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.
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.
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.
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.