“We've always been trying to capture the XCOM origin story,” Finley explains. “It's always been a story about William Carter. It's always been a story set in the late '50s, early '60s, though we did shift the timeframe over time. And The Bureau has always been an XCOM game. So we asked ourselves 'what is XCOM? Are we living up to that franchise?' And we decided that what's really important is things like tools and tech – taking the enemies' stuff and using it against them. Teamwork – making sure it's the player in charge of a team being responsible and making decisions. And then things like tension and terror. Combat with consequences – and it making a difference what you do.
“We felt the [planned] 2010 game hit a lot of those. Especially the tension and terror. It did a great job with that,” Finley continues, suggesting that a firstperson perspective was actually well suited to that particularly XCOM-esque sensation of not knowing what manner of creature was hidden around a corner, just out of sight. Nonetheless, there was a problem with three years ago's first draft.
“We didn't have the feeling of teamwork that we needed for it to be fully XCOM,” says Finley. “And so a lot of our work from 2010 on was trying to find that sweet spot between tactical, team-based gameplay, and that boots-on-the-ground feeling of not just being the commander of a battlefield but being in there, making decisions, and having to be part of the battle in order to win.”
The first solution to this, the tactical battlefield view seen in XCOM's first overhaul, worked well. It was deemed such a success, in fact, that 2K Marin ultimately decided to abandon the first-person parts entirely, necessitating some significant reworking of the game.
“It's a series of iterative decisions,” Alyssa points out. “We make a small tweak, then that'll have a series of knock-on effects – and so we'll make a another small tweak and so on. Some make things easier; some make it harder. As we've been making the shift from first-person perspective to third, one of the things that's become more important to our game is cover and tactical positioning. So that influenced the level design. High ground; flanking positions – those kinds of things we've been constantly iterating on.”
Surprisingly little of that tortuous backstory can be sensed during my hands-on with the game, which feels entirely at home in its new third-person guise. William Carter snaps to cover like a natural, and The Bureau's levels thankfully don't look like FPS environments some poor designer has been tasked with dumping vast quantities of waist-high cover in. In fact, as ubiquitous as thirdperson, cover-based shooters may be, the genre's undeniably a better fit for the licence than an FPS. Cover was crucial in Firaxis' game, and one of The Bureau's most reassuring points of connection is that, when you order your squad into position via the Battle Tactics radial menu, the blue shield icon that pops up has been directly lifted from Enemy Unknown.
I'm moving my squad into cover because first contact is about to occur. Carter and his crew are exploring a small New Mexico town whose inhabitants are suffering from a viral infection that turns them into zombies. Not literal zombies, I should stress, but the figurative kind: they wander around aimlessly, reliving the last 30 seconds of their lives prior to the virus taking hold.
Of course, this kind of population-wide stupor makes the place perfect for an invasion – and after walking past some abandoned cars and military blockades, Carter's squad members chance upon an alien patrol made up two Sectoids and an Outsider. It's the latter creature who's in charge here: the Sectoids are wearing enslavement collars not too dissimilar to Half-Life's Vortigaunts. All of them will quite happily kill you, however.
The Bureau's about crowd control. Enemies are aggressive and quickly reinforced, so successfully defeating them means using your squad's powers to isolate and quickly take out high-value threats. The demo starts me off with two squad members – a commando and an engineer – whose powers can be used in conjunction for greater effect.
First, I move my squad into cover and have them both attack the Outsider to draw the aliens' fire, before moving – dashing – into a flanking position myself once the shooting starts. Next, I have the squad's engineer lay down a landmine between my teammates and the alien forces. On its own, this mine is a little bit useless, but if I select the Commando I can use his 'Taunt' ability to aggro the Outsider into walking straight onto the mine. With the big guy down, I'm free to mop up the Sectoids the traditional way – using a laser rifle and a steady aim.