When I started The Bureau, I was terrified. Not because it’s in anyway a scary game, or even because the bulk of the game’s typography is in a font eerily similar to Comic Sans. No, The Bureau’s opening was horrifying to me as an XCOM fan simply because for the first hour, it’s not XCOM at all. For what feels like forever, you’re dragged down samey corridors, playing Gears of War in the 1960s and being introduced to another bog-standard gravelly-voiced reluctant hotshot with some paltry sob story as context. It teaches you the basics of squad commands and how to use flanking to your advantage, but takes about three times longer than necessary and won’t stop trying to set the stage for a far grander story than need be.
I make a huge point of this from the get-go because The Bureau’s opening slog really does identify the biggest problem with the game itself: it seems to forget that in XCOM, absolutely no one wants anything other than cheesy, old-school sci-fi with Good Humans and Evil Aliens, and trying too hard to formulate a plot around XCOM’s universe is a suicide mission. Regardless, the transition from top-down, turn-based strat to third person cover shooter does also do a lot right, so we’re able to push aside this issue once it comes down to the combat.
From your XCOM base of command, designed with some obvious love for the time period and filled to the brim with chain-smoking Don Drapers, you’re able to choose an operation and deploy with two other squadmates. The attire of your XCOM buddies being waistcoats and ties is a little bizarre at first, but considering the flamboyancy of the aliens’ appearances and the flying saucers, it’s actually a little endearing. The cover systems and controls are your usual fare, and work just as well as your most recent Mass Effect or Gears of War, but naturally the interesting part is the control of your squadmates. Opening up the command wheel, you can tell them where to move, who to shoot, and which abilities to use – and this is absolutely the pride of The Bureau. It’s the sort of function most shooters would add in as a lacklustre bonus feature, but here it’s vital, and smart. Your engineer’s injured? Get your recon operative to send out a hologram decoy to distract the enemy, and get him to call in artillery while they try to decide who to shoot at, and you sneak in to revive your friend. Situations like these aren’t magical, ‘remember that time’ moments; they’re happening all the time, and it’s thrilling. Despite being so obtusely sci-fi, it almost feels like real warfare at times, and really is the sort of thing we should be expecting to see in many more shooters to come.
However, the limitations can be seen in the system used. As much as I loved squads of four, five or six in Enemy Unknown, it would be a total mess in The Bureau, the AI being so dependent on you that controlling any more than two would be hectic. It’s dumb friendly AI, of course (something we’ve all pretty much come to expect from anything other than The Last of Us) but the commands can be the saving grace. The combat areas are also really quite a bit narrower than one would hope, flanking being quite a rare occasion unless you’re really pushing forward more than you should – yes, permadeath is still present, so being an idiot is not rewarded.
The single player campaign goes for a healthy ten hours or so, and I was surprised to find the gameplay felt fresh even towards the end. Enemy minibosses never stop being fearsome adversaries that require fast fingers as well as tactics, and the slow move up from guns that fire bullets to rifles than fire huge blobs of plasma feels like you’ve earned it. What didn’t feel fresh, and stank pretty bad even from the beginning, is the story.
I’d struggle to tell you what really happens in The Bureau, because even having only finished it an hour ago, it’s still just a complete muddle in my head. It’s not complex or smart, it’s just convoluted. These aliens are controlling these aliens and they’re attacking Earth because they’re being told to by this alien who’s being controlled by THIS alien, and by the way if you could also care about these dime-a-dozen characters back at base too who all look and sound the same, that’d be great. I’d like to think The Bureau is actually doing a highly intricate pastiche of silly sci-fi plots, but the sad likelihood is that 2K Marin are trying far harder than necessary. It doesn’t help that the bulk of the storytelling is done in a combination of Bioshock’s orgy of conveniently placed audio logs and letters, and Mass Effect’s talk-em-up approach to what could be very straightforward, brief conversations. It’s simply not interesting, and frankly a lot more time could and should have been spent on adding a wider variety of non main-quest missions.
One other point which sticks out like a sore thumb is the disappointing customisation options for your squadmates. You’re allowed to change their names and the colours of their clothes (and only a small selection of pastel colours), and are allowed to choose their faces (but only so long as you recruit them, as the ones already given to you have their features locked, for some reason). Unfortunately, that’s where it ends. In fact, there are only ten faces you can choose, eight of them Caucasian, and then the real kicker: no women at all. The go-to defence argument for this is that it’s the sixties, and social equality wasn’t hugely popular at the time. This defence is also complete nonsense, considering two of the main characters include a black male and a woman – the latter of which specifically uses a gun on many occasions and is even playable towards the end! XCOM: Enemy Unknown was infamous for letting you make your squaddies look like your real life friends, and let you look on with horror as they all get unceremoniously splatted on the field. Let us do that again, 2K, don’t flop out on one of the best things about XCOM. My friends aren’t all white males.
Even though plenty of things about The Bureau left a bit of a sour aftertaste, there’s plenty that’s been accomplished, and I’m interested to see where 2K can take the franchise from here. With Firaxis (hopefully) working on more classic isometric turn-based XCOM titles, The Bureau could simply be growing pains for a great offshoot project for XCOM. Up the customisation, jettison the story, and polish up that AI and this could develop into something really special. However, what we have here is a little messy, and a little unfocused – if it’s an upgrade from Enemy Unknown you’re looking for, you’ll have to keep waiting.
[+Captures early 60s/Cold War era nicely] [+Squad commands feel just like XCOM from the soldier’s perspective] [+Controls are smooth, cover and flanking system works perfectly][-Boring story, told poorly] [-Greatly disappointing customisation options] [-Entire cast of forgettable characters]