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There's a point in The Bureau: XCOM Declassified when everything clicks, and you start to see the workings of an impressive, ambitious tactical shooter. It happens some four hours in, right as your squadmates randomly begin to receive superpowers. You'll realize that if you tell one guy to drop a turret on the ground, tell the other guy to snipe, and then use your lift ability to hover the turret above a wall, you can wipe out a bulk of the enemy before they even know what hit them. You'll watch as your orders play out, followed by a beautiful cascade of flying lights and explosions. But, as if riding a seesaw, The Bureau's story falls apart just as the gameplay comes into its own.
Originally revealed as the atmospheric first-person XCOM (before XCOM: Enemy Unknown propelled the turn-based strategy's name back into the spotlight), The Bureau: XCOM Declassified has been through a number of iterations before becoming a third-person shooter. You're in control of Agent Carter, an angsty CIA operative in desperate need of a throat lozenge who is tasked with leading a small team to fight back against invading aliens in 1960s suburbia. Being in control of a person instead of an unseen "Commander" leads to a grounded experience, but it's not without some element of strategy.
You've got two customizable squadmates at your command who you can order around the battlefield, telling them to use abilities, change locations, or attack aliens. In the opening levels it's a bit limiting, as they can feel like more of a handicap than a utility, but that slowly changes as they grow in power and unlock new abilities. By the end of the game you're able to issue complex, multi-part commands, having them flank enemies or lay down covering fire as you fight through alien-occupied slices of Americana. It's rewarding, and continues to become more engaging as they gain more abilities and the enemies become more difficult.
What's more, you can also send them off on missions of their own, giving you access to new abilities and leveling up your backup agents. Nowhere is the XCOM brand more blatant than in your squadmates. Sure, you're fighting against Sectoids and Mutons (and the Zujari, an uninteresting warrior race leading the charge), but they're simply set dressing. Losing a squad mate results in their permanent death which, in theory, could be crippling--low-level agents lack the skill to take on more powerful aliens, so anyone dropping has the potential to make the rest of the game much more difficult.
The magic word, though, is potential. There's a critical flaw in this element, and it absolutely undermines the entire mechanic. A total team wipe usually follows any squadmate's death, and the death of Agent Carter results in a quick reload at the nearest checkpoint. Being punished for partial failure but not total failure doesn't make any sense, and means that any time an agent dies you'll likely just die as well, getting them back and removing all pressure the permadeath element would include. This also means you won't get a chance to check out different agents classes' abilities unless you force yourself to.
There's also the matter of the story, which starts off moody and interesting before outright collapsing in the final hours. Since it's set before the events of Enemy Unknown (but in the same universe), the game needed to explain why no one heard about a massive alien invasion some 60 years prior. Unfortunately, the game's reasoning starts and ends with "it was a long time ago and they went after small towns," acting as though the lack of internet in the 1950s means no one would notice a large-scale invasion of the suburbs. That excuse really doesn't hold water when the aliens are essentially killing thousands, infecting them with diseases, and constructing huge bases on the surface. There are several instances where the game makes strange, illogical leaps in favor of creating a narrative that will tie together with Firaxis', hoping to tie together plots where no reasonable connection exists.
Even without that, you'll struggle to relate to any characters in the story. They all seem to have conflicting, uninteresting motivations that never really feel all that fleshed out, and much of the story relies on drama that is never given time to develop. The worst offender is Carter, who doesn't so much speak as he does croak, spurting out uninteresting dialogue as he stands still, stiff and constipated. By the end he's hardly likable, relatable, or even understandable. He just sort of does stuff while you stare, confused, at the screen.
There are plenty of good ideas in The Bureau: XCOM Declassified--the story takes a few interesting turns, and the gameplay slowly evolves into a fun, complex shooter that rewards strategic play. It never does these things at the same time, though. You'll find that you are either interested in the compelling story but bored with the lackluster gameplay, or enamored with the thrilling gameplay and tired of the muddled story. Most of the pieces for an interesting, compelling experience are there, but they simply never come together to create a memorable affair.
This game was reviewed on PC.
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