Mid-Century Modern: Hands-On with The Bureau: XCOM Declassified

 

The Bureau: XCOM Declassified begins, like all XCOM games, with a surprise attack. Aliens strike deep at the heart of the American military machine, at a secret base somewhere in the vast Western wilderness.

Agent William Carter wakes up to it with a hangover. A crack operative, he has trauma in his past: a wife and child dead in a house fire that happened while he was out on assignment.

Initially, there’s no time for angst. Not content with pulverizing outmatched military hardware — The Bureau is set in 1962, with a backdrop of Cold War paranoia and political turmoil — the alien enemy is possessing people, including Carter’s colleagues. The doughty agent and his beautifully rendered face — expressive, human, like something off an old pulp novel — has to escape the base alive.

“Collapsing high-tech scientific/military base” isn’t the most original setting for a game’s first moments, but the level designers at 2K Marin do themselves proud, layering in flickering shadows, retro-futuristic technology, and burning tanks and the smoky haze they produce.

Carter is soon joined by two fellow G-men, and the game introduces its distinctive brand of third-person tactical combat. Players will appreciate the clatter of 60′s firearms, the vintage-looking UI, which recalls BioShock, and the campy, film-reel tutorials, which recall Fallout.

More involved than Mass Effect, The Bureau will require careful planning to take down alien threats — moving allies into cover and deploying special abilities like headshots, taunts, squad buffs, and even artillery strikes. It’s a system designed to challenge your brain in the same way the top-down, isometric XCOM games did.

After events that will remain un-spoiled, Carter ends up back at XCOM headquarters, an underground lair originally designed to serve as a base of resistance in the event of Soviet invasion. There’s a lot of running around and talking to people — the avuncular XCOM director, the affable partner, the creepy German mad-scientist type, the fiery female agent beset by 60′s sexism. There’s also plenty of background information to be gleaned from reading notes and audio recordings left lying around in accordance with current game design convention.

This section oozes 60′s atmosphere, but feels a little inert; one hopes that the on-base excitement will pick up when the initial “here’s where everything is” housekeeping is out of the way. It also serves as a reminder that despite the best efforts of talented animators, video game characters still look silly smoking cigarettes.

Things pick up once Carter is back out on a mission, picking through the remains of a college’s small-town homecoming while attempting to find an eccentric professor whose knowledge may hold the key to defeating the aliens. Those who have followed the Bureau for some time will recognize this level from earlier previews of the game.

This first plot mission provides plenty of crisp 60′s art direction, as well as the first glimpse of the creepy zombified townsfolk the aliens have corrupted and left behind for some uncertain purpose. It’s also the first taste of true combat, without tutorial-buffed allies. On its recommended difficulty, The Bureau is a real challenge, and makes good on the promise of true XCOM-style brain-engagement. You’ll want to be constantly issuing orders to your squad, moving them into solid cover and deploying special abilities.

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