After falling in love with Enemy Unknown, it's with piqued interest that we investigate The Bureau: Xcom Declassified.
Why would you make an Xcom shooter? That's the question that people were asking when the game we now know as The Bureau: Xcom Declassified was first announced. Fans of the classic series weren't happy, vociferously so, and the game soon disappeared off the radar like a crashed UFO.
Firaxis then made Xcom: Enemy Unknown, which appeased fans who were initially outraged by Declassified's variation away from the original source material. All of a sudden an Xcom shooter didn't seem like a terrible idea, though it's fair to assume that there's plenty of people out there that still need persuading.
I was one of them. Although I'll not put myself down as deeply skeptical, I was curious to see how they'd pull it off. After getting hands on with the game I'm less worried. The Bureau: Xcom Declassified is decent, though exactly how much so remains to be seen.
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It borrows fairly heavily from a variety of different sources. The most obvious of these is Xcom: Enemy Unknown - and why wouldn't it?! It's a brilliant game set in the same universe. Other influences are less obvious. Senior producer Nico Bihary revealed films like The Day The Earth Stood Still as inspiration. From a cultural perspective it's easy to see the game's heritage, but from a gaming viewpoint it's hard not to ignore the impact Bioware's Mass Effect series has had on the development of this game. Allow me to explain...
In Xcom you control a three man team of alien hunting, suit wearing Bureau men. You directly control one - Carter - and relay orders to the other two. Orders are delivered via a radial menu that slows down time to a crawl, and your team dutifully carries out your instructions, hugging cover and blasting away at alien scum.
It's all very familiar, and once the buttons are mapped in your mind's eye, it doesn't take long to get to grips with it. At this early stage it's also very easy. I was entirely methodical, and wanted to try out a variety of tricks and manoeuvres, so it took me a little longer to march through the demo level, but GRTV Editor Dóri Halldórsson was not so meticulous in his approach, and marched through the content in double quick time. We were promised that the Normal mode we were testing will be toughened up for launch, and it needs to be: as it stands there's not enough challenge.
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But that doesn't mean it wasn't fun. I enjoyed implementing tactics on the fly, sending my troops into flanking positions, utilising the Lift power to hoist more powerful enemies into the air so Carter and his team could fill them with bullets/plasma, and employing the Pulse ability that is used to knock enemies out of cover.
Corridors lead into shooting galleries filled with cover, and surveying each area and looking for dangerous enemies and vantage points from which to shoot at them is basically the name of the game. The lack of challenge in the demo meant there wasn't much need for advanced tactics, but I got into the spirit of the game and employed them regardless, as I said, it won't always be this easy.
There's a Mass Effect-esque dialogue menu, and conversations in Xcom Declassified are presented in much the same way, although the cutscenes we saw were a little on the stiff side. That said, they were effective in delivering the narrative, and the voice acting seemed decent.
One of the key elements brought over from Enemy Unknown is perma-death. It was a facet of Firaxis' game that resonated strongly. People loved the consequence it brought to the action; it added gravitas to even minor incursions, and piled weight onto every decision. There is no pain so exquisite in gaming than the feeling of loss felt after permanently losing a high level soldier who'd been with you since the start of a campaign of Enemy Unknown. I still remember the exploits of troops who died under my charge, who paid the ultimate sacrifice in in order to fight off the alien invasion and save the planet. In Declassified Carter can revive his troops, and be revived, but it's a time sensitive action; leave it too long and your agents will be gone for good.
There's other similarities there. Although not as comic-like as Firaxis' turn-based strategy game, it retains a similar aesthetic. Weapons and enemies are also entirely reminiscent of things we've already seen. There were a couple of new character types, but many old adversaries return, including Sectiods and Mutons. Weapons and character skills can be upgraded via XP earned in-game, allowing players to customise their experience.
What sets it apart is the setting, and the pace at which the game is played. The 50's backdrop has been moved forward ten years, to the era of JFK, Bay of Pigs, and the Cold War. It's a subtle difference, but it works well enough. This is to be an origins story, a chance to explore how the organisation - Xcom - came about. That gives 2K Marin a certain amount of latitude when coming up with ideas and features, but it's obvious from the short demo and hands-on session that they've not deviated too far from the original concept.
The Bureau is tasked with covering up invasions and encroachments on America soil, and while they're initially looking for more traditional perpetrators, it's not long before they realise that the illegal aliens are from a little further afield than first thought. Missions are split between major and minor operations, and you'll be able to send teams out to combat hotspots when you're otherwise engaged, and get news from the frontline in the form of newspaper clippings.
The main change comes in the shift to the game's third-person perspective, and while the transition isn't seamless, it is convincing. Nico Bihary likens it to American Football, with Enemy Unknown played out from the manager's position away from the field, and Xcom Declassified experienced from the quarterback's point of view, dictating the action from the field of play. It's a fitting analogy.
Ultimately, the game stood up to this rather limited inspection. There were issues involving difficulty, and visually its not as stimulating as you might expect given the time it's been gestating. But these could prove to be minor inconveniences (even if it doesn't end up being a stunning game, it's still not bad looking), and if everything else comes together as the studio hope, we could be in for an unexpected treat when the game comes out in August.