Hey, remember when 2K Marin announced a new XCOM game way back in 2010 and everyone got super excited about defending Earth against a new alien threat via a three-quater tactical view? Remember how when they said it would be a first person shooter instead and all those excited fans got really upset that it had been “dumbed down” for the masses of COD kiddies? What we saw during that 2010 E3 was a mixed bag for some and for most accounts 2K Marin has been mum about any details — so much so that fans got tossed a quick but really fantastic (seriously it was our GOTY for 2012) franchise entry as “XCOM: Enemy Unknown” to keep some of the hardcore fans satiated. Well, a lot can change in three years and what may have been another mediocre shooter clone got altered into a tactical third person shooter blending elements from “XCOM: EU” and “Mass Effect” set during the Cold War.
We got a taste of what “The Bureau” would be a few weeks ago with this haunting live action trailer and last week I got a hands-on demo of what to expect come this summer.
It seems the alien invasion is starting subtly by overtaking Small Town, USA as the demo opens with a disturbance in New Mexico. Special Agent Carter and his assembled team fly in to investigation and battle any ETs they happen upon. Combat quickly escalates as you learn that the previous XCOM squad is MIA following a surprise attack. Also, the populace have been possed in a sense via some kind of oily goo (think “The X-Files” series and movie) and the aliens have begun a full fledged invasion building massive radiotower-like structures. It’s your job to prevent this.
The narrative of “The Bureau” is cleary the origin story of the XCOM program. As the Cold War was escalating between USA and USSR, President Kennedy called into action a government program originally intended to spy and prepare for a commie attack. Instead we learn that the real threat is from space and as Carter, you’ll jump from place to place at the forefront for the battle of Earth. Much like the other games, you’ll recruit and train your special team. Outside your team, you’ll interact with various characters with whom you can steer a conversation via a dialogue tree of sorts. It won’t be as in depth as some RPGs but you’ll gain some knowledge about any alien activity. There’s also the standard files and collectbles to flesh out the story.
“The Bureau” is a tactical shooter and I mean that. There isn’t any running and gunning — well you can attempt to bravely assault a vastly superior alien army powered by super advanced tech and weapons–but the brutal reality of it is that even on normal difficulty you’ll get shredded quickly. The heart and soul of the top down RTS have been transplanted onto the more intimate TPS battlefield where you’re up close and personal with the third kind. Gameplay largely revolves around advancing from cover to cover to gain an advantage. You’ll gain bonuses for flanking attacks and each squadie has a variety of tools and skills to win.
I hate to go back to the “Mass Effect” comparison but it’s very apt. In “The Bureau” you’ll have to manage your team and make sure they’re in the right place at the right time. Unlike other so-called tactical shooters, you’ll really need to take care of your crew and make sure they’re focused on the big threat. You won’t have to babysit them per se, but they won’t advance without your command. Fortunately, controlling them is pretty easy and they are responsive to your commands. By bringing up a command wheel you can select skills and movement options. While the wheel is up, there is a slight time dialiation — but the fighting is still in motion giving you an incentive to choose fast. Of course, skills have cooldowns so plan carefully. As for moving your pawns around, you’ll have a slight aerial view to guide them to the appropriate cover. It’s methodical shooter that rerwards smart thinking and punishes recklessness.
During my time, I pushed my engineer — who I depended on for his valuable turret ability — a little too far in battle and he was immediately downed. you’ll have a few momements to reach your mate and activate your heal but when he bleeds out, that’s it. No revive, nothing. You’ll need to keep your men alive unless you want to constantly recruit greenhorns and start from scratch. Agents level up much like Carter and gaining new skills and combat proficiency. Of course, relying on just a few soldiers to do the heavy lifting will bite you in the ass if they ever die. Fortunately, there are several points during a mission in which you can swithc out your team — so spread the wealth of experience to create a battle-ready stable of soldiers.
The 1950-60’s “creature feature” movie vibe provides an interesting backdrop to the grisley death and destruction. Additionally, it’s neat to see how the XCOM program learns and creates new tech that you’ll use in the field. There isn’t any kind of resource management, but you will be able to tour your command center to see what the researchers and engineers have been up to. You’ll enouncter alien tech in the field and soon you’ll have a functioning plasma rifle or new skill power to use. I wasn’t able to roam around the base at the demo but it was briefly talked about how you’ll experience much of what makes “XCOM” fun.
Playing through the short mission proved to me that whatever 2K Marin’s been doing for the lat few years has been worth it. What would have been another generic shooter has been turned into a seemingly competent, fully fleshed out third person shooter. The challenge, look and feel, and narrative should engage fans and newcomeres alike and I for one am very much looking forward to “The Bureau” in August.