The Bureau: XCOM Declassified hands-on: a punishing, tactical take on XCOM's origin story

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.