After languishing in development hell for over seven years, it’s no surprise that this prequel to the beloved XCOM series has turned out to be a disappointing, schizophrenic mess.
While debut titles in the XCOM series – most notably the classic UFO: Enemy Unknown – were strategy adventures driven by turn-based combat that regularly feature in lists of the best games ever made, this troubled spin-off has gone through several iterations since it was first announced in 2006; from a traditional run-and-gun FPS to a creepy survival horror quest, and from a first-person tactical combat game to a third-person strategic blaster. And while The Bureau has finally hit the shelves as a third-person cover-shooter with an emphasis on squad dynamics, it still feels tainted by its erratic evolution.
The action unfolds as a linear series of alien encounters, where you and two AI-controlled companies stick to cover, try to outflank opponents, and use grenades and special weapons to drive extraterrestrials into the open. Issuing orders to companions is a cinch via the game’s intuitive command wheel, and between battles you can take a break from the bloodshed to explore the sprawling XCOM headquarters and interact with other characters using branching conversation trees that mimic Mass Effect, yet lack the depth of BioWare’s adventure.
But while The Bureau’s squad-based combat becomes more ballsy and rewarding as the game unfolds and your characters level up, the basic action is riddled with problems.
For starters, although your teammates remain permanently dead if you finish a level without them – a situation that reduced grown men to tears in earlier XCOMs – if you cark it during a level, you and any comrades who fell before you are magically revived at the last checkpoint, meaning that players are hammered for partial failure but are given another chance if they make a total cock-up.
Worse, while it’s easy to become attached to your virtual companions and use customisation tools to personalise your partners, your AI allies are pretty dumb and often bumble out of cover and expose themselves to enemy fire, meaning that you spend an inordinate amount of time dodging bullets and dashing across busy battlefields to revive friends before a timer ticks away.
A lack of freedom to explore the game’s beautifully-conceived 1960s locations, moral choices that have little impact on how the story unfolds, and stiff movement that removes any sense of urgency during skirmishes also make The Bureau a disappointing outing for XCOM. But what will irk fans most is how the perplexing plot makes little sense when viewed as part of the series, and is peppered with clumsy devices and bewildering inconsistencies that fail to mesh with The Bureau’s hallowed forebears.