Since its inception, the XCOM series has been strictly about strategy. Strictly turn-based. For years, the torch of this genre has been carried by the Civilization series from Sid Meier and developer Firaxis Games, but the release of 2012’s XCOM: Enemy Unknown (also from Firaxis) was almost prophetic in its timing, launching into a market blessed with a veritable bounty of turn-based strategy games across all themes – in 2013, a niche, dying genre all of a sudden looks very healthy indeed.
Strategy-based shooters, on the other hand, are still very few and far between and in order to kowtow to the needs of an increasingly impatient crowd of action gaming fans these types of experiences have been streamlined beyond recognition, now using context sensitive inputs to carry out commands – look at an enemy and press the ‘action’ button, and your team-mates will attack, for example.
The Bureau: XCOM Declassified from 2K Marin aims to marry the deep strategic decisions of a turn-based game with the direct second-to-second input and action of a traditional shooter, but in so doing has enough attention been paid to both elements to make them both satisfying (and inviting) for fans of these distinct genres? Has 2K Marin created a game that will be accepted by action fans and celebrated by strategy aficionados?
XCOM Declassified’s story concerns itself with the formation and development of the XCOM organisation, which was originally created in the 1960s to track the movement of supposed Soviet operatives and activity in the US. After an overwhelming invasion of head quarters and other regions of the country by alien forces, however, it’s soon made clear that any mysterious goings-on can now be attributed to an extra-terrestrial threat, as opposed to The Bureau’s original primary target.
As Agent William Carter, a decorated war hero who has been given a second chance after falling on hard times since the tragic death of his family, you’re soon thrown into the battle using a familiar third-person perspective with over-the-shoulder aiming and shooting, as well as cover-based manoeuvrings allowing you to protect yourself from incoming attacks by sticking to waist-high walls. At this stage, Carter feels a little clingy to his protection and I couldn’t enter and exit cover quite as smoothly as something like Uncharted or Gears of War, but movement overall is as it should be while blasting off rounds of rifle fire, shotgun shells or sniper ammo is a no fuss affair.
The strategy element of this shooter, however, revealed itself when I was given a squad member to command. With cover and enemies in front of me, and at the press of a button, I entered ‘Battle Focus’ mode which screeched the action down to super slow motion to give me time to think and strategise. Important to note is that the action doesn’t stop completely, so impish grey aliens, taller rifle wielding creatures, massive genetically modified brutes and skittish black blobs of goo all continued in their efforts to destroy me, except very slowly, which means there’s still a time pressure to decide how to approach the situation.
In the PC version of The Bureau, it’s possible to use both mouse and keyboard inputs to move your agents (up to two at a time) around the battlefield and tell them which target to attack and which of their abilities to use, and when, so if you need a turret to be set up, a mine to be placed, a shield to materialise, a strike to slam down or even a simple taunt to be yelled, it’s a simple matter of selecting the correct agent and stringing together a chain of commands for them to follow. Selecting a movement, turret or grenade command, for example, puts you into a floating camera to place a marker on the ground, while attack commands allow you to directly select which enemy to target.
Pro Tip: After getting incredibly frustrated trying to use the mouse to select the correct agent and precisely click on the icon representing the ability I wanted them to use, my commands became much more fluent when I decided to unlatch my fingers from WASD and use the rest of the keyboard to make Carter bark orders to his squad. Even though there was a sharp curve to it, it soon became second nature to enter Battle Focus, select an agent and use the number keys to select their abilities from memory, as opposed to checking which corresponded with which.
Note: The console version of The Bureau uses a radial wheel menu system to select an agent and their ability in Battle Focus. While I got to grips with Battle Focus in the PC version pretty quickly, I’ll update with my impressions of the console input here soon.
