Normally, XCOM isn't about the stories the developers tell you, but the ones you create yourself. It's one of gaming's best anecdote generators, and a deep, thoughtful strategy game. But The Bureau is different, and the relegation of the words 'XCOM' to its subtitle is a pretty big clue about the direction 2K Marin have taken this spin-off. The genes of the series are still here, but they've mutated. It's now a third-person, real-time tactical shooter, with a focus on story.
If you're expecting the slow-burning, turn-based strategy of Enemy Unknown, you'll be disappointed. But, at the same time, this is no dumb, watered-down shooter. You still have to think before you fire, but in a more immediate way. Second to second rather than minute to minute. You control Carter, the game's impeccably-dressed hero, as you would in any typical third-person shooter, but time can be slowed down, allowing you to issue commands to your two AI companions.
Set in the 1960s, the world is like a gritty HBO remake of a B-movie. We see classic images of Americana - sleepy suburbs, homecoming parades, football fields - twisted and destroyed by the alien invaders. Carter and his agents look like the cast of Mad Men if they joined the Ghostbusters, with dapper suits and laser rifles. It's a really stylish game, and the '60s setting is beautifully realised. The level design doesn't quite match the craft and care of the art, though. These are linear corridors of action, littered with convenient waist-high objects to use as cover.
"Levels are linear corridors of action, littered with convenient waist-high objects to use as cover."
While the XCOM base in Enemy Unknown was little more than an elaborate menu, The Bureau lets you explore your headquarters between missions. It's incredibly atmospheric, with smoke-filled air, whirring tape reels, and white-coated scientists fussing over retro computers. Here you can talk to people, hire operatives, test weapons, read files, and listen to audio recordings. Carter seems like a jerk at first, but the more you learn about his troubled past, the more you empathise with him. It isn't a masterclass in storytelling, but it's better than most games.
It's the way you can combine powers that makes the combat interesting. The shooting itself is basic - going from standard '60s guns to laser rifles crafted from recovered alien tech - but it's when you start playing around with the Mass Effect-style special abilities that things get entertaining. You can order your squad to drop a turret, then lift it into the air to get a better angle on an entrenched enemy. Plant a mine behind them and you can push them into it with a burst of energy.
You learn quickly that if you try and play The Bureau like a straight shooter, you won't last long. It only takes one foolhardy sprint into the open to drain Carter's health. You can order your squad to revive you, but doing so will only expose them if you've fallen in the enemy's line of fire. You have to be smart, using cover to flank the enemy, and your powers as crowd control. You can order one of your team to taunt and distract them, or scatter a group. This, coupled with some fairly large maps, gives the game tactical depth - but it doesn't feel as rich as previous games.
The Bureau is a confident attempt at creating a more accessible XCOM game, but it doesn't have quite the same magic as Firaxis' recent reboot. It's not as strategically deep, and not as many memorable, unpredictable moments emerge from the combat. At its core, it's a solid, but fundamentally quite unremarkable, third-person shooter. The world and story are actually more compelling than the combat, which feels strange for a game in such a tactically-rooted series.
An accessible take on the XCOM format, but it lacks the richness of strategy that defines the series. Surprisingly, the real star here is the stylish '60s setting.
- Combo powers are a lot of fun
- Atmospheric period setting
- Levels feel linear and boxy
- Not as deep as other XCOM games