When aliens are preparing to invade the planet, it's time to call in The Bureau.
There's two dominant ingredients in this recipe: Xcom and Mass Effect. Considering the quality of the base components, it's a surprise that Declassified doesn't quite hit the highs of either of its two main sources of inspiration.
The Bureau: Xcom Declassified is an origins story, charting the birth of the organisation that starred in last year's reboot from Firaxis, Xcom: Enemy Unknown. Set in the 1960s, aliens are invading the planet. While trying to cover up this fact, Agent Carter and his colleagues must take to the streets of America and fight off the encroaching threat. Missions are played out in the third-person, with squads of three batting off hordes of alien invaders. It's a great premise, but looking past that, the narrative doesn't stand up to close scrutiny. There's too many moments that niggle and things that don't quite add up.
Story is delivered via cutscenes and a Mass Effect-like dialogue wheel, and while the script and voice acting is good, the character's animations are bordering on wooden. Carter is abrasive throughout, so it's hard to grow an attachment to him. There's a huge base where the player can interact with other characters (some of whom are equally hard to warm to), recruit new members to the team, and select missions. It's a large hub, with plenty of places to visit and lots of characters to talk to, but inevitably you'll spend most of your time in the command centre, talking with your boss and looking at the map of North America where your assignments appear.
This is an ad:
There's major and minor missions that must be attended to personally. The minor offerings will take roughly fifteen minutes to complete, and are fairly straight forward: go in and recover and artifact or take down a target. The major missions are where the story plays out, and these can be much more substantial. While Carter and his team are away, unused agents can be sent out on assignment to earn experience while you're in the field. There's also little bits of "news from the front"; blocks of text that give you details on how the invasion is impacting on society at large.
When you're out in the field, fighting through enemy lines, it quickly becomes clear that the combat is decent. Unlike Enemy Unknown, which used the license more faithfully, 2K Marin has opted for a third-person shooter. Teams of three agents stalk through corridors masquerading as open environments, and wage war in cover-laden shooting galleries, blasting away at Mutons, Sectoids, and other alien enemies. A radial menu slows down action to a crawl, allowing time for the issuing of orders. Futuristic powers are added as Carter and his team level up, and these are used on the battlefield. Opponents can be hoisted out of cover and blasted away, bottlenecks can be filled with mines, while turrets and drones can be deployed for extra firepower.
There's a wealth of tactical options that can be utilised during battle. Your squad members all fill different functions in the field, so picking a good balance is important. We usually opted for a sniper and a technician, giving us options at range and access to deployable turrets. Carter has a separate skillset. For reasons that become apparent later on, he can heal himself and his teammates. Each power or skill has a cool-down period, so once deployed there's a wait before it becomes available again, prompting careful usage. If you've exhausted your healing power and you can't stop one of your sidekicks going down under enemy fire, he needs to be healed via more conventional means, which requires reaching him on the battlefield and administering the magic spray of life (that's not the official name for it).
This is an ad:
There's a decent selection of weapons, and it won't take long before favourites are settled on. Both alien and human technology is available to the player, and resources and abilities must be used deliberately and tactically in order to take down some of the more fearsome adversaries you meet along the way. There's also backpacks that can be found throughout the game. Once discovered they can be assigned to members of your team, and each offers different buffs, such as reduced damage and increased ammo capacity.
Over the 12-14 hour campaign your team develops increasingly potent abilities. Strategy is essential, and there's plenty of different ways a battle can play out. Keeping your team alive is important as permadeath returns. If the whole team goes down under fire, players are whisked back to the last checkpoint, so it's not as punishing as Enemy Unknown. However, if one of the team does die then reinforcements can be brought in to replenish numbers.
Your agents can be customised. There's a few generic faces to choose from, and you can colour their suits as you see fit, and of course you can name them yourself. We decided to name our agents after famous alien fighters from the movies, so Fox Mulder, R.J. MacReady, and William Hudson all stood by Carter's side during the course of the game. Sadly, not all of them survived. I was hoping to have Ellen Ripley in there at some point, but the only female characters of note are the communications officer who monitors the air waves, and Xcom's second in command.
The fun is in the fighting, not in the surrounding fluff. By the end Carter and his team are very powerful, and to counter this increasing numbers of dangerous enemies are introduced. In the final levels all hostile encounters start off with a stream of orders, as the team deploys their various tricks, then it comes down to flanking and firepower. There is some enjoyment to be taken from tinkering with your squad, and finding the combination of powers that best suits your play style, but the story that wraps around the action isn't brilliant. There's too many things that don't quite make sense; it felt underdeveloped. The graphics are good, with plenty of particle effects to ogle, and some crisp environments to move through. They've certainly captured the essence of 1960s America.
The environmental design enables different tactics, but ultimately it is a fairly linear experience. There's rooms you can visit that are slightly off the beaten track, but these are always cul-de-sacs with little to offer other than a little bit of additional story by way of notes and audio recordings. The lingering threat of death keeps things tense throughout, even if its permanence can be cheated via a quick trip back to the last checkpoint.
All in all, The Bureau: Xcom Declassified is an enjoyable game. The story might jar from time to time, but the thrill of combat just about makes up for it. Longtime Xcom fans might not warm to the changes that have been brought in, but action fans looking for aliens to shoot will find plenty to enjoy in 2K Marin's take on the franchise.
7 / 10
+ Good combat + Decent powers and weapons + Permadeath
- Story doesn't quite add up - Animations are stiff - Carter is a douche - Quite linear