The Bureau: XCOM Declassified – Call The Shots Trailer
Battle Focus presents a great deal of colour coded information that instantly clued me into the situation (“There are the enemies and explosives, this enemy is partially in cover, that alien uses a rifle and is unaware of my presence, if I move my agent over here he’ll be seen but over there he’s safe…”), and during intense times these cues made it very easy to make split-second decisions and gave me basically everything I needed to know to ambush, attack and clear out groups of enemies.
Of course I also had to rely on my own third-person shooting abilities to do my part during skirmishes, so when I wasn’t moving my squad members to promote crossfire and flanking opportunities, I was making use of various period appropriate weapons and at least a few dozen grenades, as well as exotic alien weaponry discovered after skirmishes (which seem to act as one-to-one replacements for human-made guns). Using a special ‘lift’ ability to pull enemies (and later, turrets) out of cover helped whittle down the opposition, but like all of the abilities this can’t be used whenever you wish – all of the talents are on cooldown timers so you’ll need to choose which ability to use at which time very carefully.
Healing team-mates and getting them up before they bleed out if their health has been depleted is also very important because, unlike other shooters, once a squad mate dies he’s gone forever. In the middle of a mission, this is very inconvenient indeed (although a new agent can be called in as a replacement), but it’s especially disappointing because agents level up with battle experience, earning new perks and learning new abilities as they grow.
While losing a ‘level two’ agent with the ability to shoot a deadly finishing strike is a waste, it’ll be heart wrenching to see a ‘level ten’ agent filled with perks and experience go down in battle, especially after you’ve customised his clothing, given him a name and decked him out in equipment tailor-made to your play style. Permadeath in a shooter? Those battles are going to be made all the more intense!
There will also be time to take a bit of a breather in The Bureau: XCOM Declassified when you’re visiting headquarters to talk to intelligence officers and scientists currently living and working in a sprawling underground bunker equipped with the best technology and brightest minds available in this crisis. Chatting to key members of the organisation (by choosing dialogue options from a wheel) has added a layer of intrigue to the overarching narrative for me and it was interesting to see little stories form, and even non-compulsory side-missions appear, as classic interoffice politics and manoeuvrings seem to be at work in the bunker.
This is also where you’ll choose your next mission (either minor to gain experience or major operations to further the story), as well as select and recruit agents to the XCOM programme. You can even send agents out on missions of their own to earn experience, but this will leave you short-handed if you need a replacement in the field. It’s little decisions like this that, when stacked, build an incredible amount of depth and this is best demonstrated during an enemy encounter where the strategy of the situation is all-consuming: All of a sudden, squad placement, enemy position, your team-mates’ abilities and your own skills become crucial parts of a combat puzzle that needs to be solved with the tools at hand, making every encounter an exciting challenge.
The biggest challenge for The Bureau in August, however, will be convincing action gamers to give it a chance past a cursory gameplay session. There are systems here that need time for players to become familiar with, with more complexity than a context-based strategy shooter, but with the potential for much greater reward. Once I got used to Battle Focus, strategically placing team-mates and executing on a chain of ability commands, I felt completely free to manipulate the battlefield at will, and with further abilities and greater challenges waiting in the full game (and much more narrative intrigue to soak in), I’m hoping that 2K Marin delivers on the vast promise that I glimpsed in this preview build of the game.
Despite the fact that there’s an immense amount of depth during combat with lots of important, interesting decisions to make in the heat of battle, as well as great opportunities for customisation back at base, I feel as though those who enjoyed XCOM: Enemy Unknown won’t warm up to The Bureau as much as shooter fans will appreciate a different take on their favourite genre. As one of those shooter fans, I definitely want more subtlety in my games than standard ‘left trigger, right trigger’ action, so for me The Bureau: XCOM Declassified can’t come soon enough.
The Bureau: XCOM Declassified is out on August 20th in North America and August 23rd in Europe, the UK and South Africa, across Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC.
The Bureau: XCOM Declassified – Screenshots
The Bureau: XCOM Declassified was previewed on the PC