It was just a weather balloon, we swear
“Betrayal! Be-trayal! Betrayed me! This game suuucks!” These words were screamed by Internet personality Noah “Spoony” Antwiler at E3 a few years back. They were in reference to 2K’s unveiling of a new XCOM game that traded the turn-based strategy of previous titles for a first-person shooter, BioShock-esque sci-fi/horror title that featured black blobs and a focus on atmosphere. The video became quite famous and fan outrage continued over this new direction. Many delays later, that XCOM title has since morphed into a third-person tactical shooter in the vein of Mass Effect called The Bureau: XCOM Declassified.
Personally, I think the original pitch was fine. The game was always meant to be a spinoff, and I saw that clearly. I think that fans of franchises are way too resistant to change sometimes. It’s fun to explore established gaming universes under a different lens with different gaming mechanics. Regardless, 2K altered the game to have more in common with its strategy predecessors, and while I can’t say whether or not that change was for the better, I can attest that The Bureau: XCOM Declassified is a highly addictive and entertaining tactical third-person shooter.
Set during the Cold War era, The Bureau details the first encounter with extra-terrestrials by the United States of America and the birth of the XCOM division that is a prominent role in other XCOM games. I really liked the setting, the visual design, and the atmosphere. The ball is dropped with the characters and the plot, however. Most of the characters, particularly the main character Carter, are just obnoxiously acted and presented. Carter acts like a space marine badass when in reality, he’s just a regular joe. He grunts, talks deeply, and does everything in his power to come across as the most generic character possible, completely undeserving of any attention. The plot strays too far from the intriguing government cover-up and conspiracy while also creating a bunch of plot holes.
For one, it’s absolutely impossible that this stuff went down and people didn’t know about it. The subtler the game went with its alien invasion stuff, the better it would’ve been. Instead, players go through entire towns that have been taken over by the aliens, and this somehow isn’t national news. A UFO or a weather balloon (depending on who you believe) crashed in the middle of the desert in New Mexico and it became a national scandal. There is just no way that the basic plot in The Bureau is believable.
Good thing then that the plot barely matters. This used to bother me a lot, but as the game went on, I found myself skipping most of the cut-scenes and clicking through all the dialogue options. The game feels a lot like Mass Effect in the sense that it has a similar conversation system, but the weight of choices and the deep characters that are associated with the Mass Effect franchise are nowhere to find in The Bureau.
Another way that the game is like Mass Effect is with how the combat plays out. Like Mass Effect, The Bureau is a tactical shooter. There is a power wheel called Battle Focus that slows down time and allows players to issue orders to their squad members as well as activate their own powers and abilities. The character progression is a lot simpler than Mass Effect, but that’s okay. There is still enough choice to mold Carter into your own.
By design, this means that the beginning levels of the game are a lot less fun than the later levels. The early missions lack the cool powers that are unlocked later in the game, but the later missions are just an incredible blast thanks to all the options available. Those that want a more traditional strategy game can even play through the entire game simply issuing orders to their squad instead of engaging the enemy themselves.
Various side missions are available in the game as well as “Investigations” that act like mini side-quests that take place at the XCOM Headquarters. Taking a page out of the Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood book, players can send unused agents (the official name that The Bureau uses for squad members) on various missions throughout the country so that they can be leveled even while the player isn’t taking them out on active missions.
One of the main aspects of the other XCOM games is naming, customizing, and recruiting new agents. The Bureau features this, albeit in a much less drastic form. Agent customization is pretty weak except for weapon loadouts. Agents can be named and renamed as much as desired by the player, and new agents can be recruited. Those that are bad at the game and lose a lot of agents on the field will want to do this a lot because losing all agents results in an automatic game over and having to start from the beginning.
Unfortunately, The Bureau doesn’t include the new game plus feature that makes the Mass Effect games so replayable, and I think that holds it back from reaching true greatness. There is still a lot to dig into in this game, with plenty of side missions and more. Exploring the XCOM Headquarters is kind of a chore, but oh well. There are different endings as well, albeit with differences so minimal that they are pretty pointless to seek out. DLC is planned for release, but I can’t see myself spending anymore money on this game. The initial asking price is enough and the content here justifies the purchase.
The Bureau: XCOM Declassified is not a traditional XCOM game, but that doesn’t make it a bad game. I think if the developers weren’t chastised so badly, it would’ve been an even more interesting spinoff, and I honestly would love to see the original pitch have a chance to be reborn as its own game. XCOM is a universe that is ripe for this kind of expansion, and I think we need not resist it. The Bureau: XCOM Declassified shows that a game can be set in the same universe as a popular game franchise though have vastly different gameplay and gameplay mechanics. Betrayal? Not quite. The Bureau: XCOM Declassified just further cements the legacy of XCOM.
Tested on Xbox 360. Final Score: 7.5/10