Review

The Bureau

Enemy Mine

The Bureau: XCOM Declassified is undone by its own sparse mythology.

By Drew Toal • August 26, 2013

Last year’s XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a great game. It’s great despite—or, more accurately, because of—a complete lack of discernible characters and a resolutely boilerplate alien invasion scenario. There’s no pre-anointed hero, and not much of a story. Enemy Unknown is boiled down to the bare essentials, a block-by-block, building-by-building death struggle with a technologically superior foe.

The Bureau: XCOM Declassified is something else entirely. Although they share a name and some familiar faces (mostly snarling, extra-terrestrial ones), the two games couldn’t be more dissimilar. The Bureau begins in the Cold War 1960s with a special government agent named William Carter transporting a briefcase to an equally special government facility. He’s attacked en route, but he miraculously survives what should have been a fatal gunshot wound. Only it wasn’t the commies who tried to ice Carter—it was an undercover alien infiltrator. Meanwhile, the full-scale invasion is underway—again, aliens, not the filthy commies—and Carter is conscripted into the XCOM project. As it’s explained to him, while the XCOM organization was originally meant to allow the government to function in the event of a full-scale Soviet invasion, it should work just as well in the current situation. Needs must.

The Bureau

From this facility, Carter and his team—you’re required to recruit supporting agents for your own support and for missions undertaken off-screen—attack enemy strongpoints, hoping to disrupt the invaders’ plans and steal enough of their technology to give humanity a fighting chance.

Carter might be mankind’s last best hope, but he doesn’t have to like it. He’s a bitter, burnt-out shell of a man, but he was once one hell of an agent. And he gets results, damn it. He doesn’t want to hear your psychobabble or technical jargon. Just give it to him straight and tell him where to point his shotgun.

The game’s ’60s atmosphere is terrific—portraits of JFK are visible everywhere, and all of your agents wear ties and waistcoats, Untouchables-style, rather than more practical but less stylish Kevlar body armor. As Carter, you take your team on missions that require you to shoot a lot of moon men and collect their weapons (and a large variety of backpacks) for your own use. In Enemy Unknown, it’s vitally important to position your squad correctly and refine your tactics. The Bureau tries to apply this system, but it’s not completely successful.

The Bureau

Carter can slow down time and give orders to his two subordinates. Much of the battles are spent cycling through this command wheel, and as Carter and his troops gain strength, more commands become available. Snipers can take critical shots, engineers can build turrets, and commandos can scatter enemies with a Jedi-esque pulse wave. As the game progresses and the enemies get stronger and more numerous, much of your time is spent hiding in cover and praying abilities recharge before you get pulverized by some rampaging intergalactic brute. It becomes less about strategy than it does about survival.

Another aspect of its predecessor that The Bureau tries to import is “perma-death,” where characters are permanently removed from the game if they bleed out. This works perfectly in Enemy Unknown, where even your strongest characters are one plasma grenade away from an uncoveted spot on the memorial wall. In The Bureau, it’s far less meaningful for a number of reasons. First of all, if Carter dies, the game ends, and you have to go back to the last save point. Generally, if one of my guys dies, we’re all about to get wiped out, so I hardly ended up losing anybody. Secondly, the ceiling is quite low on how much supporting characters can level up. By the end of the game, all of my guys had gone about as high as they could go. And were essentially interchangeable. I went to war with old Charlie Babb and reliable Juan Lewis again and again. I never had much reason to replace them.

The Bureau

So it’s established that The Bureau is definitely not Enemy Unknown, and also that the communists are not, as we suspected, the greatest existential threat to the American way of life. That leaves us with a game is entertaining enough, as far as it goes. The biggest problem with The Bureau isn’t that it’s such a departure from Enemy Unknown. Rather, Unknown’s rub is that the XCOM universe, if you want to call it that, is not a rich environment to mine. There’s nothing really there aside from a cookie-cutter War Of The Worlds situation. It doesn’t lend itself to a compelling story, which a game like The Bureau needs to set itself apart from a million other shooting games. As the game approaches its fairly preposterous endgame, its paucity of material really begins to show. Despite some enjoyable moments, The Bureau probably should have remained classified.

The Bureau: XCOM Declassified
Developer: 2K Marin
Publisher: 2K Games
Platforms: PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
Reviewed on: Xbox 360
Price: $60
Rating: M

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  • Citric

    I think it might have one of the best game boxes in recent memory, I’ve almost bought it based on the excellent box.

    • The_Helmaroc_King

      Amusingly enough, the box art for The Bureau almost feels like a subversion of the box art that caused all that furor for Bioshock Infinite. Rather than using the “guy with a gun” cover art to emphasize strength, it uses it to emphasize secrecy and clandestine operations. Heck, the main character is facing away from the camera and you can’t even see the (probable) gun.

