walk from one end of the base to the other in order to speak to NPCs so that you can be told to go speak to another NPC. It's a waste of time and feels like a pointless leftover accessory from some previous iteration of the game where the base actually mattered. There is one computer terminal in the base which can be used to manage your squad and select missions. Everything besides that computer terminal is fluff. Uninteresting fluff, at that. There are NPCs to have conversations with, but you're never given much impetus to care about who they are or what they have to say in the first place. You speak to a generic solider or scientist, he relays that the aliens really should ought to be defeated, and you go on with your day.

"Half the world is dead and the other half is infected. Don't tell anyone though, it's a secret!"

The plot is oddly self-contradictory and nonsensical. For some reason the agents involved with the XCOM project are preoccupied with, "keeping this a secret," while at the same time insinuating that the entire military arm of the government has been wiped out. You walk through entire towns that have been literally torn apart and replaced with giant glowing towers. Alien soldiers wander the streets. Entire civilian population centers are littered with the dead. I know that news traveled slower back in the 1960s on account of there being no Twitter, but how is all this meant to be kept a secret? The plot is Mars Attacks! while the characters act like it's the X-Files. It's incongruous and confusing.

The Bureau seeks to explore the origins of XCOM as an organization, which is nonsensical. Every X-Com game explores the origins of the organization. The whole premise of the series is that you start with a blank map screen and build up your defenses from nothing. Even besides that, the idea is fundamentally broken because it only serves to answer a question nobody's ever asked. Who cares about the story in X-Com? If the game was meant to convince me that I should, it failed. If you're throwing out the management sim and tactical combat, all the brand appeal left are some iconic alien designs, and The Bureau throws most of those out anyway. It's like trying to write the legitimate origin story for Burger Time and then not having any walking sausages in it.

William Carter, our hero, is a punk of a man. He has a raspy Batman voice and growls about "payback time" when he's dropping bombs on aliens. When he meets his new X-Com officemate he's casually asked, "mind if I call you Will?"

"I DO mind," he hisses. Motherfucker, aliens just killed the world and you're being a sullen dick over a meaningless pleasantry because you prefer 'William.' Am I supposed to hear that and think he's a badass? Or take it as a lovable character flaw because he's so haunted by his past? Oh! I forgot to mention, William is haunted by his past. He has nightmares where he literally kneels in a spotlight and cries out like the star of a one-woman show. The presentation of Carter's pathos is so hamfisted that I assumed it would culminate in an 'epic plot twist' where the aliens reveal that he's a sleeper agent and all of his memories are fake. I wasn't so lucky. There is an epic plot twist, but it's much stupider than that and more than a little desperate to capture the same metatextual magic as Bioshock. It's clever, but pedestrian in its mimickry.

It's also telling. In a lot of ways, The Bureau feels like exactly what it is: an XCOM game made by ex-Bioshock devs. The systems aren't put together very well and the action is odd and clunky feeling, but the environment and UI artists put in some good work. In a game like Bioshock, that can work. You can leverage against those deficiencies with things like 'atmosphere' and 'writing'. It just doesn't work here, because the XCOM brand demands the systems be the priority. That's what XCOM is. The results here feel like a space shuttle designed by art students.

Other reviews for The Bureau: XCOM Declassified (PC)

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