When the Bureau was revealed as a first person shooter in E3 2010, fans of the series aired concern that it was going to be just another basic shooting gallery only with the XCOM name stamped on it.
Three years later, and following a project overhaul at developer 2K Marin, those initial fears should subside. The Bureau may not be a pure strategy game like Enemy Unknown, but it certainly isn't dumb. The gameplay has been redesigned so that smart tactics and careful planning are crucial to survival.
"When we showed the game before, you'd pull out to third-person in the tactical view, and the designers grew to like it more," says Nico Bihary, senior producer at 2K Games. "The first-person view was more of a navigation tool; the real meat of the game was in the tactical overview. So we decided that it would be more elegant just to stick to one viewpoint."
Playing the game, you can't help but be reminded of Gearbox's Brothers in Arms. You control the hero, William Carter, like you would any third-person shooter character, but you won't make a dent in the enemy's defences alone. Popping your head out of cover for even a few seconds will result in death, which is where the Battle Focus command wheel comes in.
The wheel is split into three sections, representing Carter, the commander, and his two agents. When you activate Battle Focus, time slows down, and you can issue commands using a free-roaming, almost-top-down camera. This is where the game feels most like XCOM, even down to the familiar shield icon that represents safe cover - but everything is in real-time.
"We thought about the Battle Focus mechanic for a long time," says Bihary. "Do we stop time completely, or just slow it down? We think we've settled on a sweet spot. When you stop it altogether, it feels a little unfair, as you can still see the battlefield and would have all the time you want to plan your next move. It's too much of a tactical advantage. As it is now, you have the tension of bullets whizzing past your head, but you still have time to make decisions."
At the most basic level you use Battle Focus to move your squad around, but it's when you start playing with powers and combos that it gets interesting. You start the game with basic 1960s weapons, but by capturing alien technology you're able to unlock new powers and high-tech weapons. Engineers, for example, can conjure up laser turrets, which Carter can then lift up and hold floating in mid-air so they can hit enemies entrenched in cover.
2K Marin want you to be able to play creatively, injecting your own personality into the combat; something that the studio has carried over from the underrated BioShock 2, which saw you combining plasmids, traps, and weapons in much the same way. A lot of the fun in The Bureau will be discovering unique ways to combine powers and alien gadgets to outsmart enemies.
While the series usually opts for a near-future setting, the Bureau is set in 1962 when the alien invaders first arrived on Earth. You'll see the forming of the XCOM unit, as an offshoot of the FBI, where Carter is a special agent. The art style is fantastic; a mix of '60s American nostalgia and modern sci-fi. The agents look like Don Draper joined the Ghostbusters.
"We want to create a vision of America during the Cold War, as viewed from the perspective of the suburbs. A comfortable, familiar environment, with the juxtaposition of an alien threat. It's very rare that you get to see that kind of nostalgic Americana with the clash of what our modern idea of alien technology is. You're used to seeing the old B- movie flying saucer hanging on a string."
Caring about your squad, and feeling genuine despair when they inevitably die as a result of your bad decision-making, is part of XCOM's magic. Your agents in The Bureau can be customised, named, individually levelled up, and they all have their own skill trees. When they die, they're dead, and there's no bringing them back, giving every command extra weight.
"They're very powerful extensions of you as the character, and it's very easy for you to ignore the battle at large, if you're not playing tactically, and have them die. Your attachment to them starts at the base level, with you being able to dress them up in ridiculous pink outfits. But, really, the tool-set they bring has a lot of value; the different ways they can engage the enemy force to make you successful, and the fact that you're levelling them up too."
Our hands-on was brief, but what surprised us the most was that we barely engaged the enemy in combat ourselves at all. Your squad is so powerful, and their abilities so numerous, that it's more effective to bunker down in a safe place and rely on them. Mostly, the only danger we put ourselves in was breaking out of cover to revive them. Of course, this is just the way we played it; you can go into the thick of battle, taking out enemies yourself, if you want.
"The Bureau is a shooter with brains that rewards creative and tactical thinking"
There's a fully-formed story too, with interactive, branching dialogue and environmental storytelling. "Story is new to XCOM, but it's definitely not new to 2K," says Bihary. "We love to tell a story. The Marin studio developed BioShock 2, so they have a strong stable of narrative guys over there that are creating a very compelling story for the game."
So it's not quite classic XCOM, but nor is it a shallow, dumbed down FPS. The Bureau is a shooter with brains that rewards creative and tactical thinking. We've only played one story mission, but the game will be dense with content: an explorable HQ, research and development of new weapons and powers, side-missions, and a story affected by choice and consequence.