In its third and final form, the combat system of The Bureau: XCOM Declassified plays an awful lot like Mass Effect. It's a third-person shooter where you point a pair of squadmates around levels that are dense with cover, and a handful of its character abilities are pulled straight from Commander Shepard's playbook. There's a Lift power that levitates enemies. There's a radial wave attack that bucks aliens out of cover. There are powers that sap an enemy's protective armor or shield, and a Squad Heal ability.
When I played The Bureau: XCOM Declassified a couple weeks ago, I asked 2K's producers on the project about the thinking behind the combat. The answer I got was scripted and disappointing.
What were your inspirations for the combat system?
Nico Bihary, Senior Producer: Well, a lot of the inspiration comes from the XCOM franchise. There's a lot of... did you play Enemy Unknown?
Yep. I reviewed it.
Bihary: So you probably saw a lot of the similarities through the combat, you know—as I'm moving my guy into cover, it shows me the half-shield or full shield, or if I'm moving a guy into bad cover it'll tell me where he's gonna get hit from. And there's also weapon types: laser, plasma, and human. And there's kind of a progressive rank on how advanced the weaponry gets and how good you are. So those ties are definitely very obvious as far as the combat system goes.
Andrew Dutra, Associate Producer: The core XCOM experience was a big influence on how things were formatted and how things were displayed.
Wouldn't you say it's fair to say that there are a lot of parallels to Mass Effect, in terms of the combat style?
Dutra: I mean, yeah, we've seen people comment about that, and it's great, Mass Effect is a great game. Our game's a great game.
What would you identify as differences between Mass Effect's combat style and your combat style?
Dutra: So with our game, you have more control over where your agents go, you have more control over where they're placed on the battlefield, versus “you just do an ability here, you just do an ability there.” So there's more strategy involved behind that. And also the whole consequence of, “My guy's gonna be lost, I can't use him anymore” certainly ratchets up the difficulty there.
Bihary: We certainly push the consequence a lot, which we don't think anyone has really done in this third-person shooter scenario.
Dutra: Which, again, is an XCOM core principle.
It's easy to call 2K's XCOM shooter a copycat. But I don't consider that rhetoric a useful exercise—innovation can happen through iteration, and you could make the argument that it's clever of 2K to rely on players' familiarity with a widely-played series.
What it does say to me is that there was insecurity within 2K about how to make XCOM into a shooter and have it sell. Remember, The Bureau is the third full iteration of the game— when I first saw it at E3 2010 (a year and a half before Firaxis' XCOM: Enemy Unknown was announced), it was a first-person game dripping with atmosphere, mystery, and its own personality. I wrote then:
William Carter is responding to a distress call in a small neighborhood, a cul-de-sac smorgasbord of Leave It To Beaver homes. He exits his vehicle in the street with two fellow agents--AI-controlled comrades in ties and hats, each wielding a pump-action shotgun. It's perfectly silent. A children's bicycle lies toppled in the road.
He makes his way through a backyard--an idling lawnmower in half-cut grass is the first evidence of something amiss. A few feet away on the patio, there's a dead man smothered in blue-black oil, a grease that paints a trail into the house. “I've seen this before,” says a nameless agent, kneeling to inspect the body. “But it doesn't get any easier.” Carter snaps a photo of the body with his camera and moves inside.
XCOM's E3 2010 showing is still stuck in my brain, and it's rare for a game demo to stay with you for that long. What I remember loving about this vision of the game was its pace: my write-up above shows the trickle of observations made before the player gets into combat. Scripted as that demo was, I loved the way it slowly toured you through the aftermath of an alien attack. I loved that there was some mild detective work, that it was HUDless, and how naturally clues felt set into the environment. The Bureau, by contrast, is driven by its combat and slathered with information layers: activating Battle Focus (the time-slowing planning mode in which you give commands to squadmates) fills the screen with translucent interface. The life bars of Sectoids (and other aliens) pop into the center of the screen as you shoot them (at roughly the same size and spot as they do in Mass Effect, coincidentally).
And what was most disappointing about The Bureau was how much the things you shoot—Sectoids, Silicoids, and other aliens—felt like interchangeable, generic game enemies. Sectoids lacked the creepy, bobbling gait that they had in Enemy Unknown. A Muton boss I encountered at the end was a hulking damage sponge, but he could've easily just been a mech or a giant ogre--there was nothing in his animations, attacks, or behavior that conveyed he was from another planet. The Muton's one distinguishing aspect was his modular armor, which you had to crack open to kill him. But I was annoyed when The Bureau revealed this immediately by slapping a damage display of the Muton's armor on the screen rather than letting me earn an understanding by fighting, trial, and error.
Aliens were alien in the XCOM 2010 demo—the blobs (Silicoids) animated unpredictably, lunging and slithering along walls and ceilings like liquid cats. At first brush, you didn't know how to deal with them, or if they could be killed at all. While I was playing The Bureau, Silicoids were described to me as “alien attack dogs” that nip at your heels.
And at the end of the 2010 demo , your encounter with an unnamed alien power weapon was mystifying and intimidating. I wrote then:
Everything turns red. Something is here. Something big. Carter runs toward the street–there's a black wind of distortion hanging in the air. A field that warps light around it. The mass manifests a strange rectangle-obelisk in the sky: it looks like a giant, textureless Jenga piece. Without warning, it rearranges itself into the shape of a ring and spits a beam of white-hot energy into the street, disintegrating a car. Then, it does the same to the remaining agent.
I'm less lamenting that The Bureau is borrowing Mass Effect's combat than I am disappointed that The Bureau seems to have abandoned the sense of mystery it debuted with. Neither of the enemies shown in the 2010 demo were humanoid, but more importantly both of them were introduced without any explanation about how to survive or kill them. That aspect of learning in the field (through painful death) is essential to XCOM—the first time you stumble upon a Cyberdisc in Enemy Unknown, you don't know how far it can move, whether it's less deadly or vulnerable at close range, or what its relationship is with the Sentry drone it spawns with.
I do feel a little uncomfortable comparing two slices of gameplay to one another: both demonstrations of XCOM (and the E3 2011 demo, easily the worst of all of them) were about half an hour. I can't know if the XCOM I saw in 2010 would've turned out to be the game I wanted it to be. And it's possible that there's a generous intro sequence that slowly introduces the alien threat in The Bureau.
I hope there is. What I saw of The Bureau characterized it as a game that's hanging its hat on cover-based gunplay and its third-person strategic system, and I'm crossing my fingers that it's driven by more than slightly derivative shooting and slightly cumbersome combat mechanics. 2K's 2010 debut proved that XCOM set in the mid-century can be a captivating, original setting, and that the gulf between mankind's technology of the time and that of the aliens creates great opportunities for inscrutable, strange enemies. I hope The Bureau makes use of that.