I recall hearing a games critic say that playing bad games is much more fun than playing good games because there’s so much more to write or talk about when you play a bad game. I have to disagree. There’s nothing fun about playing a bad game. Playing through a bad game is a painful and frustrating experience. Once you move beyond the frustration, it gets funny but you have to get to that point. At least writing the review can be somewhat cathartic.
And that brings us to The Bureau: XCOM Declassified. This game started life back in 2006 as just XCOM, a first-person survival horror about an alien invasion. The idea of an XCOM shooter terrified fans of the classic 1990s PC strategy game and the shooter was seemingly put to the side to make way for the rebooting of X-COM as a strategy game franchise with 2012’s XCOM: Enemy Unknown.
However, the XCOM shooter didn’t go away. The game from the seventh circle of XCOM fan hell was pulled from the seventh circle of development hell by 2K Games and 2K Marin. It was almost completely reimagined during a seven-year development cycle from being a first-person horror to a third-person squad-based tactical shooter. Unfortunately, it should have remained in development hell, never to see the light of day.
In The Bureau, you play as William Carter, a CIA agent who is recruited into a top-secret US intelligence branch put together to ward off a Soviet invasion known only as The Bureau. That is until aliens invade and The Bureau’s chief decides to single-handedly fight off the alien threat and rechristen The Bureau as XCOM without any explanation of the acronym.
Right, so Carter was a former CIA agent before being put behind a desk because, well, he’s about as generic an anti-hero as you’ll ever see without there being some sort of metanarrative going on. He doesn’t follow the rules but gets results, doesn’t work well with other agents, is tormented by personal demons and has a drinking problem. If cliches could grow legs and walk, they would be William Carter.
Apart from that, there isn’t much story to write home about. There’s an alien invasion and somehow Carter and his team of interchangeable AI squadmates are the only ones competent enough to stop it. Sure, there’s the wedged in explanation that Carter and Co. get all the latest equipment but you start off with the same weapons at the start of the game that everyone else presumably uses so that explanation doesn’t hold muster.
I’d like to say that there’s more to the narrative than that but there isn’t. There’s a twist at the very end that tries to break the fourth wall but ends up making Carter really just a heartless dick. There’s some decisions and branching paths prior to and during the final mission but that’s it. It’s a generic, linear story for the rest of the game. I’ve read that there are multiple endings but I don’t feel compelled to play through to find out. The long and short of the story is that there’s an alien invasion and XCOM is the only ones capable of stopping it.
The dialogue and characters aren’t particularly memorable. Agent Da Silva is in the game for about five minutes and you’re supposed to care about him. Agent Weaver is a woman trying to make it in a man’s world. Dr. Weir is the alien researcher who is so fascinated by everything happening that he sometime forgets that people are dying. And there’s the generic German mad scientist who runs the research department.
The only anecdote in the story worth mentioning is the same one Yahtzee did. One mission’s goal is to capture an alien leader and extract a neural implant from him. At the end of the mission, you defeat him in an embarrassingly easy boss fight. A cutscene starts, Carter says you got all you need from him and the alien gets executed. But that’s not mission failed. In the post-mission debrief text, the game tells you XCOM agents apprehended, debriefed and executed the alien. None of which was shown on-screen. So much for the very much emphasized goal of bringing that alien back to XCOM HQ alive.
That’s a symptom of the writing and pacing of the game’s narrative. Things happen but you have no idea about the passage of time unless someone says something. XCOM’s Director mentioned that the invasion had been going on for a month-and-a-half or two months by the time that the third story mission rolled around. It sure didn’t seem like two months passed in that span. The game’s timeframe seemed a lot more compressed than what characters would tell you.
The Bureau is described as a squad-based tactical third-person shooter. Throw a “cover-based” and “occasionally tactical” in there and you’re not too far off the mark.
You, as Carter, lead a three-man squad into battle against the alien threat. To make it a bit more like XCOM: Enemy Unknown, you are the squad leader and are responsible for directing your two squadmates to use abilities and where to be on the field. This is done via an active pause menu called Battle Focus.
Unfortunately, this isn’t a very well implemented system. Sure, the cooldowns are shown in seconds and you can move characters and issue attack commands from the character’s perspective which are improvements from Mass Effect’s extremely similar system but the menu is finicky to use. Hovering over an agent’s powers switched the camera’s to his POV. But if you rotate the camera by holding the RMB and moving the mouse, when you release the RMB, you almost always are over another character’s powers so you switch focus. This makes selecting powers and targets a bit frustrating. And the game still moves very slowly in the background which means you’re still getting shot while fighting with the menu.
Actually, Mass Effect is probably the perfect comparison for this game. Only one man and his crew can save humanity from an alien threat the likes of which it’s never seen before. He and two squadmates undertake each mission on foot after selecting them from a mission hub where you can chat with other NPCs. Shepard/Carter runs the show and tells people where to go and which powers to use. Hell, The Bureau even has a dialogue wheel. The difference is that conversation ending options are on the left rather than the right to avoid copyright infringement.
