After a troubled development schedule, that consisted of a terrible received E3 demo that originally was a first person shooter, to multiple developers over 8 years and several technical and creative issues, this X-Com spin-off has all the makings of failure after the rough and tumble ride it took to get here. How does it fare?
The Bureau tells the story of William Carter, a CIA special agent who is tasked to bring a mysterious briefcase to his director Faulke, and soon becomes part of the war between the US and the Outsiders, an extraterrestrial hostile force that comes to lay waste to Earth (or the United States) . Needless to say, the story in The Bureau is very haphazard and disengaging. The story logically makes little sense, Carter is a charmless protagonist and the very fact that these events are meant to be secret operations is laughable.
One has to wonder how X-Com manages to hide all traces of alien activity when the entire United States falls under attack. Carter may be the least engaging protagonist this year, as he plays his role completely straight, coming off as completely unlikable. The attempts at plot twists come off as weak, as we’re not given a reason to connect with Carter outside of playing as him. He has no motivations or reasoning for his actions outside of being a CIA agent who has to protect his country.
In the context of the game, he is merely a vehicle to drive the setting from one point to the next, with little connective tissue keeping it together. While this may be enough for some, it simply doesn’t make for engaging storytelling. The setting would have somehow benefited from a more parodist point of view, giving the setting of 1962 America and the absurdity of the situation. But Carter plays the thing so straight and humourlessly that it’s painful, and the rare attempts at quips and one-liners are just absurd. The rare attempt at throwing a spanner into the mix in regards to the story is welcoming and a surprising narrative twist works well, but it’s merely a cherry on what is a figuratively bland and unremarkable cake.
The Bureau looks great. It looks like 1962 America. The aesthetic, the feel, it’s all there. Again, if The Bureau decided to play a campy and over the top route, it could have made the setting charming and engaging, but the insistence of playing it straight hinders the presentation of what would otherwise be a fantastic looking game. You really feel like you were dropped into 1960’s America. The style and clothing, the cars, the buildings, it all fits well with the setting. Unfortunately, the game is riddled with technical bugs, at least on the PS3 version.
Frame drops, screen tearing are commonplace, and I encountered a mildly hilarious glitch that had Carter on an audio loop of him barking orders at his teammates that wouldn’t stop until a battle was over. Audio wise, the voice acting fulfils the bare minimum as competent, but serviceably bland and unengaging. Carter’s voice actor seems simply disinterested in his script, as when faced with a huge revelation, he acts completely nonchalant. Not one voice actor stands out, with the possible exception of Alan Weir, who has the worst Australian accent in a form of media since Pacific Rim.
The Bureau can be described as a mix between the old school SOCOM, Mass Effect with a dash of the criminally underrated Star Wars Republic Commando thrown in. Gameplay is The Bureau’s saving grace, as the intriguing mix of tactical combat and straightforward third person shooter elements is both fun and engaging. Unfortunately, the AI is dumb as a brick. Or two bricks, to be precise. Unlike Enemy Unknown, the focus on Carter as the squad leader means you’ll be spending your time and perspective on his actions on the battlefield, and occasionally your mind will slip in regards to your teammates.
Like Enemy Unknown, you need your teammates to survive. But the lack of complete control over your two teammates, coupled with the terrible, terrible AI system means you’ll be spending most of your time frustratingly micromanaging each specific action for your teammate to even have an effect on the battlefield, much less keeping them alive.
The pure fact that this is an X-Com game that revolves around one main protagonist means that Carter cannot die on the battlefield, severely negating the threat of the widely touted ‘permadeath’, something X-Com popularized and is widely known for. The effects of permadeath are short term at best, as a fight can only be handled with both teammates, and if one dies, the simplest course of action is to restart from the last checkpoint. Of course, The Bureau’s attempts at telling a story with actual focus can’t be held against it, and the mere fact that there is one means there has to be one protagonist who cannot die in the course of the game, but this mostly rules out the effect and fear of permanent deaths.
Combat consists of open battlefields, shooting at aliens and using abilities. There are a few great tie-ins to the aliens of X-Com (this being a spin-off and all), and the mix is varied enough to keep things interesting. The amount of enemies the game throws at you towards the end makes for a huge challenge that treads a fine line between thrilling and frustrating, as you struggle to fight against commanders, Outsiders, and giant Mutons that take a huge beating.
While some of these bigger enemies attempt to throw some variety into the mix (Sectopods requiring you to break the cockpit with firepower before dealing any real damage, and Psychic Commanders mind controlling one of your teammates) most of these boil down to whittling down their health until they’re dead. Later on when facing pairs of these Sectopods or Elite Mutons, the crawling rate that their health drops at comes off as pure tedium and frustration, rather than showing any real challenge.
The weapons are devoid of creativity and uniqueness. The human and alien weapons are essentially similar in terms of impact and damage, only you’ll be using a lot more alien weapons halfway through. The limited ammo resources means you’ll be constantly running around the battlefield, scrounging up weapons in an attempt to keep you on your feet, but it’s the abilities you’ll fall back on. These abilities make up half the fun of The Bureau’s gameplay, as you rely on turrets, drones, critical shots and many other variations of powers to turn the playing field.
They don’t make much narrative sense (halfway through a battle you can suddenly gain the ability to throw a ‘blob’, or a drone) but they’re quite useful and creative enough to warrant a mild interest in the battlefield. The game also throws in backpacks, which can be equipped to provide mild perks such as extra ammo or extra damage. These are nice touches but ultimately they aren’t necessary to win a battle, but they do help in the short-term.
As much as I love 2K and despite the fear that the studios behind this game will suffer immensely due to its long and turbulent schedule, The Bureau remains a weak entry into the X-Com series. The attempts at introducing actual plot elements into the X-Com universe comes off as weak, the gameplay is fun but ultimately drags and doesn’t evolve, and the permadeth element comes off as non-threatening. Enemy Unknown was a gem from 2011. The Bureau isn’t so lucky. Maybe as a budget title it would’ve seen a more successful launch and a longer shelf life, but despite this possibly meaning the end of 2K Australia, it just isn’t worth your time.