XCOM: Enemy Unknown offered gamers a compelling blend of action and real-time strategy, and it was continuously intense, inventive and engaging. One would’ve hoped to find similar qualities in the recent spin-off, The Bureau: XCOM Declassified , but unfortunately, it doesn’t capture any of the emotional bonuses we enjoyed in Enemy Unknown . The narrative is actually solid but the gameplay, despite the requisite depth, often feels monotonous and tedious.
From a graphics standpoint, The Bureau doesn’t necessarily excel in any one area. There are some nifty special effects you’ll encounter when on the battlefield (alien technology can generate eye-catching space-age phenomena), and the cut-scenes aren’t bad. But much of the presentation is dark and foreboding and as a result, we start to feel bogged down by the atmosphere. On the plus side, the developers really went all out creating an alternate reality that looks like the US in 1962. I appreciate the obvious effort and I have to admit, this environment is one of the few truly compelling elements of the game.
Technically speaking, it’s not the most advanced game you will ever see, but it works. That analysis holds for the sound as well: We get plenty of solid voiceover performances along with a host of special effects to accompany those flashy alien-created visuals. The soundtrack is actually great, as it fits the motif beautifully and – while a tad offbeat – keeps us ensconced in this alternate reality. But the thing is, you’re always focusing so heavily on what you have to do, that you actually start to ignore the graphics and audio; they’re there, but you’re just so intent on the task at hand.
And of course, that tends to happen when you’re involved in any form of virtual strategy. While The Bureau is essentially a strategic third-person shooter, the depth and robust micromanagement will definitely satisfy the RTS fans. Well, provided they’re willing to take part in various activities not normally associated with the genre. There is some covering and firing but the majority of your time will be spent at HQ, accepting new orders and prepping for confrontations, and on the battlefield, continually appraising the situation and issuing commands. It’s relatively straightforward at first but as you progress, everything becomes much more complex.
You and your teammates gain experience, level up, and earn new abilities on the skill trees. It’s not just about executing those hard-earned skills, though; it’s about performing them at the appropriate times. Furthermore, while you will start off simply healing your allies and trying to keep them alive, you’ll eventually have a plethora of options from which to choose. Airstrikes are always fun, but so is setting laser turrets and confusing foes to fire on their buddies. On top of which, you don’t keep the same two allies throughout the story, as you can hire new teammates. They can also be customized and deployed as you see fit.
The first problem arises with the fact that these alternate buddies aren’t all that distinct. Even though you can control their progress, you don’t ever feel as if you need an agent’s particular abilities. However, at the same time, if you lose him in combat (and when you do, he’s gone for good), you really miss that ally. Not because he was specifically critical to your plan of attack, but simply because it was another body that fired bullets and responded to orders. After trying out several new agents, I started to question the purpose; why not just stick with the original guys? This limits the scope of the depth and will disappoint strategy aficionados.
Then you’ve got the issue of mediocre AI. You’re supposedly part of an elite squad and yet, your squadmates just aren’t very bright. This means you have to constantly monitor their activities, and you’re equally worried about their actions as you are about the oncoming aliens. It’s not terrible AI, though, and your allies can be useful at crucial times. I just wish the entire thing didn’t feel so damn tedious; even for someone like me who doesn’t love strategy, Enemy Unknown was gripping. It demanded your attention in a good way while The Bureau forces you to remain vigilant in a tiring way.
Still, I liked being able to deal with the issues by slowing the pace of battle. Some may say this interrupts the flow of things, but I’ve always enjoyed having time to consider my approach. In some ways, it’s difficult to superimpose a quasi-turn-based strategy approach atop a third-person shooter platform. And as such, things don’t always work the way they should. I would understand if strategy fanatics disliked the slowing process because it does indeed feel out of place, but I always welcome extra time. That goes double when the aliens are coming at you from all sides.
Overall control isn’t bad, although it’s not as refined as straight-up shooters. This can be overlooked, though, because you really are involved in a strategic affair. The atmosphere the developers cultivated does work to keep you involved, and micromanagement buffs are in for a treat. You’ll spend a great deal of time wandering about HQ, speaking to a bunch of different people and choosing your responses. The story unfolds relatively well in this scenario but the farther you go, the more you realize the narrative’s inherent limitations. There are some inside twists and turns via politics and bureaucracy but really, it’s about aliens comin’ to get us.
They do try to make things go absolutely crazy at one point, which does get your attention. But then the plot becomes a tad muddled and it starts to lose its focus. The only upside is that because you’re spending so much time prepping and fighting, you start to dismiss the story all too soon, anyway. I think they go a little too heavy on the HQ aspect because after a while, that starts to feel almost as exhausting as a battle gone wrong. It’s almost as if they removed all the urgency of Enemy Unknown and left you with a too-tedious mechanic that doesn’t always flow.
The Bureau: XCOM Declassified isn’t a bad game by any stretch, but it fails to live up to its predecessor. It has the aesthetic personality but it doesn’t have the gameplay personality. The control is fine, the music is a fantastic touch, and the fulfillment one feels after a properly executed mission is significant. But the story, despite glimpses of greatness, lets you down, and there’s just a general feeling of monotony that permeates the entire experience. If you get sucked in by the atmosphere, though, and you’re very patient and strategic, you might enjoy it.
The Good: Well-selected soundtrack. Decent control. Successful strategic approaches are rewarding. Fair amount of gameplay depth. Some intriguing narrative elements.
The Bad: Medicore AI. Different allies don’t feel distinct at all. Plot sort of goes off the rails halfway through. General lack of urgency and compelling action.
The Ugly: “Okay, I’m bored.”