The biggest difference between Mass Effect and The Bureau, besides a good story, good dialogue, characters you care about, decisions that matter and powers/abilities that make sense in the established context of the lore, is that your squadmates in Mass Effect have some semblance of intelligence. Your ME squadmates will go to cover, use abilities and powers as appropriate, advance on the enemy as makes sense for their power and weapon loadout.
The squadmates in The Bureau require you to almost constantly make sure they’re not getting themselves killed. Even when you put them in cover, they pop out of cover to get shot rather than shoot the enemy. Not that your allies are any good at killing the enemy. Your two squadmates combine for single-digit kills in every level. Regardless of how useful a power might be at a given point in time, you have to order all ability usage by your squadmates. They are very inconsistent when it comes to disobeying orders. Sometimes, you’ll tell them where to go but they’ll run around and get themselves killed without a second thought. It’s very disconcerting to see your sniper advance past everyone into a no man’s land and immediately gunned down. And your support class guy trying to Rambo usually ends up with him dying too. I once had a Commando class squadmate run away from, then walk back on top of a grenade that killed him. Of course, another time, a squadmate stayed exactly where I told them even though an enemy brute was standing next to him and shotgunning him to death. That wasn’t an isolated incident.
If the enemies weren’t so bullet-spongey compared to your soft AI companions, this wouldn’t be so aggravating. It’s still aggravating when you level them up and they do dumb things to get themselves killed but getting killed doesn’t happen as quickly. In other words, your reward for keeping your squadmates alive through constant intervention in their suicidal tactics is that they’re harder to kill as they level up and gain health.
And that just covers issues with the squadmate AI and gameplay. If you’re going to make a tactical shooter with an AI-controlled squad, they just have to not be frustrating to deal with. Unfortunately, 2K Marin and associates failed miserably with the ally AI. At least Star Trek: The Video Game allowed you to bring a friend along for a co-op journey through misery. You don’t get that option here. Not that I’d want to ask one of my friends to buy the game so I didn’t have to suffer through the AI squadmates.
The enemy AI is also subject to bouts of stupidity. Granted, they’re a lot smarter about flanking your squad and getting into advantageous positions than your team. However, mutons (the big enemy brutes) don’t seem to grasp the concept of walls. On three different occasions, I had a muton try to shoot at me through a wall whole completely ignoring my two other squadmates who quickly flanked and killed it. Apparently, it thinks that it can shotgun through barns, train cars and, well, walls.
The combat is the main focus of the game. In between combat zones denoted by conspicuous chest-high walls, there are linear paths to the next combat zone. There isn’t much to do at the XCOM base. You can wander around and have short conversations with the NPCs. There’s the occasional run from point A to B and talk to people missions in the base. Apart from the combat, there’s nothing really here to occupy your time.
And I should mention that there’s a dispatch mission system similar to deploying assassins on missions in the Assassin’s Creed series. This is a way to level up the other XCOM agents at your disposal rather than letting them use themselves as target practice for aliens. Unlike the AC version of this, it doesn’t matter which of the four classes of agents you send because only their level matters in determining success.
Levelling up your squad gives them additional health (which is much-needed) and unlocks new abilities. There are a couple of active and passive ability choices to make which adds a bit of character customization besides choosing from a dozen faces and shirt colours. However, the explanations of abilities are vague and BioShock style explanation videos aren’t available until after you unlock an ability. Oddly, the abilities just show up and don’t make any sense in the context of the game. When Carter hit level two, he had a Mass Effect style power where he lifted enemies in the air. No explanation for that power. He was just suddenly able to do it.
I wish I could sum up the gameplay of The Bureau succinctly but I can’t. It’s bad. The ally AI is so bad that if the enemy AI was anything less than painfully moronic, I don’t think I could have noticed for the stupidity of my own squadmates. When you’re programming a game with AI allies that act independently of your character (as in not controlled by you like you would see in a Final Fantasy game, for example), you have to make sure the ally AI is functional. It’s clearly broken in The Bureau.
You had one job, 2K. One job…
Graphics and Audio
This is an Unreal Engine 3 game which means that it’s going to look a little dated out of the box. UE3 has been the backbone of various games since 2006 (coincidentally, that’s the same year that The Bureau started development) and shows its age seven years on. You have your typical UE3 fuzzy texture detail that crops up on a lot of attire and environments. The lighting model is definitely triple-A quality with great lighting and shadow effects. The 1960’s art design looks fantastic and, for the most part, the graphics look okay, even if the textures aren’t perfect.
