There's a moment, very early on during my time with The Bureau: XCOM Declassified , when I realise that I'm definitely playing an XCOM game. And funnily enough, it's not the point at which I slow down time and order a complex series of flanking manoeuvres followed by special attacks to my two companions. It comes immediately afterwards, when I arrogantly decide that, actually, I've played tons of third-person shooters, thanks very much – and all this 'tactical' nonsense is a bit beneath me and my awesome headshot abilities. Sectoids have oversized skulls anyway, right? Shouldn't be too hard to nab that damage bonus. And so, I decide to run-and-gun my way through the next wave of alien forces. They get my squad members first of all. Without the direction of their commander, they suddenly seem overwhelmed by the stresses and strains of extraterrestrial combat. And then, when the aliens have finished with my teammates, they come for poor outnumbered, outgunned me. It's a dismal, humiliating failure but, as protagonist William Carter slumps to the ground after a failed attempt to resuscitate one of his companions, I'm filled with a powerful sense of joy.
I'm relieved because 2K have done the... not quite impossible, but certainly downright tricky. They've managed to make a game that preserves the spirit of XCOM even as it abandons many of the core tenets of the series. Tenets like its genre, for instance. Making a shooter out of the strategic series always seemed a strange idea (at least, it did from a creative standpoint; from a business standpoint it was drearily on the money). The rigid lines of a grid-based arena; the discrete, binary nature of turn-based decision making; the inability of the player's own twitchy reflexes to tilt the odds in their favour – all of these aspects seemed essential to crystallising the tactical nature of the game. And that nature seemed in danger of being diluted by real-time combat, in which you don't have to watch the consequences of your mistakes play out as you sit, agonisingly impotent, during the enemies' turn.
But The Bureau works because it's hard. It works because these aliens aren't the cowardly, cover-skulking critters you'll recognise from other third-person shooters, but an aggressively punishing, coordinated force. And it works because you still need to micromanage your squad of three proto-XCOM operatives to defeat them. Inevitably, it does feel different to Enemy Unknown. It's inescapably more of an action game. But I expect the two titles would find plenty to talk about (in hushed conspiratorial tones, naturally) were you to introduce them at a party.
The Bureau is a prequel to Enemy Unknown, chronicling the founding of the organisation. But not so long ago, this rather conceited spin-off thought itself a reboot – a first-person take on XCOM that you'll dimly remember if you cast your mind all the way back to E3 2010. XCOM (as it was known back then) looked, well, not very much like XCOM at all, given its theme of blasting hunks of animate black goo in the suburbs of '50s America. And then, like a lone hitchhiker who'd spotted some mysterious lights floating in the sky, XCOM vanished, only to reappear following some rather invasive probing.
Last summer's version of XCOM was a tactical FPS in which the player could temporarily pause the action and issue orders to their companions. 2012 was only big enough for one XCOM game, however – and that turned out to be Firaxis' rather excellent Enemy Unknown.
While gamers were distractedly praying that sniper shots wouldn't miss, and trawling their Facebook friend lists for soldier names, 2K quietly took XCOMthe- shooter away for one final retool. With that accomplished, The Bureau: XCOM Declassified is now a third-person shooter with a heavy influence on squad management. So, I ask Alyssa Finley, vice president for product development at 2K Marin, why so many overhauls?
“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.
There's an inevitable comparison here, and it's Mass Effect. The Bureau's brand of cover-based shooting enlivened with timed cooldown special abilities couldn't help but recall BioWare's game – even if the Battle Tactics radial menu didn't look so similar to Mass Effect's power wheel. But The Bureau, in the most literal sense possible, makes a direct lift from Shepard's adventures: 'Lift', one of Carter's bioticlike abilities tugs cover-ensconced aliens into the air, at which point everyone can target them. That said, it's much more fun to have your Engineer create a turret and then Lift that instead – because a floating gun can target everyone.
The real reason The Bureau's combat works is because it's punishingly true to the spirit of XCOM. Your teammates depend on Carter for orders – leave them without instruction and they'll start adorably mewling about how they're sitting ducks – and enemy forces replenish so rapidly that set-piece encounters are a constant struggle against being overwhelmed. It's telling that I cockily start off the demo thinking real-time combat will make The Bureau easier than XCOM, and end up wishing that opening Battle Tactics, which brings the surrounding action to a crawl, would slow down time just a little bit more.
As with Enemy Unknown, you'll be able to decide for yourself just how cruel you want The Bureau to be. While you can only have two squad members accompanying Carter on a mission, there are four classes. This means that you'll want to cycle through companions to ensure everybody gets the experience they need. (That said, you can send out squad members on offscreen mission while you progress through the main storyline.) On normal difficulty, downed companions must be revived or you'll lose their help for the rest of the mission. On hard, meanwhile, an injured squad member is already headed for the medical bay, but if you leave them to bleed out they'll be lost from the game.
It's been a long, hard three years to seemingly transpose the principles of XCOM to a quasi-realtime battlefield, so it's an additional bonus that the game is drenched in period detail. The Cold War setting harnessed by the sneaking, paranoid terror of movies such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers doesn't really work, given The Bureau's more overt invasion. But the depiction of '60s America still lends a surprisingly evocative sense of innocence to this world under attack, as well as a rather smoky atmosphere to The Bureau's HQ (which is merely a mission hub – all base-building and research is handled by the story).
The period accuracy extends to trivial details too: you don't so much customise your squad in The Bureau as tailor them, picking from a wardrobe of dapper outfits that would impress even a costume designer for Mad Men. In fact, when Carter's decked out in smart waistcoat and fedora, tastefully accessorised by a retrofuturistic backpack that imparts passive stat bonuses, he starts to look a little like a ghost-busting Don Draper.
After its troubled gestation, it's a relief that the The Bureau has popped out giving the impression of being a robust, atmospheric shooter. And it's borderline miraculous that the shooter in question appears true to the spirit of XCOM as well. There's no denying that The Bureau's action focus makes for something distinct from a traditional XCOM game. But, hey, we got a traditional XCOM game last year – and that means The Bureau has been upgraded from unwanted reboot to intriguing experiment.