The Bureau: XCOM Declassified underwent a tumultuous, prolonged development, so it's understandable that some of its pieces are polished but so few of them fit together. The resulting puzzle-piece jumble is best forgotten in favor of last year's far-superior XCOM: Enemy Unknown or other recent third-person action games like Mass Effect 3 or Saints Row IV.
Early '60s America is painstakingly recreated (with the love and attention you'd expect from a studio that worked on BioShock 2) as a golden era in American history, and then obliterated by an all-out alien invasion that only the fledgling XCOM organization can stop. Small-town soda-pop stands and homecoming-parade Americana slam up against infected alien plague sufferers and mutilated livestock. The world-building is top-notch, down to the omnipresent cigarettes and unironic fedoras, and I felt a real sense of outrage at the perversion of these quaint communities.
Unfortunately, exploring this gorgeous world is a chore, and the quality of The Bureau spirals downward quickly from the opening moments. As Agent William Carter, you command two other agents as squadmates, similar to combat in the Mass Effect series. Activating Battle Focus (the space bar, by default) slows time and allows you to coordinate movement and special attacks for your team, forcing enemies out of cover and into crossfire.
Friendly squadmates require constant babysitting, though, and I feel like I'm doing all the work. Even when I position my men in flanking positions and provide covering fire, I'm still the one making headshots and racking up kills by a factor of ten to one. During one of my firefights, an alien grenade lands at the feet of an agent. He duck-rolls into the side of the wall he's been hiding behind, and the grenade goes off at his feet. “I need some healing here!” he yells. I question the caliber of his training.
Overall, the pace of combat feels uneven. Missions routinely throw you into back-to-back firefights, huge brawls with dozens of enemies that leave you short of ammo and barely hanging on, even at lower difficulties. These fights are exhilarating if NPCs actually follow orders, but frustrating when they don't. Immediately after surviving a beating, though, I often wander through empty farmhouses and deserted streets for long minutes without seeing any enemies or NPCs. A chunk of every level feels artificially vacant, as though it was emptied out at the last minute.
Once outside combat, you'll spin your wheels back at XCOM's boring headquarters. Unlike Enemy Unknown, there are no autopsies, research facilities, or other meaningful things to do, so your time there quickly becomes tiresome. Interminable dialog trees branch into subjects I don't care about, like listening to characters squabble with other agents. When I finally receive a mission in the base, it's a petty quest to scan for infected soldiers that sends me running to the far corners of the bunker to press F once and report back to the head medical officer. The tedium of running through empty hallways slows the game to a crawl.
Even worse, nothing from the HQ segments has a firm relationship with what you do in The Bureau's missions. In base-world, research director Dr. Heinrich tells me to retrieve alien weapons so they can be studied and reproduced. But in mission-world, I can pick up any alien weapon on the ground and use it immediately, without such study. In the most extreme instance, I find a shiny new pulse rifle and give two more to my squad mates at a resupply crate within seconds—without knowing how it works. What exactly does Dr. Heinrich do for my team?
The Bureau pays lip service to series essentials like permadeath and technology acquisition, but it fails to include these mechanics in the final product in a way that makes sense. But the biggest sin is that the terror and consequence that made me agonize over each and every decision in Enemy Unknown is absent here. The Bureau misses all of the things that make XCOM thematically interesting, and all that's left is some imposter wearing nicely stitched XCOM clothes.
The Bureau: XCOM Declassified feels confused and half-finished, a hollow but beautiful slog through XCOM’s early years.