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Series offshoots are hard to judge before sampling them. With an entirely different staff and direction than the original that spawned it, the offshoot is judged simultaneously, based on both the quality and esteem of its source material and on its merits as a standalone, unique property. As an example, Enter the Matrix was fantastic. The sitcom Joey was not.
Every journey begins with a single step forward.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown was released in October of 2012 and as a console gamer, this was my first exposure to the fantastic series. Deep customization, fantastic strategy without a mouse and keyboard, never-quite-the-same twice gameplay…we could, and for our first article we did, go on at length describing the greatness of this game. So naturally, picking up The Bureau: XCOM Declassified was a no-brainer. A game with XCOM in the title would be great, even with a change in game type, a more story-driven campaign with a main character, as a third-person shooter, with upgrades you pick up and research…you see where I went wrong yet? Don’t worry. You will.
Agent William Carter, pre-wardrobe failure.
The Bureau: XCOM Declassified was released August 20, 2013 in North America. Developed by 2K Marin and published by 2K Games, The Bureau tells the story of William Carter, a disgraced CIA agent who is conscripted into the Bureau of Operations and Command, or XCOM, during an alien invasion beginning in late 1962. Along the way, Carter deals with base personnel, manages agents on his team and deals with a tragedy from his past, as well as his newfound psionic powers after his first mission ends in an explosion of alien origin.
Some old familiar friends are the first to arrive.
As with all things, even the worst games tend to have some good points. XCOM Declassified is a pretty game to see. These visuals really look good and should be noted, considering they jump ahead of the game that came before. In addition the soundtrack is completely dedicated to the concept. Whether in the home base or out on a mission, the music creates tension where none is necessary, creating a mood of uncertainty of safety even when nothing is on screen to threaten you.
The RPG elements are also pretty good. Each character has a five-level progression, aside from your main character who gets ten, adding new abilities or bettering old ones that should be familiar to fans of XCOM: EU. Pair that with some choices that actually make you consider before taking (Turrets come in Long-Range Rocket and Short-Range Laser varieties) and the system works well.
Land of the free, the age of Cold War. Enchanting.
The story has some high points as well, with a great setup, some lovable yet tragic characters and a wonderful 60’s America setting that makes you think the Soviet Union is the real threat. At least for a little while. Then of course is the plot twist, which without giving anything away, changes the dynamic of the game. But more on that soon.
It’s like a metaphor for gaming greatness…so far away.
The first thing any gamer will notice when they take control is the blatant similarities to BioWare’s Mass Effect series, specifically the third installment. The cover system, movement controls and gunplay are pretty standard fare for third-person shooters, but the Power Wheel is almost identical (with Power placement mechanics fresh from Dragon Age II), the dialogue menu is exactly the same, albeit left and right have been switched, and you still have a party of just three. The real problem is that none of these copy-pasted mechanics are improved from the original concepts, and in many cases, like the dialogue and base exploration, are actually more stripped down than the original implementation.
And while we’re on the topic, dialogue in this game is mostly pointless. Though it serves to get a little more background on what’s going on, there is little effect to the “choices” you make, aside from rare and obvious ways, like “Shoot or Save” moments and a choice that completely determines the ending (and before you think it, Mass Effect dialogue DID have an impact on other aspects of the game, even if not on the ending itself). Even worse is the wasted potential of squadmates. With Enemy Unknown, none of the characters had stories, but 2K still managed to get you invested in their fates and even get you to make their stories up yourself. The most you get out of these replaceable shells of characters is the occasional interchangeable one-liner. One recruitable character, a Soviet infiltrator, has a nice little intro, but once he’s a Agent, he’s as one-dimensional as the rest.
Most of your laser weapons come from these guys.
There is a distinct lack of weapon variety as well. Sure, there are a number of weapons, but there are three power levels as well; Human, Laser and Plasma. Once you get a new level of weapon, the last generation becomes obsolete. They leave ammo for all gun types around, but in the end an M14 doesn’t hit as hard as a Plasma Assault Rifle. There are plenty of heavy weapon choices, but generally you’re saving all that ammo for heavy hitters like Brutes and Sectopods so they’re very conditional in a game that allows for only two weapons.
The really painful part is the total lack of payoff with the endings. Only the invasion itself and the aftermath are really resolved. Any characters that are still alive (and there are a few) don’t really get the payoff of fifteen hours worth of development and storytelling.
He moves slow and deliberate. Just like a Terminator. With Plasma Weapons.
Commands in combat are given through Battle Focus Mode, that lovely Mass Effect power wheel. One difference is that while you have the menu open time doesn’t stop, though it does move much slower. This creates a sort of tension that forces you to speed up your combat selections and take cover before issuing any orders. Not as good as Enemy Unknown’s around-every-corner tension, but it works decently in a third-person shooter.
Finally, the wardrobe and animations for Carter are terrible. He starts off looking like a proper G-Man, switches to an irritatingly less cool turtleneck about a quarter into the game, and never changes back. It doesn’t matter what color you change it to, he looks absolutely ridiculous next to the other agents. And if I see anymore footage of Carter slapping an open hand on top of his fist again I’m going to cry.
No, this won’t be you after you play The Bureau. But you’ll feel like him.
I really wanted to like this game going into it, but it was not to be. The story started off interesting and fresh, mostly thanks to the music and 60’s setting. Unfortunately, the rest of the game let me down. If you’re going to copy another game, you need to either make it better or make it unique, and this game doesn’t deliver on either of those fronts. Had there been more meaningful connections to characters or some personality to the squadmates, it would have been better. As it stands, it’s a Mass Effect clone without the grandeur, replayability or charm. Maybe next time. And by next time I mean XCOM: Enemy Within, which will have to be great to break me out of my disappointment.
Rent or borrow it, but don’t expect much.