However, apart from a half-dozen or so central characters, the character modeling is poor. Faces lack detail and lip synching on minor characters is optional. If you’re a minor character, your hair more closely resembles the painted plastic lump on a Ken doll’s head than real hair. Blinking is also optional for agents of The Bureau. They may not have combat training but you’ll never catch them with their eyes closed.
Apart from that, the character animation is very good. I liked how Carter ran and moved into and over cover. Sure, the controls for navigating cover isn’t the best I’ve ever seen but the animation was pretty good. Carter’s movement animations were well mo-capped and looked like a real person running and dodging. Diving backward and rolling on your side before getting back to your feet looks a lot more realistic than a backward somersault, for example. Carter does a side roll for dodges to the left too. I do wish they had more than one animation for pushing a button. Working elevators, opening doors and pulling levers for secret doors are all accomplished through the same punching the button with your fist animation. And I also wish that Carter’s weapons didn’t disappear when he wasn’t using them or when he throws a punch.
One thing that clearly shows how long the development cycle was is the cutscenes. The pre-rendered cutscenes are at such a low resolution that they look like they’re from a PlayStation 2 game. Actually, I think Gran Turismo 1 looked better than this. No, I’m not exaggerating. The game engine looks miles better than the pre-rendered work. I swear that some artist worked on these back in 2006 and no one bothered to update the look after that.
The game tells you up front that it’s been optimized for NVIDIA and it certainly shows when you play on an AMD card. The NVIDIA fabric and particle physics (or PhysX™) drop your framerate like a stone. A couple of levels had alien structure textures not render in leaving that lovely black area in that screenshot off to the right. When it all rendered correctly, I still had occasional framerate issues. In his video, TotalBiscuit put that down to a graphics feature called Screen Space Reflection so you may want to turn that off. And the game would stutter to a stop through every autosave it made. Fortunately, it never autosaved in combat, just immediately prior to combat.
The audio isn’t particularly good. Carter’s voice is kind of like someone trying to do a Dirty Harry impersonation. The dozen or so other characters important enough to get a name get serviceable voice acting. Don’t ask me about the music. There’s some licensed music but I don’t remember anything memorable in terms of original soundtrack. Of course, that’s when the music plays. On occasion, the music (and all the sound, at times) just doesn’t play or drops out and leaves the sounds of silence.
Oh, speaking of things borrowed from the Mass Effect franchise, Brandon Keener’s distinctive voice turned up as one of the randomly assigned XCOM agent voices in a mission. Naturally, his character was a sniper. He got one line in 10 hours of gameplay. Like I said, interchangable characters. If they bothered to give some of the squadmates some personality besides cannon fodder, maybe we would have cared if they died.
Is This Game Salvageable?
I asked this question for Star Trek: The Video Game and feel compelled to do the same here. I do feel bad about hammering the game like this. I don’t enjoy berating something that people have worked long and hard at. However, the consumer needs to know that the game, as released, is not worth buying.
If 2K Marin put some time into fixing the squadmate AI, the game probably jumps to a passing grade or even above average on our scoring system. I can live with the lack of effort in minor NPC character models and the lack of characterization of squadmates. It’s the ally AI that cripples this game. Making them somewhat intelligent, or at least making their behaviour predictable, would go a long way to make the game a lot less frustrating that it currently is.
You know, writing this review isn’t as therapeutic as I had hoped. It’s a lot easier to write a review about a game that you can get passionate about. The problem with The Bureau is that it’s hard to get passionate about a game that has no passion for itself.
What we have here is a paint-by-the-numbers game from top to bottom. It’s a cover-based third-person shooter which are a dime a dozen right now with some XCOM-ish tactics tacked onto it to placate X-COM fans. There are some dialogue options thrown in there for the sake of making it appear like there’s a meaningful story. That story, though, is fairly generic itself. It looks like it was put together after studying what the best parts of popular games were and using them in The Bureau.
Since there are so many games that do what The Bureau does better, I can’t recommend this. If you want to play a sci-fi cover-based third-person shooter, you’d be far better off with the Mass Effect trilogy. If you want a tactical strategy game, there’s XCOM: Enemy Unknown. If you want a fast paced strategy game, there are always RTSs to play like StarCraft II. Hell, if you want to play a game with painful AI, Star Trek had better voice acting and music, though far worse graphics and AI.
Maybe Star Trek is a better comparison for The Bureau than Mass Effect. Both The Bureau and Star Trek: The Video Game were generic, issue-riddled third-person shooters with a recognizable and loved franchise slapped on to it in order to get fans interested. But like Star Trek: The Video Game was a Star Trek game in name only, so is The Bureau an XCOM game in name only.
The Bureau: XCOM Declassified was reviewed on Windows PC but is also available PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. The copy of the game reviewed is a retail release provided by 2K Games. Your impressions of the game may differ based on the console played on, PC specs, bugs and glitches encountered and if you consider an XCOM shooter to be the manifestation of all that’s unholy in the world.