A few years back we were presented with a trailer for the simply titled XCOM, a retro reboot of the strategy classic developed by 2K Marin (Bioshock 2) that transplanted the sectoid-smashing to the Cold War era, complete with snappy fedoras and oddly abstract extraterrestrials. It was a very chilling take on the franchise that polarized fans, with many decrying the game’s FPS perspective. The XCOM: Enemy Unknown happened, which pretty much put XCOM right back where it started (in the best way possible) as a tense turn-based strategy game that was universally lauded. Thus, 2K Marin’s XCOM went through a few nips and tucks and finally came out as The Bureau: XCOM Declassified.
Set more firmly in the universe (re)established by XCOM: Enemy Unknown, the game details humanity’s first encounter with the Outsiders and the birth of the XCOM organization. Originally envisioned as a way to repel invading Soviets (I guess the Wolverines weren’t part of the original plan), XCOM finds itself being quickly repurposed in the face of a full-fledged alien invasion. Players are cast as Agent William Carter, a sadly bland agent whose closetful of skeletons remains largely closed throughout the game as he leads the initial spearhead for XCOM. This is presented as a competent third-person shooter with enough of the XCOM gameplay elements (strategic planning, permadeath of agents) to keep it feeling like a proper entry in the series. The story is decently meaty, with interrogative interludes helping flesh out smaller characters and deliver mini-missions to expand upon the game’s lore, and there are plenty of references and nods to link this prequel to its more strategic forebear.
The main focus of the gameplay is a tactical third-person shooter, which tries (and mostly succeeds) to bring the more cerebral aspects of the franchise to a more action-based title. Most missions have Carter joined by two other agents who, mercifully, do a fairly solid job of seeking cover and providing solid support against the Outsiders on their own. Carter can also issue commands to his squadmates in pseudo-real time, with the onscreen action slowing to a snail’s pace as you issue commands for your fellow agents to flank your foes, heal, or fire off a deadly critical shot. Just like Enemy Unknown, these agents level up during missions and can be permanently killed, making them a valuable resource to be protected. Having a particularly beefed-up squadmate fall in battle is just as tragic and frustrating as ever, which makes keeping your eyes on them during battle a critical skill, which can be rather daunting in particularly heated firefights.
The move to the 1960’s also gives the game a deliciously unique flavor. The parallels between the Red Scare and alien invasion are clearly drawn, and the mid-century technology with a splash of retro-futurism is a very fresh setting for games. The game never falls on the tropes of atom-age sci-fi (there’s nary a warbling Theremin in earshot) but instead further cements the technological inferiority of humanity to the extraterrestrials. The infected humans, with inky discharges dribbling from their eyes, are an eerie homage to The X-Files’ black oil, and the image of small American towns being reduced to rubble is oddly uncomfortable.
Ultimately, The Bureau is an oddly satisfying experiment. It manages to merge together the strategic flavor of XCOM with more action-based gameplay in a surprisingly competent fashion with minimal concessions given to either element. The slightly dated graphics do a commendable job at rendering the retro world, and the sound design is absolutely fantastic. It may not be the earth-shattering revelation that XCOM: Enemy Unknown was, but it’s certainly an exciting tremor.