It’s 1962 and aliens are invading. The only hope is a secret US military unit called XCOM and a nattily dressed, reformed alcoholic called Agent Carter. Playing as Agent Carter, it’s your job to bring down the xenomorphs in a third-person shooter that hopes to spice up all the story clichés and formulaic action with tactical twists inspired by the turn-based brilliance of last year’s XCOM Enemy Unknown.
Too few games have been set during the Cold War’s early 60s peak so it’s great to see The Bureau embrace some of the period’s potential. From the room-sized analogue computers to the pressed shirts and waistcoats, the game apes Mad Men’s attention to period detail. And in keeping with Don Draper and crew, everyone’s armed with a ciggie at all times - so much so that squad members even take fag breaks while you hoover up supplies. We only wish the game embraced the historical opportunities even more - themes such as the way the civil rights movement was changing America could have resulted in an even more textured setting ripe with creative story-telling opportunities.
History lessons and Don Draper tailoring matter little, however, when The Bureau disappoints from the off. Game openings are supposed to suck players in but instead the game offers an alien attack on a secret US base that's about as thrilling as the Shipping Forecast. Add to that stodgy action that plays like Gears of War on horse tranquilisers and it’s very tempting to switch off and trade the game within the first few minutes. Thankfully it does get better. At least a bit.
The Bureau is more clever than its opening suggests as it also weaves in plenty of the strategy concepts of 2012’s surprise hit XCOM Enemy Unknown. In each mission you’re joined by two other agents who can be directed using a Mass Effect-style Power Wheel. It’s not actually as slickly integrated as Commander Shepard’s system, but ordering your colleagues to flank aliens, use special powers and so forth brings a welcome tactical depth to the cookie-cutter combat and partly justifies the sluggish pace of the action. That your agents gain new skills and can die permanently adds to the strategic depth and risk-and-reward dynamic.
Between missions you get to wander the XCOM base keeping abreast of the latest gossip and customising your squad’s clothes. The sprawling underground base lacks personality, though, and the tedious Mass Effect-type conversations you get to have come with dialogue and voice acting that boasts all of the depth and emotion of an alcoholic robot:
“Thingy’s just been killed.”
“Really? Right then. Pint later?”
With engagement that weak we’d rather have a cut scene that wrapped all the important stuff up and let us get on with sorting out our loadouts and taking down aliens.
The Bureau's further undermined by a lack of polish. The cut scenes are a mess. Walk through an open door shotgun in-hand and you’ll cut to see Carter opening a closed door while holding a pistol. This kind of immersion-breaking trip-up happens time and time again. Then there’s the sound. Background music pops up rarely and seemingly at random. Even the basics like sound effects that serve as player feedback are missing, with not even the quietest sonic notification given when you collect ammo, leaving you unsure whether you got your bullets or just walked over them.
The Bureau: XCOM Declassified’s splicing together of third-person shooter and squad tactics is interesting on paper but ultimately unsuccessful. Its blasting never quite overcomes its plodding feel and its tactical elements don’t quite gel. But despite this, and the dreary dialogue, there’s enough of a good idea here to entertain those who are willing to persist with its half-cocked attempt to push third-person shooting in a more brainy direction.