If you are wondering whether The Bureau: XCOM Declassified should make its way into your games collection, allow me to ask you two questions: Did you enjoy XCOM Enemy Unknown and do you like the combat mechanics of Mass Effect? If you answered yes to both of these then Declassified should be at the top of your ‘to buy’ list. Striking a great balance between XCOM’s style and tactics with Mass Effect’s squad combat, Declassified places you into the boots of the squad Commander able to take the fight to the aliens first hand and direct your two-man squad via a Mass Effect style radial command window.
XCOM is renowned for its difficulty, punishing those that go rushing in and not using the tools at their disposal effectively, the Bureau is no different and if an agent dies in the field then that is it – chalk up another name on the Memorial Wall. The difficulty levels offer something for all types of player, Commander where the enemy is tough and agents may only be stabilised when downed, to Squaddie where you can revive downed agents and tweak your squad members mid mission at supply stations. There is also a Rookie setting but to be honest I found Squaddie rather easy and should have played the game through on Veteran – I struggled at first with the final encounter where the difficulty spiked, throwing all manner of enemies at me en masse.
Set in 1960s America, you play as agent William Carter who stumbles into the service of The Bureau. The game follows the early days of the XCOM initiative, including the arrival of new technology and meeting the aliens for the first time. The development of the game has a rocky history, starting life out as an FPS, before going through several iterations and a name change to what it is today, this is evident in a somewhat patchy set of character conversations – dialogue doesn’t alway tie together well in a conversation chain. These scenes also have some dodgy character animations, with each character’s eyes looking so vacant that they make the Thunderbirds look real. Thankfully the story is quite entertaining especially as it concludes, so you will endure the many optional conversations but let’s be honest, we aren’t here for superior scripting, we are here for that epic XCOM strategy and The Bureau delivers reasonably well if you allow yourself to play the game as it’s been designed.
Games like Minecraft are limited to your own creativity, The Bureau is similar, it’s easy to allow yourself to let the game play as a standard third person shooter but play creatively with the tools at your disposal and the Bureau can be extremely rewarding. If you head through the levels like Delta Squad in a Gears of War title, The Bureau loses its charm and the gameplay will feel more like a grind. The Bureau draws heavily from Mass Effect’s multiplayer, especially the use of the combat wheel. By playing at higher difficulties, you will have to play tactically – rushing in is a sure-fire way to getting agents killed. There’s even an achievement for playing through an operation without the player firing a gun or throwing a grenade, much like the Mirror’s Edge achievement, awarded for playing the game in it’s purest form.
Using the environment to your advantage was key to victory in XCOM Enemy Unknown and The Bureau is no different, moving in, out, over and around cover is perfectly implemented – smooth and not in the least bit clumsy making those tense firefights a joy without having to wrestle with a poor control scheme. Your squad can be guided via the combat wheel or by pressing up on the dpad to send them to a location or attack a target, press down and they return to your position. It’s worth noting that you can fine tune their movements via the combat wheel and queue up movement – move them with one command and they may just run straight out in front of enemy fire so it’s always worth plotting a more accurate and safe route.
Tactics are similar to how you’d tackle XCOM, utilising buff abilities and direct attacks while setting up flanking movement to gain that all important 200% attack – it’s very Brothers in Arms without the boring suppression system. Rather than turn based, The Bureau’s action takes place in real-time although while the combat wheel is active the game slows down allowing you to choose your moves carefully and queue up actions. Once the choke points/firefights have been cleared, the squad can be regrouped so you needn’t have to guide them step-by-step through the whole level.
Left to their own devices, agents will die placing the onus on you to make the right tactical choices, they are far from mannequins standing idly by allowing themselves to be shot at without returning fire, but they won’t make important decisions like when to flank or use an ability. It’s balanced extremely well, never taking away the power of your command or taking over with superior AI that could complete the mission without you having to so much as lift a finger. My only complaint about the mission structure was that there wasn’t enough freedom to the play space. Levels feel cramped and terribly linear, herding you through tight corridors into wider spaces where the next firefight takes place. There isn’t any effort put into masking the confines of the play space either – wooden crates, crashed cars or debris blocks your path or restricts you from exploring. You will also find that there isn’t much variety to each mission, although the same could be said of XCOM.
One place you are left to explore freely is your underground base, which doubles up as the hub world, with only a few locations accessible during investigation missions which are fetch objectives given to you by a variety of personnel located around the base. It’s here that The Bureau dons its RPG hat and gives you the chance to explore the story and characters through conversation wheels. There is no XP awarded for their completion, this is earned by completing main and secondary missions, you may also send out groups of agents on ‘Dispatch missions’, similar to the Assassin’s Creed recruit contracts. Each mission has a risk rating represented as a complexity number, match this in the combined squad rank of the agents you send and you’ll have no trouble with completion, awarding the agents with XP and new equipment.
Each agent can specialise in a particular class and is assigned an additional specialism giving extra perks to an attribute like firearms or health. Each agent has a 5 level skill tree that they can progress through in order to gain better skills. As Commander you have 10 levels and access to all the weapons that you’ve come across during gameplay, unlike agents who are tied to a weapon set that matches their class. As well as these permabuffs there are several backpack schematics, one in each mission, once found and equipped they will give an additional buff to your attributes and unlike the perks and abilities, can be changed in the load out screen.
I absolutely loved XCOM Enemy Unknown and so it may come as no surprise that The Bureau would strike a similar chord with me. Being plunged directly into the boots of a playable character on the XCOM battlefield was something I would have loved from Enemy Unknown, The Bureau not only satisfies this but starts at the beginning of the XCOM story. It may borrow heavily from Mass Effect’s multiplayer and squad combat but The Bureau is a good game, mixing the intensity of those multiplayer battles with the tactics of XCOM.