You’re best off going into The Bureau without paying much attention to its subtitle. 2K certainly hasn’t: although it was originally pitched as a first-person reboot simply named ‘XCOM’, the game wisely downplays its XCOM connection on the cover, emphasizing the third-person shooter gameplay and 1960s alien-invaded America setting over its roots as a well-loved strategy series. Yes, the aliens are recognisable from the series’ most recent outing, and sure, there are more strategic elements to consider than there are in most third person shooters, but The Bureau’s ambitions lie elsewhere, and you’re doing yourself a disservice if you go in expecting XCOM: The Shooter.
In truth, The Bureau desperately wants to be Mass Effect. It has similar aesthetic sensibilities to Mass Effect, right down to the conversation wheel. It has familiar weapons and mechanics. It has power-ups and abilities that are awfully familiar, and team orders that are issued to your two squad mates in battle in a way that is more than a little reminiscent of how Shepard orders his or her own two squad mates around. Depending on how you look at it, The Bureau is either extremely brave for willing to invite the comparison and go against one of the most beloved game series of all time, or a little lazy in the way it very blatantly reappropriates elements from that series wholesale.
The Bureau doesn’t aspire to the same heights that series hit. RPG elements are extremely light, the emphasis pushed clearly towards shooting aliens over talking and making love to them, and you’re exploring a handful of levels around earth and a few alien crafts with similar, somewhat bland décor, rather than an entire universe of planets. Your home base is no Normandy, and the level caps are much, much lower, as is the scope for customisation. It firmly establishes itself as a third-person shooter first and foremost, and in the opening missions the comparisons hurt. But The Bureau is the sort of game that opens up as you go along, one that, while never quite emerging as ambitious, proves that it has been built on solid foundations.
In its opening scenes, The Bureau establishes its 1960s setting with a sense of aplomb it doesn’t quite follow through on consistently throughout the game. The fedoras, suspenders, and clouds of smoke billowing throughout the office blocks of XCOM headquarters are immediately evocative for anyone who enjoys Mad Men (or, one would suppose, anyone who worked in an office environment during the 60s). Developers 2K Marin previously worked on the Bioshock games, and their influence is evident on the attention to period detail, even if The Bureau never quite coalesces into anything that approaches those games at their best, because the levels are designed to funnel you from combat scenario to combat scenario, rarely giving you much reason to explore or take in the scenery.
So yes, while you can wander around picking up audio files and diary excerpts, and you can explore the XCOM base in-between missions meeting characters and picking up little side-quests, The Bureau is really a game for people who want to go out and shoot aliens in the face from behind cover. It’s familiar stuff, but mechanically very solid and well thought out, with enemies that are fun to fight and weapons, both alien and human, that all have their own purposes, strengths and weaknesses. But the main selling point is the ability wheel, ripped straight from Mass Effect, which allows you to pause proceedings and issue orders to your squad mates. This starts off fairly limited, but builds up over time as you level up, until eventually you’re unable to unleash hell.
The great thing is that you realise that the powers you’ve accumulated (which are based on alien technologies you’ve attained) don’t necessarily need to be spread out over the course of a battle – it’s often better to throw as much as you can at any enemy force when they have big numbers and check back frequently to see when they’ve regenerated, because few of the powers are effective against the huge ‘boss’ creatures that are liable to show up later. You can open a battle by sending out a drone, getting one of your squad to summon a turret, using your ‘lift’ power on said turret to bring down some death from above, then have your sniper lay down a critical hit on the strongest alien attacking you…or, if you took a different squad with you, you can wait until the fighting gets bad and have one of them cast a shield after ordering everyone to huddle together, or send out one member to flank the aliens you’ve drawn in with a taunt. The wait to use these powers again as the battle rages on makes for great moments of fear and triumph.
This all keeps the fights fresh and fun, even when the game design stops explicitly mixing things up itself. Although there are quite a few different kinds of enemy, new enemies stop getting introduced about midway through, instead appearing in larger numbers or in stronger forms. You’ll take down the same enemies many times over, and towards the end the game decides to just straight-up bombard you. Playing on the second hardest difficulty and finishing every single subquest, the game took me about 13 hours to finish. It would have taken less time had some of the checkpoints been more forgiving – the game doesn’t always save between waves in a vicious section, which can mean dying after ten minutes of battle and needing to replay the whole section again sometimes.
This becomes a bit of an issue during the final mission, where the game throws ludicrous enemy numbers at you; it would have been nice if the designers had thought of a more interesting way to generate challenge as you go on. Your squad A.I. is smart, but not quite smart enough to consistently do what you want them to, which means you’ll frequently need to run and heal them when they’re bleeding out. The lack of a ‘stick behind cover and wait until you’re healed’ command is quite galling, although it’s something you learn to work around.
This is all wrapped up with some relatively weird writing, which starts off well enough but becomes so strange and silly at the end that it’s hard to maintain whatever investment you might have in the fate of Earth. The storytelling works far better on an economic small scale than it does as an overarching narrative. The progression of a dead colleague’s desk – first his things are packed up, then only his hat remains on the table, and eventually it’s cleared off entirely – says more about what’s at stake than any trite cutscene possibly could. The notes you find scattered around levels would have more impact, perhaps, if seemingly every game before The Bureau hadn’t done something similar, but it’s nice to see the game trying to sell its own stakes at least.
Considering the game’s fraught development history and arguably ill-conceived premise, The Bureau is practically a best-case scenario. It may not be a game that anyone asked for, but perhaps that has, in a way, strengthened the final game, forcing it to reel itself in a bit and focus on being entertaining rather than revamping an old IP. It succeeds admirably as an enjoyable sci-fi shooter, and that’s good enough for us.