Video Game Review

'The Bureau: XCOM Declassified' just doesn't work

by Wes Mayer

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If you were wondering what it would be like if you took an intelligent, challenging, award-winning, turn-based strategy game and flipped it on its head, now you have your answer. 

The Bureau: XCOM Declassified may have XCOM in its title, but believe me when I say that it is a long shot from Firaxis’ XCOM: Enemy Unknown, arguably the best strategy game of 2012. Many XCOM: Enemy Unknown fans were probably excited for The Bureau to come out this year, but unfortunately, 2K Marin’s The Bureau: XCOM Declassified is an overall disappointing experience.

The Bureau has the same basic story, or concept, I guess, as XCOM: Enemy Unknown. A mysterious alien force invades Earth with advanced technology and weaponry; they somehow quickly render the armies of Earth useless, and it is up to an elite force of soldiers to form an alien-annihilating resistance.

And that’s where the similarities end.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown puts the player in the shoes of the Commander, the guy, or gal, who didn’t say a word but called all the shots and was basically in charge of saving our planet from an alien invasion in the near future. The Bureau: XCOM Declassified puts you in the shoes of William Carter, the veteran federal agent who can’t shut up and couldn’t decide whether he wanted to sound more like Clint Eastwood with a sore throat or a constipated Batman.

This time around, aliens known as Outsiders invade the United States in 1969. The planet’s last remaining hope lies with The Bureau, the secret federal organization later to be known as XCOM, eXtraterrestrial COMbat. The Bureau becomes humanity’s best chance of defeating the Outsiders, and William Carter is, somehow, The Bureau’s best agent.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown didn’t really need a story to make it a fun game, but The Bureau tries to suck you into the troubled life of Agent Carter. The problem here is the voice acting — it is really hard to take Agent Carter seriously. The overall story isn’t bad — aliens invade Earth, agents kill aliens — but Agent Carter’s back story is unnecessarily distracting.

Other small things, like awkward face-to-face circle dialogues, pop-in textures and lagging during load and save times distract from the experience as well. This is bad because the experience is already frustrating.

As far as game play is concerned, the player takes control of Agent Carter in a third person, squad-based, tactical shooter. As Carter, you take command of two other federal agents and blast your way through squads of enemy Outsiders using tactics and strategy in real time. While that might sound like it would be fun, it just doesn’t work.

For starters, the game is very unbalanced. I played through the campaign on veteran difficulty, which wasn’t the highest difficulty but included the added stress of permadeath. Permadeath means when your allies die, they are gone for good. And your allies will die a lot, mostly in part because they are horrible at following orders. The enemy AI isn’t the most impressive in the gaming industry, but compared to your fellow squadmates, the enemies are military geniuses.

The Bureau is centered around tactics. All battles are fought in real time, which makes them extremely hectic, but you have the ability to slow time to a crawl and issue commands to your two squadmates. This allows you to order units around the battlefield, activate offensive or defensive skills, use equipment or focus your agents’ fire on a particular enemy. While this is cool, after completing your order, your squad mates retain a mind of their own and end up randomly running around and getting themselves gunned down on a non-stop basis.

I really want to stress the non-stop basis thing. Your agents run around so randomly and get killed so quickly so often that it almost breaks the game.

On one hand, this does make it challenging and keeps you on your toes, constantly issuing orders. On the other hand, there is permadeath. Whenever any of the agents’ health bars are depleted, which is extremely easy to deplete, they go into a bleeding-out stage. Once in this stage, you or the other agent, who is probably bleeding out, too, have about five seconds to run and revive him. If an agent bleeds out completely, he dies and is gone forever, and all the time and experience you spent leveling him up is gone.

Furthermore, if Agent Carter bleeds out, it is an instant game over. Game over means reloading at the last checkpoint, glaring at an excruciatingly long loading screen and restarting a battle at the beginning. Some battles have multiple waves of enemies, and if you die on a later wave, you can lose a lot of time and progress.

Going back to the unbalanced thing — every mission has you overwhelmingly outnumbered and outmatched. A single enemy automated turret or an Outsider with a rocket launcher can decimate your squad in a matter of seconds. On the other hand, using only bullets, my team was able to shoot down an advanced alien transport ship in three minutes. So some things are questionable.

The campaign includes main missions and optional minor and dispatch missions. I found the main missions took about an hour-and-a-half to nearly two hours to complete, and the minor missions took anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes. Both involve you and your two merry men blasting through enemy aliens and mechs and sporadically moving from cover to cover across battlefields. While the missions themselves are fairly linear, the battle areas do provide space to move around, create a strategy and flank enemies.

Dispatch missions occur on the side — by sending agents out to do missions on their own — and they are a great way to get your agents much-needed experience. Killing aliens gives your agents experience, so they can level up, acquire more health and learn new skills. This is where The Bureau gets some depth.

Much like XCOM: Enemy Unknown, there are four classes of agents: the commando class, the classic assault type and weapons master; the support class, who provides offensive or defensive assistance; the recon class, the sniper and long range unit; and the engineer class, who can set up equipment like mines and automated turrets.

Leveling up agents in the different classes unlocks perks, and some levels provide a choice between two perks. This allows you to create agents who will assist more with your play style, which makes it so much more depressing when they die, which they will inevitably do because there isn’t a perk that makes your agents smarter.

Unlike XCOM: Enemy Unknown, The Bureau does not involve anything remarkably interesting off the battlefield. There is no research of alien technology or engineering of weaponry and equipment. There are not any complicated choices or a sense of urgency. You don’t feel like you need to plan ahead, and you don’t feel like you are ever really saving the world. You just end up strolling around your headquarters and awkwardly talking to other agents.

The Bureau does a good job of creating an alien-invaded America, and the enemies you fight and weaponry you acquire throughout the game are interesting. However, the fact there is virtually no exploration of the environments and most battles turn into frustrating ordeals of you babysitting your squad mates so they don’t die ruins the overall experience.

Bottom line, The Bureau: XCOM Declassified is simply not as fun as its predecessor. It is always risky for video games to try new things, and this is one of those instances where turning a strategy game into a shooter just doesn’t work.

KEY POINTS:

* Story - Aliens invade Earth. Agents kill aliens. One of those agents has a troubled backstory and he saves the planet pretty much single-handedly. Nothing too original or outstanding here.

* Gameplay - Hectic real-time battles ruined by the fact your squadmates are incompetent morons. Sub-par voice acting, long load times, laggy moments and pop-in textures are among the few issues that distract.

* Lasting Appeal - Playing through it once is a challenge, but it isn’t fun enough to come back for more. The graphics aren’t anything incredible and the story doesn’t have much depth to it to give you a different experience a second time around.

* What You Need to Play this Game - Patience. Lots and lots of patience. This game has a strict learning curve and is incredibly difficult. You will need to be skilled with both shooters and strategy games to beat it or have any fun.

* Played on PlayStation 3 on Veteran difficulty.

* The Bureau: XCOM Declassified is rated Mature.



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