      Cover art like this really does suggest something interesting. It’s unfortunate that it seems to amount to a boilerplate alien invasion story/action game, but it is what it is.

    • Spacemonkey Mafia

      That was completely unintentional.  They had to scramble to modify the cover after early feedback on the game’s promotional tie-in met with some seriously negative feedback. 

      • http://www.facebook.com/andy.tuttle.79 Andy Tuttle

        I don’t know why I thought I would be taken to something serious.

    • fieldafar

      Possible game box art of the year. Shame the game sounds disappointing. 

    • SamPlays

      But if XCOM has been declassified, why is so much of the cover redacted?

    • Kyle O’Reilly

      Box-art?  Is that some kind of jpeg that comes with my steam downloads?

  • Enkidum

    Shame. Enemy Unknown really is one of the best games I’ve played in years, was hoping this would be as good, but of course that’s unlikely.

    • http://sarapen.ca/ Sarapen

      I heard that. On the other hand, isn’t there some new DLC coming for Enemy Unknown titled The Enemy Within? Clearly players will fight their own inner demons in the form of procedurally generated enemies and missions. What else can one expect with a title like that?

      • CrabNaga

        I love Enemy Unknown, but I can’t get excited for Enemy Within. It looks like it’s adding some cool stuff for you to use and for you to fight, but the core game is remaining more or less the same. It feels more like a DLC than an expansion.

        On the other hand, one of the key aspects of Enemy Unknown is that time is always of the essence, which sort of betrays the original idea of an “expansion pack” to begin with. It’s not like you can bring down the first alien threat and XCOM Command is like “Congratulations, but this other similar threat just appeared and you have to bring it down too!”

        • HobbesMkii

          I’m excited, but maybe not $30 excited (although, granted, the vanilla game was worth every penny of its release day price tag).

        • Bad Horse

          I’m definitely pumped for anything that adds a little more strategic depth to the original game. At this point I’ve pretty much got my strategic goals and tech progressions figured out, and I’d love to shake it up. Bummer that it’s not coming out on iOS, apparently.

    • Wearedevo

      Sadly, there’s just no place for shooters in today’s turn-based strategy dominated market.

      • KingGunblader

        I wish this statement were true instead of hilariously ironic.

    • Chum Joely

      Yeah, one review I read made it sound (in my head, at least) like this was going to be an interesting prequel with a successful real-time twist on the turn-based gameplay of Enemy Unknown, while still retaining a lot of the core atmosphere of the original. I was mildly interested (I love Enemy Unknown), but maybe not anymore.

      As Drew says in his review, the problem is probably that there’s just not all that much content to dig into in the “XCOM universe”. This was the game of the month for the Gameological/Steam Game Revue Club not too long ago, and nobody seemed to have too much to say about it– other than “This is really fun in a kind of mathematical way, but not in a way that inspires excited discussion with others.”

      I noticed at the XCOM website that they are encouraging people to post stories of their “most mind-blowing XCOM experiences”… I wonder if anyone is actually doing that.

      • Effigy_Power

        Our experience with the game doing the Gameological Steam Revue sort of tipped us off about that.
        XCOM:EU had a lot of anecdotal potential arising from moments of combat. An almost impossible shot takes out an Ethereal. A single zombie killed your entire squad. Your Assault forgets his cellphone. That stuff.
        But the story/lore/fluff/background/characters give you nothing. That’s fine for XCOM, but as you said, it doesn’t really give you anything to fabricate a cohesive storyline from.

    • JamesJournal

      XCOM Enemy Within isn’t that far off

  • CNightwing

    Is it me, or is there a grammar error on the frontpage?

    • hubrisofsatan

      I’m sure they’ll change it to say ‘struggles’ before any more people read this.

      • http://www.avclub.com/users/merve,96925/ Merve

        With each passing second that the grammatical error remains unfixed, the communists gain more ground!

      • SamPlays

        No, it’s well over 4 hours later and the typo is still there. Seems the GS grammar is turning into BS grammar.

        • Effigy_Power

          Ahem. “Grammer”, please.

          New character, the pretentious blogger who insists her typos are in fact correct. -checks internet- Oh, it’s been done. Nevermind. ^_^

  • Alek Hidell

    Above all, The Bureau isn’t a good game. And that’s deeply unfortunate — I’d been anticipating this thing for a long time.

    The gameplay is rough, the mechanics shoddy, and the whole routine tedious.

    But its look — its atmosphere, aesthetics, and milieu — is out of this world; the game is gorgeous. The world of Cold-War-era sci-fi covert-ops — an Apollo-era command center and atomic-age-lounge break-rooms, smoke-filled offices stocked with refrigerator-sized computers and whirring reel-to-reel machines — is my kind of fantasyland; leaving it wasn’t easy.

