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After Enemy Unknown this was something of a disappointment.
on 24 August 2013
'The Bureau: XCOM declassified' is a tactical shooter somewhat in the style of Mass Effect that takes place in the U.S in 1962, a period filled with fear and paranoia, when the Cold War was getting hot, the space race was just beginning and the Communists were expected to attack at any moment - but when the attack did come it was not from where it was expected...
In the game you play William Carter, a hard faced agent with more than a little bit of Clint Eastwood attitude about him. As Carter you will lead its field missions against the alien menace.
At the beginning of the game you only have access to the technology of the time - things such as the Colt 1911 pistol, the M-14 rifle, shotgun, sniper rifles and fragmentation grenades.
You will collect better and more effective weaponry and technology as you complete missions, however unlike previous XCOM games, whilst your base has a research lab you will not research new technology yourself; Instead you will find new examples of alien tech and blueprints for new devices which will then become availible.
Whilst new weapons will be more powerful than previous ones, when it comes to mission time there really isnt much of a difference from one weapon to another - your laser rifle might fire red shots but it really doesnt sound or feel any more meaty than the basic M-14, a scatter laser is stronger than your shotgun but it sounds just like your shotgun, and the blaster-launcher (The most awesome of weapons in the original XCOM!) is just an unimpressive looking and sounding rocket launcher.
Missions are conducted from a third-person perspective. In every mission you take control of Agent Carter and can equip him as you see fit from the equipment availible to you at that time. Your team will also consist of two further agents who can be chosen from types such as Engineer, Soldier, recon etc. Unit types have their own special abilities, such as the ability to deploy a laser turret, an energy shield, taunt an enemy, heal an ally or make a critical sniper shot.
Sadly, whilst your agents have names, they lack any kind of personalities of their own and so its difficult to get attached to them. The game borrows a great deal from Mass Effect, but one area in which it doesnt borrow but would have been much stronger had it done so would have been in fleshing out your agents, giving them backstories, histories, individual missions etc.
As far as controls are concerned, you can run, take cover, vault obsticals, aim, fire and throw grenades very much like you could in Mass Effect, but to me the controls seemed just that little bit slower, less responsive and clunky, and I found that there was a particular problem with the aiming mechanics in so far that when you press left trigger to aim, the reticule will frequently leap off to point on the screen other than what you were actually pointing at at the time. Its very frustrating.
The most crucial aspect of combat (as it was in Mass Effect) is tactics and positioning and deploying your team mates in the most effective way whilst using their abilities as appropriately as possible.
This is conducted by pressing B which opens a Fallout style VATS-esque screen whereby everything slows down. Once the screen is open you can select a team mate, order them to move to a different part of the map, use a special ability, take cover, concentrate fire on a particular target or flank an opponant.
Keeping your guys grouped together or failing to use tactics will almost always result in failiure, because as important as flanking and outsmarting the enemy is to you, its just as important to the enemy, and aliens will often sprint from cover to take better firing positions. It is pleasently challenging.
One criticism of this however would be that as the game proceeds, the difficulty level rises, and your agents develop new skills, the game becomes predominantly about ordering your agents about and leaves very little time or opportunity for gun play yourself.
Speaking of 'failiure', this is one of the most distinct areas in which the game...well...fails.
Keeping Agent Carter alive is essential to the game - if he dies, you fail the mission. If Carter does die though, dont worry because you will simply be taken back to your last auto-save point (of which there are many). Sadly the same cannot be said of your team mates.
One of the most popular aspects of the entire XCOM franchise, all the way back to the original 90's game, is that of 'perma-death' - the idea that you will use certain troops on dozens of missions, getting to know their name and getting use to how they work in the field, but then they die - and in XCOM 'dead' is forever!
Perma-death for your buddies still exists in The Bureau, but in a game where the death of Agent Carter just see you taken back to the last auto-save point, all this results in is a game which punishes partial failiure far more severely than absolute failiure. Its ridiculous and makes the whole thing pointless. You can cheat your way through the game by loading in your last save point to save your agents, but whats the point?
Add to this the fact that you are forced to use Agent Carter on every mission and you may have another annoyance. I personally like his Eastwood style tough-guy act and facial sneer, but Carter mighnt not be everyones cup of tea, unfortunately you dont have the option to leave him behind his desk come mission time.
Most of the regular XCOM foes are there - many of them subtly redesigned - as are some new enemy types, and as with previous XCOM games they will be armed with different weapons, exhibit different abilities and operate in different ways meaning that they require different tactics to deal with.
During cut scenes the game makes use of a 'conversation wheel' much like Mass Effect, and you have the choice between making diplomatic or aggressive responses to the questions you are asked. The problem with this is that - unlike Mass Effect - there is no advantage or disadvantage to the type of response you make, so you can either be helpful for no reward, or be a bit of an ass just for the sake of it. Either way you will be no better or worse off.
There are some cool moral choices to make as the game draws to a conclusion, and this really added to the game. Sadly the first 90% of the game is entirely devoid of similar tough decisions.
Graphically the game doesnt do anything new. The 1960's setting, vehicles and dress are cool. In between missions you can walk around you head quarters which is complete with overhead projectors, smoky briefing rooms, medical bay, a helicopter pad (your Skyranger is a chopper in this game) and so on, but animations and backgrounds are a little plain and dull. Likewise the sound in the game isnt anything special, although the voice acting is okay if not exceptional.
Theyve tried to do something completely different to everything thats gone before with The Bureau, but unfortunately its a gamble that ultimately fails. Rather than successfully opening up the XCOM franchise to a wider audience all the game really does is leave us with a poor mans Mass Effect that will probably disappoint fans of third-person tactical shooters as much as it isolates existing fans of the XCOM franchises. Its not that its a dreadful game - its just dreadfully ordinary.
The only real consolation for me is that its less than three months until the release of XCOM: Enemy Within, which will be a welcome return to what XCOM has always done best.