A Rose By Any Other Name: A Review of The Bureau: XCOM Declassified
Let’s not mince words here: The Bureau is not an Xcom game. It may look and sound like one, throwing around Sectoids and Skyrangers, but it does not walk the same path as its turn-based forebearers. Instead, it bears more in common with the thankfully forgotten spin-offs Enforcer and Interceptor, an attempt at taking the taut turn-based strategy the series is known for and twisting it into an action game.
Thankfully, unlike those two abominations, The Bureau really only fails as an Xcom game. Were it freed from that weighty family name and given a bit more time to find itself, The Bureau might’ve been a surprisingly enjoyable title. Instead, it’s little more than a mish-mash of disparate ideas forced into a gameplay model that doesn’t quite fit, with nothing but toothpaste to fill in the holes.
The development of The Bureau has been well-documented. In short, it’s a complete mess; a game passed between studios at 2K like a bad case of the clap. It seemed to start life off as a more radical departure from the series we know and love, with tweed-wearing agents blowing away strange flying geometric creatures from a first-person perspective, which is about as far as you can get from the original Xcom as you can get without landing on Cydonia.
Then Enemy Unknown came out, proving that there was still life in the name. Radical departure quickly turned into not-quite-a-prequel. Bug-eyed greys started showing up, the camera pulled back into the third-person, and the player was put in control of two cronies.
XCOM, with its mind control plot and creepy black ooze aliens, suddenly became XCOM: Mass Effect Edition.
This is not entirely a bad thing. The Mass Effect series made EA enough money to justify whatever Star Wars: The Old Republic is, so it’s a good book to copy out of, especially if that kind of heavily-hyphenated semi-strategic third-person squad-based cover-shooting is your thing. The abilities feel solid and, even at lower difficulties levels, are pretty dang useful. More than once I saved my own butt through the effective use of the decoy ability, which can draw enemy fire long enough for one of my generally brain-dead AI buddies to run over and revive me.
These curious similarities even extend to the story, which could best be described as Mass Effect for Dummies. There are a few well-telegraphed twists, attempts at characterization (William Carter talks like that because his family is dead and that is how you talk when everything you love has been taken from you), and what might be the greatest narrative justification for a third-person perspective of all time, but much like the action it never seems to escape Bioware’s orbit.
It’s the little things that get The Bureau in trouble. The characters are flat, defined more by their accents than what they’re actually saying. Weapon upgrades, doled out at fairly regular points, lack that critical oomph that makes getting a new weapon exciting, with the only real changes being to fire rate, damage, and what color bolt they put out. The story doesn’t gain any steam until the final act, whereupon it ends on a monumentally strange note. Performance, at least on my moderately equipped PC, is best described as Assassin’s Creed III-levels of abysmal.
It’s a game that could’ve used time, which is an odd thing to say for a title that’s been in development as long as it has. There’s a level of polish missing, almost like an essay on its first or second draft, before you’ve read it in front of a mirror or had your Mom take a look at it. There’s evidence that the little details that push a game from “decent” to “great” are there, just hidden underneath the dust of rushed construction. Nobody had the time to sweep up and make sure everything was in place.
Instead, somebody on high demanded that they slap on a coat of whatever the latest fad is (I’m almost 100% sure somebody in a suit said the original concept “wasn’t on-brand enough” at some point) and ship it off, hoping it would land with everybody who liked Enemy Unknown or wasn’t old enough to remember the last time somebody tried to make Xcom into an action game. Had the world-spanning team of developers behind The Bureau been given a chance to make the game they wanted, the one underneath all the Mutons and Sectoids, it might’ve at least been something interesting.
Instead, we’re given a handful of confetti that somebody brought as a matter of course, but which nobody asked for and which wouldn’t be missed. Alone, each paper might’ve been something special, but when tossed together and thrown into the air, it’s little more than a jumbled mess that’ll be forgotten before it hits the ground.