The Bureau: XCOM Declassified Hands-On Preview - Shape Shifter
Written Monday, May 13, 2013 By Lee BradleyView author's profile
Since it was first unveiled three years ago as a first-person shooter set in the X-Com universe, The Bureau: XCOM Declassified has been on something of a journey, enduring numerous rethinks, fan outrage, redesigns, perspective changes, time frame shifts and even a name change.
The game I played at an event in London recently isn't the same game Dan saw in LA at E3 2010. That was a first-person shooter with detective elements set in late 1950's America. The game I played isn't the same game Rich saw at E3 2011 either. That was an FPS set in 1962, with strategic elements nodding to the franchise's origins.
No, the game I played last week is a different beast entirely, the final stage in an evolution that from the outside looks to have been deeply challenging for developers 2K Marin. The result is a squad-based, third-person tactical shooter that combines elements from the original games with features from XCOM: Enemy Unknown and a big chunk of the combat gameplay from the Mass Effect series.
And considering the rough ride The Bureau has been through, it's not nearly the car crash it should be.
The demo began in The Bureau's cigarette-stained offices. The year is 1962 and, amidst great change in the US political landscape, the government has become increasingly concerned about foreign invaders. But it's not just Communists on the blacklist. Trespassers from even further afield have been popping up in towns across the country and infecting the inhabitants with a strange disease.
The Bureau represents the origins of the XCOM project and as such, the outfit is taking its first steps towards the infrastructure seen in Enemy Unknown. To this end the agency's offices feature a Research division where alien objects picked up in the field can be used to craft new weaponry, a Recruitment division where you can select and customise staff, and Ops, The Bureau's mission hub.
You play the role of Agent William Carter, a trilby-wearing, gun holstered field commander who wouldn't look entirely out of place in L.A. Noire. Searching through the available missions in the Ops room, Carter has a choice of “Minor Ops,” which are optional side missions offering extra XP and the chance of new research tech, “Dispatch Missions” which allow you to send agents out to deal with situations on their own, and “Major Ops” which represent the central story missions.
We dived straight into a Major Ops mission, heading off to a dusty New Mexico town on the tail of a missing agent. Upon arrival it's immediately apparent what's happened. Burnt out cars and corpses litter the streets, infected survivors wander dumbly around mumbling to themselves, and a giant tower-like structure looms in the distance. The town has been attacked by aliens.
It's not long before Carter and his squad mates find themselves in a battle situation. As Sectoids skitter around taking pop shots with their lasers, Carter throws himself into cover, able to aim and shoot freely in real time. In this way The Bureau is a fairly standard third-person cover shooter, with Carter sliding between conveniently-placed cars and chest-high walls. It's the addition of your squad mates that makes things a little more interesting.
With a click of a button you can call up a radial dial divided into three sections, one for each of your two team mates and another, smaller section for yourself. As long as you're in this menu, time slows to a crawl, allowing you to choose from each of the commands available to you. The options, and the way they are presented and executed, will be immediately familiar to players of Enemy Unknown.
When positioning team mates you'll see a line tracing the intended route towards a circular icon that shifts into the shape of a shield to indicate cover. Once that command has been issued the soldier will immediately dash for the position, allowing you to stack up the next instruction, the most simple of which is an attack. You can cycle through potential targets with the shoulder button and again, just like Enemy Unknown, you will be presented with a percentage chance of a hit. Select a target and watch as your team mates blast away as instructed. It’s largely the same as Enemy Unknown.
Beyond this, each of your fellow agents belongs to a class, affording them certain special abilities. On our New Mexico jaunt Carter’s crew was made up of a Commando and an Engineer. The Commando was a pretty straight-forward gunman type, with vastly superior hit percentages at his disposal. The Engineer, meanwhile, had a few more interesting tricks up his sleeve.
The first and perhaps most useful of these was a turret, deployable within an indicated field a set distance from his position. Upon deployment it would stay in situ, blasting away at anything that wandered into its path until such time as it was either destroyed by an enemy or moved. Not massively accurate, and unable to secure a location against multiple foes, it’s nevertheless a useful tool in chipping away at enemy health. Meanwhile, a mine could also be placed behind enemy lines, dishing out some pretty mean damage to all those in its path.
Similar skills are available to the other classes too. There’s a taunt which encourages enemies to come running at you from their entrenched positions, as well as a kind of force pull which can lift enemies up into the air. Both are tailor made for forcing enemies out of cover, a key tactic if you hope to win any of the battles. Not quite as punishing or demanding as its turn-based strategy cousins, The Bureau certainly doesn’t reward empty-minded blasting.
It does, however, ensure that the death of your squad mates is permanent. Should one fall in the line of duty they’re gone forever, along with the XP they’ve amassed. You’ll have to head back to Recruitment and enlist another, safe in the knowledge that Emperor Cuddle Sticks, or whatever you called him, won’t be returning. It's a pleasing nod to the game's predecessors.
In this way the game plays out like a more demanding version of the combat in Mass Effect, with you ordering squad mates this way and that. There’s more depth there, in the form of hit percentages, abilities and an increased focus on positioning, but the basics remain familiar. With guns that feel weighty and responsive, and enemy types varied enough to keep you on your toes and thinking, it’s a genuinely enjoyable game.
Yet after so many changes and redesigns we can’t help but remain slightly skeptical about The Bureau: XCOM Declassified. The basics are there for sure and the demo we played was fun. But then we were similarly impressed by the game’s previous iterations and those were consigned to the dustbin of time. They just weren’t good enough for 2K Marin.
The truth is that demo preview demos are tricky beasts. They represent 30 minutes of gameplay designed to show titles in their very best light. In that regard, this latest demo of The Bureau succeeded. It’s an engaging third-person shooter with enough nods to its spiritual predecessors that we’re comfortable it has something to offer both action fans and strategy fans alike.
But whether the full game will fare so well, we have no way of knowing. This is a title that has been through the ringer, emerging for a relaunch just three months before release. As such, we’ll have to wait until we can play through the whole thing before we can get too excited. Until then we remain cautiously optimistic.
The Bureau: XCOM Declassified is out on August 20th in North America and August 23rd internationally.