Late last year, we reviewed the first reboot of the XCOM series of games, titled Enemy Unknown. The prequel to this game, The Bureau: XCOM Declassified, while not a turn-based game, still retains some of the strategy elements while bringing you to the battlefield as a third-person shooter. Think XCOM meets Gears of War meets Mass Effect, all set in the early 1960s. Intrigued? Then read on.

The game puts you in the shoes of CIA special agent William Carter, delivering a package to Bureau director Myron Faulke. Suffice to say that the parcel never makes it, due to the planet coming down with a severe case of the aliens. Carter discovers that in the aftermath of the invasion, he’d been drafted into XCOM, a secret government agency tasked with keeping the homeland safe. This, in the context of 1962, originally meant “Russians”, but homeland security means protection against aliens of many kinds. During the course of the game, you lead Carter and a small squad of Bureau specialists of your choosing across the USA, performing missions of various descriptions, trying to understand the motive for the alien invasion.

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Anyone who has been following the development of this game will be aware of its torturous and ill-received birth as a FPS more than 6 years ago. The change from FPS to third-person tactical shooter with strategy elements is a much-welcome change, but how does it translate in real terms? Strangely, it works incredibly well. While most of the action happens in real time, you can slow time down (called “Battle Focus Mode”) to bark orders to your squad. Once you’re done saying where you want your squad to sit and where they want the shooty ends of their weapons to point, it is business as usual and you can gleefully watch the mayhem erupt around you. What I like about this approach is that it eliminates the whole feeling of clumsy and stupid ally AI, because you don’t have to rely on a bunch of programming to perhaps win the scenario. It’s all you this time, boyo. Your allies are naturally twit-like, and any intelligence and strategy has to come from you.

In keeping with the feel of the prior XCOM game, your squad mates are fully customizable, and they all suffer permadeath should you happen to be slow to revive them in the field. Yep, you lose them, they’re lost for good. Watch this video to understand what I mean.

Exactly this. YOLO. You could engage in a bit of savescumming, I suppose, but that’s not very gentlemanly behaviour. The more preferable tactic, of course, is to carefully survey the battlefield, give reasonable orders, and just keep everyone alive. It takes a long time to raise the skills levels of your team members and you don’t want to lose them.

My chief criticism of the game is that it bears the XCOM name, and given the amazing experience that was last year’s game, The Bureau has big shoes to fill. It’s probably fair to say that there’s a fair bit of room for a few extra pairs of socks in these shoes. On its own, it wouldn’t have been a bad game at all. However, while it’s certainly interesting to see the genesis of the XCOM unit, it’s not something that needed to happen. Indeed, I have difficulty fitting this game and the prior one into a cohesive timeline.

On the other hand, the way the game handles tactical orders is very much in line with the prior XCOM game. Cover is, of course, important, but so is your proximity and position relative to the enemy. It’s fun as usual to take advantage of environmental elements to win the battles, but in heat the action, it loses the cerebral nature of what was so attractive about the first game. Still, it’s a different challenge to think strategy while all about you others are losing their heads. It makes Enemy Unknown feel almost…peaceful.

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I suppose that, given the game’s history and development cycle, the fact that it comes out at least looking unscathed is a testament to both the fun of the game, and the talent of the 2K Marin team. Other games with less troubled pasts have come out by far the worse for wear. The hybrid gameplay is actually a lot of fun, and it’s a nice difference from the “hope the AI knows what it is doing” style. I still question the 1960s setting, but I suppose it’s a way to make you feel as if the alien tech is actually a step and a half above what the lads at the Bureau are currently using. It’s no Mass Effect, but as a tactical shooter game, it can show its scars off with some measure of pride, whether inflicted by Russians or otherwise.

Final Score: 7.5 evil alien overlord prawns out of 10

Detailed information
Developer: 2K Marin
Published: 2K Games
Distributor: Megarom
Platforms: PS3 (reviewed), Xbox360, PC
Age Rating: 15+
Website: http://www.thebureau-game.com