The Bureau: XCOM Declassified hands-on preview -- What I liked and didn't
I played the first five or six hours of The Bureau: XCOM Declassified on PC last week. Here’s what stuck with me and what made me frown.
Loved: The art direction
The faces, egad. Every character is stylish and elegant, presumably pulled from some ‘60s Sears catalog. It’s admirable that 2K has adopted an aesthetic that’s more realistic than stylized--certainly moreso than Enemy Unknown’s slightly Saturday morning cartoon style--and The Bureau’s grounded, mostly unembellished art connects with the themes of paranoia and survival and the general seriousness that the campaign lays out.
The art also extends to the world in a way that helps express the aliens’ intrusion into idyllic American towns and landscapes. I exterminated Sectoids that had occupied a farm overrun with golden hay that gleamed in the sunlight. My first major operation took me through a college town in Georgia that had its homecoming festivities interrupted--a “Go Eagles!” street banner floats away as you enter the mission, and within minutes you pass a pile of lasered civilians. 2K’s experience creating BioShock 2’s ruined undersea city really shows--the studio puts you in a pristine, innocent America and bloodies it, and this creates plenty of motivation for all the alien-killing that follows.
Loved: Overwhelming encounters
On the two difficulties I tried, Normal and Veteran (Commander is the highest), I liked that many of The Bureau’s shootouts felt tough in a way that forced me to play spontaneously. I regularly had to use powers to escape tough situations, and the time-slowing (but not stopping) Battle Focus mechanic gives you a moment to plan and process without serving as a total refuge from tension. Ammo was refreshingly scarce in some areas, and aliens were a little more mobile than their counterparts in other cover-based third-person shooters.
I loved fighting Shield Commanders--when one of these bipedal Outsiders (a new alien race in The Bureau) enters the battlefield, they operate like quarterbacks, bouncing behind the offensive line of their troops, buffing themselves or allies with an overshield. Muton and Sectopod fights were terrific, too. One secondary operation sent me to a derailed train, culminating in a Muton miniboss. These aren’t the Mutons we met in Enemy Unknown--here, they’re nine feet tall, extremely durable, and they continuously, slowly stomp toward you while firing their laser cannon. They don’t utilize cover--they don’t do anything to avoid your shots, and to kill one you have to focus on eroding one or two pieces of its modular armor as soon as possible in order to get at its flesh. It feels like squaring off against an iron bulldozer.
There’s going to be a ton of knee-jerk reactions (I already had mine) pointing out the dozens of mechanical and artistic parallels between XCOM and Mass Effect when the game releases, but I’ve gotten over it: at the very least, The Bureau is a pleasantly familiar implementation of Mass Effect’s combat.