The Bureau is a confused game. It doesn’t seem to have a single, driving focus, and that really hurts the experience. Instead of, I assume, working with the folks at Firaxis to craft a narrative that dovetails into the narrative of last year’s XCOM: Enemy Unknown, The Bureau spins a tale that is gripping at the front and completely nonsensical at the conclusion.
The gameplay, in contrast, is interesting and engaging, as long as you don’t mind have mechanics that don’t jive with the greater narrative. Players unfamiliar with Enemy Unknown won’t notice much, but those that played last year’s game will find themselves wondering where the braces and Mass Effect-inspired powers are in the future. Carter, The Bureau’s main character, can levitate enemies in the air, while his squad-mates lay down laser turrets and call on friendly aliens for assistance.
All of these technologies and techniques are lost somewhere between 1962 and 2015. The XCOM of the future has to research Elerium and laser weapons, while the XCOM of the past is either using them as part of the game’s setup or within the first hour. Hand-waving away public knowledge of the game’s events is one thing, but expecting the U.S. government to completely forget they have laser weapons to take apart and Elerium bombs and generators of their own is a huge stretch.
From skirmish to skirmish, though, the elements are all fun. It’s great, once your real squadmates (the fellows in the tutorial are absent after the first real mission) start getting superpowers. You can slow down time, tell one guy to lay down a turret and then levitate it while your sniper takes critical shots from behind cover. Each engagement has opportunities for a great tactical victory, and pulling off that victory feels great.
Again though, you wrap those engagements up in the XCOM trappings, and they just don’t feel right. My three guys mow through 15-plus enemies, easily, in a normal fight. Those aren’t XCOM odds; they’re Gears of War odds. The whole point of XCOM is supposed to be “be careful or be dead,” and that just doesn’t come across here.
While The Bureau does employ permanent death, it also singles out Carter as the main character. When he dies, you restart at a checkpoint. Realistically, what this means is that you never lose anybody, because when an encounter goes south and one teammate goes down permanently, the other two are quick to follow. A full squad wipe was unfortunate and sometimes game-ending in Enemy Unknown. Here, though, complete failure is wiped away, and if you’re lucky partial failure is punished.
Enemies are all bullet-sponges, even on normal difficulty. I think this is meant to raise the tension and nullify player skill to make enemies more formidable foes. A muton is supposed to be hard to kill, and here I can aim directly at its head. So the enemies either can’t have weak points or are mostly immune to bullets. Both punish the player, and deflate what should have been a great game.
Aping Enemy Unknown would have been welcome. Slow things down even more, and let me direct units. That way, you can highlight the strategic firefights and downplay the guns without telling me that headshots don’t matter, because a headshot should still do more damage than a body shot. What you need to do is make luring enemies to the oil drum a more attractive option.
As soon as you’re able, ditch the pistol. Being able to carry only two guns at a time and fighting in a world full of largely damage-immune enemies makes weapons like the shotgun and sniper rifle much more attractive. They hold less ammo, but that’s fairly plentiful, and connections will actually damage enemies. The standard pistol is more a slap on the wrist than a meaningful offense.
The aesthetic is great. The Bureau nails early 1960s Americana. I want to walk around the cities before the aliens arrived and just appreciate the Cold War propaganda, sensible dress and stunning automobiles. Clearly a lot of time when into understanding and recreating the time period. Where time wasn’t spent? Optimization. Graphical stutter is common, the autosave (which is mandatory) routinely freezes the action for a few seconds after a firefight, and sometimes audio clips play for no apparent reason.
The Bureau is full to the brim with potential, but it never manages to fire on all cylinders and deliver. While you’re in love with the setting, you’re cursing the game for hanging during an autosave, and while you’re having fun with combat, you’re frustrated that the connections to Enemy Unknown are either ignored or nonsense.
This is a case of slapping a brand on to hopefully draw in sales, and it harms the product 2K Marin has made. This isn’t an XCOM game, and it would be better if the brand weren’t forced. The game would still have plenty of issues, but standing side-by-side with one of last year’s best games certainly doesn’t help.
Pros: Encounters allow for great strategy, squad powers are fun, 1960s aesthetic is well-done
Cons: Weapons feel underpowered, game is a mess technically, XCOM brand is poorly integrated