The Bureau: XCOM Declassified hands-on preview -- What I liked and didn't

Evan Lahti

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xcom the bureau

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.

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A Muton, viewed through the time-slowing lens of Battle Focus.

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.

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Like Enemy Unknown, shield indicators are overlaid to help you evaluate the quality of your cover.

Mixed feelings - PC controls

Though The Bureau's PC control scheme mercifully avoids porting the console version's radial menu , I can't shake the impression that XCOM felt slightly more comfortable to me on a controller. That isn't an outright indictment of the PC controls--2K's adaptation of the Battle Focus system to a mouse and keyboard is far from bad--but the amount of variation inherent to XCOM's combat that aligns better with a gamepad, a device with more natural asymmetry between its inputs.

Short of completely ripping out or reworking fundamental mechanics like Battle Focus, I think this is the best implementation we could've expected. Spacebar activates Battle Focus, slowing combat to a crawl and raising a horizontal UI element that shows the status of your squadmates and their abilities. From there, you hit A, S, or D to select a character, then a number button to select one of their active abilities, then you target and cast the ability with the mouse and WASD. This four-step sequence is a decent chunk of input, and while it got more comfortable over time it rarely felt completely effortless. The most awkward element was using WASD to pilot targeting point for area-effect abilities (like Shield Sphere, a combat stim grenade, or a land mine) around the map in 3D.

On the upside, two context-sensitive quick command keys (awkwardly default-assigned to F1 and F2, though they can be re-bound) are welcome shortcuts for telling your agents where to move or which enemies to target. Holding and then releasing the F1 command sends both of your agents to a position, while selecting an enemy with it tells your shoot that target. F2 cancels existing orders and issues a “regroup” command, similar to Rainbow Six: Vegas.

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XCOM HQ is visually detailed but there didn't seem to be too much to do inside it.

Didn't like: Watered-down metagame

Absent from The Bureau is any base-building, research trees, economic management, or equipment manufacturing. On the surface, that's disappointing, but I actually think it's foolish to suggest that The Bureau would be a better game if it mimed Enemy Unknown . Shoehorning in some sort of XCOM Council mechanic, for example, wouldn't have made sense in the context of a mysterious, shocking attack on the United States--why wouldn't the USA give XCOM a blank check to prevent our extinction? Duplicating aspects of Firaxis' metagame would prevent The Bureau from pursuing designs that suited it as a third-person action game, but unfortunately the verbs you're given in place of these traditional XCOM base activities weren't very interesting to me.

By design, your HQ mirrors Mass Effect's Normandy: a series of social zones that you jog between in third-person. Scientists scrutinize clipboards in the laboratory; operators man bulky, olive-colored control panels in a Strangelovian mission control center; guns can be tested in a firing range; secondary characters sit in their offices as plot dispensers. I have no problem with The Bureau borrowing Mass Effect as a template (it's a great template), but what was missing from the introductory hours that I played was something to do in the base that affected what happened in battle. There may be some of that buried further in the game, but I would've loved to've simply, for example, told the science team which Laser Pistol upgrade to research (there's no weapon progression or customization, seemingly).

Beyond that, it's a drag that you don't seem to have meaningful interactions with your squadmates. Because your agents are swappable, randomly-generated, rename-able people who can permanently die, I think it's safe to say that won't get to know them as people through dialog or something like Mass Effect-style loyalty missions--it was unclear if they physically existed in the base at all, actually. Relatedly, it's also a letdown (though depressingly era-appropriate, I guess) that there aren't female soldiers, crushing my dream of watching Peggy Olson ruin Sectoids with a Scatter Laser.

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The Bureau is a boy's club.

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