    But The Bureau can never take off; bound so tightly to the cultish expectations of the franchise, it’s stuck in-between worlds.

    I was never an XCOM fan. It’s the setting that hooked me. “Aliens” are sufficient; learning about Mutons and Mu’urs was a chore. (Still, I understand the cries of the faithful: this both is and isn’t the world you guys love.)

    As for me, I just wanted this thing to start from scratch. There’s Roswell, Area 51, little grey men, and enough pop-UFO mythology out there that, unencumbered, could’ve kicked this thing into orbit. But chained by its own title, it jumps through hoops staying faithful to an established franchise; nothing could withstand the weight of that kind of gravity. Cut loose, this could’ve soared.

    • Roswulf

      It’s interesting that this feels so weighed down by the franchise, since it seems to me X-Com has an astonishingly small amount of baggage.

      Here are the world building elements that seem required for an X-Com spin-off:

      1. There’s a group of human alien fighters with government support called X-Com.
      2. Aliens are bad.
      3. There are Grey aliens called Sectoids.
      4. There are creepy aliens with mind control powers called Ethereals that seem to be leaders.
      5. There are TERRIFYING black things called Chrysalids that make humans into zombies.

      Nobody cares about Mutons (well, *I* don’t), and certainly nobody cares about existing expansions on “aliens are bad”. And of course X-Com: Terror From the Deep dropped all of these elements except numbers one and two, while remaining one of the “good” X-Com games. The X-Com name does Declassified no favors, but there’s no reason a shadows-and-espionage centric X-Com game set in the Roswell era couldn’t work.

  • MintBerry_Crunch

    I guess the game is slightly more exhilarating than stale bread and flavoured water. It reminded of this other game , which is about as much as I’ll get from it, I guess. 

    And since I will probably never get the chance to link this, let me segue from the Fedoras, shady suits, and cover-ups to the greatest boss confrontation of all time.

    • SamPlays

      *David Bowie sings*

      Put on your dead shoes and dance like ghouls.

  • Labrat85

    :( impulse bought this because i loved the recent XCOM. Was kinda hoping it would be more behind the scenes of a secret alien invasion and less shock and awe war of the worlds FPS. 

    Was very disappointed by this game, should have waited for the lukewarm reviews before committing (but yay steam, got a bunch other games with it)

    Very soon though, very soon ROME 2! That wont disappoint, pretty sure i know exactly what i am getting there and i liked it the last several times. Though i hope the AI is smart from the get go this time, and that diplomacy is more consistent.

  • SamPlays

    As far as pop culture goes, it’s odd that we tend to view aliens as hostile but when humans go into space, we do it to “explore”. I agree there is a high probability that other forms of life exist in the universe – Drake’s equation, etc. I guess part of it is fear of the unknown; there’s utility in preparing for the worst (but lets hope for the best). However, the professional psychologist side of me can’t help but think that the common representation of aliens in media is a reflection of humankind’s worst qualities. (Side bar: As a rule of thumb, we often project our worst qualities on people or groups we dislike. We are also more confident in our inferences of others when it is based on negatively perceived traits.) Given our track record with other species on Earth, including ourselves, it seems highly likely that humans would totally blast the shit out of aliens regardless if they come in peace or not.

    • Unexpected Dave

      There have been plenty of friendly aliens in film and television, but precious few in gaming.

      Humans can deal with a solitary interloper like E.T., but we’re deeply suspicious of a larger group. It’s like how white people can so easily perceive 2 or more visible minorities together as a gang.

      • SamPlays

        Unless you’re a solitary interloper like the alien from Predator. Humans just can’t deal with that shit. Interesting you mention gangs because Predator 2, which has multiple interlopers, takes place in Los Angeles (i.e., the gang capital of the US). I can’t give credit because the film is terrible but the aliens can be symbolic of (in)visible minorities and the entire thing could be a commentary on the relationship between gangs and immigration. But that’s a thesis not worth writing.

        • http://sarapen.ca/ Sarapen

          Those other aliens were a surprise reveal in the end, for the majority of the movie all we see is the one Predator. A better example would be the Alien vs Predator movies.

        • SamPlays

          @sarapen:disqus Which is why any analysis is best left until the end of the film. The fact that multiple aliens were not on screen until the end (Note: I’m taking your word for this because I haven’t seen this film in 20 years) doesn’t change the intended meaning of the film. 

      • http://www.avclub.com/users/merve,96925/ Merve

        The only friendly alien that comes to mind (aside from in the Mass Effect series, obviously) is Elvis from Perfect Dark, who told bad guys to “kiss [his] alien ass!”

