The Bureau XCOM Declassified’s final act is almost triumphant.
The battles feel gigantic. They are tense, chaotic, challenging affairs which rival those of Halo’s best battles on Legendary difficulty. The story takes some surprising, innovative twists which are more “meta” than anything Mass Effect ever tries, albeit through the similar mechanics. It even takes the classic aliens and universe of XCOM and gives them an effective facelift.
But the game’s first half shows the roots of problems which pervade the entire experience. Problems which may have crippled it’s critical reception.
The Bureau XCOM Declassified follows a first contact experience with alien forces common to the XCOM series; example Greys, tall Outsiders, mech-style “Sectopods,” who turn their alien sights upon Planet Earth for reasons unknown. Players takes the role of CIA Agent William Carter, a particularly capable fellow who, after a peculiar experience with an alien being in the games opening, is recruited into XCOM, the new ‘Merican secret body created to repel the impending alien invasion.
It’s a third person action adventure affair, with a dose of strategy and role-playing. For an idea of the general gameplay flavour, The Bureau XCOM Declassified is somewhere between Brothers In Arms, Mafia II, and Mass Effect.
It has the team-based strategy and strategic cover-shooter vibes of Brothers in Arms, where you can command your teammates around the map, for flanking or retreating or defending purposes. It has the excellent hit-reg and satisfying cover shooter shootouts of Mafia II, with that game’s nice graphics and movement style to boot. And it has Mass Effect’s dialogue-choice wheel and mid-battle superpowers. All of which operate to pretty effective ends, except perhaps the dialogue-wheel, which only becomes really important in the last hour of the game.
But from the outset, problems are manifold for 2K Marin’s new game.
For one, the voice acting is just… what. It’s not that the actors say the lines is wrong, or that they miss the pitch. It’s that the voice actors are almost all decades older than their characters seem. William Carter looks like he’s about thirty two; his voice actor is clearly sixty. Later, a random doctor at a test laboratory, who looks like he’s barely out of his teens, sounds like Gandalf. The lines they have to say aren’t great either. While the writing is decent, but it’s very inconsistent. A couple of levels really nail the 1960s B-movie drama vibe, but a lot of the game is clearly made up of filler dialogue. Even readable collectibles- radios, notes, books- are present, but are mostly pointless, and the game doesn’t reward you at all for reading them.
Not to mention, the voice recordings of in-world characters which you can listen to in the levels- akin to Batman, System Shock, Dead Space, Bioshock- are played ambiently. That is, if you walk away from them they get quieter. So not only is the content of the sound files often pointless, but you have to stand still sometimes for minutes to listen to them.
Couple this with the fact that the first half of the game is, in short, a little dull, and you have an experience which isn’t going to engross many players very much.
Which is a pity.
In the game’s opening hours you don’t have many Abilities (powers you can activate mid-battle, be they your teammates’ or your own). The ones you do have are pretty lame: a combat stim to make your team more damaging, a “critical strike” ability which lets a sniper hit bad guys from anywhere, doing massive damage. And that’s about it for interesting powers. The levels are dull, too: they range from a South-Western University to… A Southwestern Cattle Ranch.
But by the end of The Bureau XCOM Declassified? Your Agents’ powers are great and the levels get interesting. You’ll distract a horde of aliens with a hologram, lift one of them up in the air, command your sniper to Critical him, throw a drone into the center of the field to hound a big enemy, and make your Engineer deploy a Gun Turret to fire away at the fiendish green men. It’s thrilling and satisfying.It takes about six hours, but The Bureau XCOM Declassified’s combat gets seriously good in the game’s last hours. Like, better than Mass Effect. More interesting places crop up in the story- some of which are astounding. Excellent sci-fi stuff, again, up against the behemoth that is Mass Effect. I’m not going to spoil anything.
The main issue is that gameplay takes too long to kick off. Your roster of Agents starts off empty and the mechanic seems tedius, but in true Mass Effect style, you build up a team of (randomly generated) dudes, customise their abilities and kit, and try to level them up for battle. Guys come in four generic, but functioning classes: Recon, Commando, Engineer, and Medic.
Then there’s the gunfighting thing. I quite like the gunfighting; it’s part functioning Third-Person Camera Cover Shooter, with a feeling similar to Mafia II, but also has Strategy elements from XCOM in it. That is, if you shoot a guy while he’s behind cover, your gun will do 20% the damage. Flank him? You get about 200% damage. This rewards good strategy and unit placement. Yet, the game has a wild imbalance in that it keeps giving you bullet-based American weapons, which are useless. The only good guns in the game are the Outsider plasma and laser weapons. Up against a Muton? You’re looking at about 300 bullets for you submachinegun, plus well-used Abilities, to take him down. With alien equipment? Probably about 50 Laser SMG shots and some powers. The imbalance of weaponry is astoundingly flawed.
But by the end of the game, when the player slightly outpowers the enemy (though the enemy outguns you, no matter what), The Bureau XCOM Declassified becomes nearly a masterpiece. The game (on Hard mode which I played it on) gets pretty damn tough. You’re armed to the nines with alien kit, and ammo sourcing and matched-battles are pitch-perfect exercises. You have to use every available power at your disposal, immediately, and play your Agents very close to your chest so that you don’t lose them most of the way through a huge firefight. The levels are pretty well designed, it all looks and sounds brilliantly intense, things are hectic. And the game injects a strong dose of actual death-tension with the genius twist that, in The Bureau XCOM Declassified, as in the original XCOM, if Agents get knocked down and bleed out, they’re gone forever. When someone gets flanked or the AI makes a minor mistake and hides too close to an enemy, you’ll find yourself desperately crying out when they get shot down. Unlike in Mass Effect, where it doesn’t really matter, they’ll be fine, no matter what.
Here is where another of the game’s inherent imbalances come in. Bleeding out is bloody fast. No pun intended. 2K Marin have designed the thin life line of an agent to be a little too skinny. An agent who is perhaps three blocks of cover away, if knocked down, is dead. You’ve lost him. And if you don’t reload to the last checkpoint, it’s possibly game over if you’re in a tight spot. Though it’s always possible for another guy to be sent in.
The Bureau XCOM Declassified is a game I have a big soft spot for. Despite all of it’s strange imbalances and minor issues, its heart is basically gold. The mechanics are all strong. It could have done with more of them- more meta-game or resource management like from XCOM: Enemy Unknown. But what it does, it does well. Undeniably so, by the end of the game. The story is surprisingly intelligent in the games final act, and features something I’ve never seen a game do before. It’s ballsy stuff. I felt quite emotionally attached to it. And it’s pretty long, too: I spent 15 hours playing 2K Marin’s game on Xbox 360. All-in-all, it probably isn’t worth £35 or $60, but when it’s down to £25 or £20? Get this game. It’s worth it.
Overall, it feels like the rest of the industry, and many gamers, have raged at it. Expectations may have been too high, or bitterness may have soiled the game due to its roots being in such a beloved strategy game gone Third-Person-Action. But standing along, I feel that The Bureau XCOM Declassified is a strong strategy shooter, with a surprisingly unique sci-fi story. It at least deserves a mantle acknowledging how much more innovative it is than most TPS’ made in the last five years.