        • Unexpected Dave

          I think there’s enough for an inventory entitled “We Come in Peace: Video Game Aliens who came to Earth for reasons other than conquest.”

          Apart from games like Star Control 2 that have a galactic Alliance of aliens, and games like Earthbound where a good alien comes to help you fight an evil alien, there’s Orbulon from WarioWare, Starkey from Chrono Cross,

    • JamesJournal

      Well stories require conflict so either humans are attacking aliens (E.T, Avatar or Ender’s Game … sorta) or they are coming after us (Predator, Halo etc)

      In a lot of sci-fi series like Star Trek, Star Wars and Mass Effect, there is an established society of hostile/non-hostile groups

  • Kyle O’Reilly

    If anybody is curious about how this game went from that FPS we saw back in 2010 to this Mass Effect-ish clone, check out Chris Plante’s sweet write up on it over at P-gon. http://www.polygon.com/features/2013/8/19/4614410/xcom-the-bureau-development-2006-2013

    One thing I took away from that is apparently development hell happens to a lot of large Australian video game studios because the time difference causes weird hiccups in management and communication between the devs in Australia and the publishers in NA.  Poor LA Noire suffered a similar fate.  And that’s two of the only big AAA games in the last couple years to come out of Australia.

    But the guys who made Jetpack Joyride are from down under and are currently rolling in plies of gold I imagine.

    • Chum Joely

      Thanks, that was really interesting. So, this game almost destroyed two studios and it’s apparently not even that great. So is it really a positive thing (as indicated in the article) that 2K kept pushing to get this done eventually, no matter what?

      • SamPlays

        It was probably more about minimizing losses in the face of stakeholder investments. Some revenue is better than no revenue, even if it doesn’t make a profit.

  • Knarf Black

    Am I alone in wishing that they had stuck with the first person, unknowable enemies route, in spite of the even more extreme deviation from XCOM canon? It sounds like they were really struggling with the concept (The non-humanoid enemies apparently caused a lot of design problems; not being able to tell if they were looking at you or not, etc.) but I was really intrigued by the initial trailer.

    • Allandaros

      The unknowable enemies route would frankly have been more in the spirit of XCOM than duplicating the stuff we’ve seen before. 

      (See http://inplacesdeep.blogspot.com/2013/04/monsters-in-your-campaign-x-com-method.html for a good discussion of this, written by a buddy of mine for his D&D campaign.) I wish that we had gotten the originally pitched game, but am happier that we got Enemy Unknown (even if it meant taking the wind out of the original pitch’s premise.)

  • Effigy_Power

    I was kind of wondering where the connection to XCOM really is and it does indeed seem pretty flimsy. This 50s “Men in Black” story probably didn’t do itself any favors being attached to the XCOM franchise. Maybe it should have been given the chance to stand on its own two feet rather than force it to ride the wave of popularity of its namesake.
    The games are a somewhat different genre, play quite a bit differently (I only played 2 missions on a friend’s PC) and well… It’s not quite like C&C Renegade, which was a FPS attached to a line of RTS games, but it’s reminiscent.
    The idea of “L.A. Noire meets X-Files meets MiB” isn’t a bad one, not at all. But I do think it will fall short in comparison with XCOM:EU.
    Now, if this game was chock-full with humor like “No One Lives Forever”, especially given the antiquated setting, there could have been something. Having an “Archer”-like blowhard lead a group of misfits directly casted from James Bond movies and MST3K-style cheesy SciFi hams, that could have been it.
    As it is it’s kind of nothing. It’s not great and not horrid. Not unappealing but also not really exciting. The game-concept itself feels almost too subdued, the mechanics could have been from a game a decade old. And while XCOM’s graphics were fine for a round-based, isometric strategy-game, in this weird 3rd person Mass-Effect-shooty thing it looks blotchy and everyone looks weird.
    Wasted potential, I think, in the name of cross-promotion. Sad.

    • Chum Joely

      Archer, MST3K films, and XCOM… great, now I’m drooling all over my keyboard at work.

  • cnr

    Bad review. The game isn’t about NOT being boilerplate. Its not about being a unique butterfly. Its set in the 60′s and IN LOVE with the stiff upper-lip, no emotion hard line aesthetic. If you can’t appreciate that fine, but this game is great for its distinct art style, a story where they tried very hard despite revamping it THREE times, and very strong gameplay. Admittedly you have to play it on the hardest difficulty. Anything else your just a tourist. At any rate, once you get the hang out setups and combos the possibilities really start to exponentially increase. Do some characters echo a little hollow? sure, I really didn’t get why the main character was moaning over some of the people who die. But the motivations were clear which is enough for me. 
    This title was far more enjoyable gameplay-wise to say Infinite.