The Bureau is Underrated Because of the XCOM Name
I’m starting to think The Bureau: XCOM Declassified might be misunderstood — or at least, not fully appreciated.
Take a look around Metacritic, for a start, and you’ll see what I mean. With an average around 66/100, the game is often flagged for its name. “Don’t call this XCOM,” the IGN review proclaims. That would have been good advice.
In fact, there’s probably an uncomfortable amount of blame to be laid at the feet of the name “XCOM” and all the baggage it entails. After all, XCOM is a storied series and comes with all kinds of connotations, about gameplay, genre, and elements that define it. An XCOM game needs to be a strategy title, or at least include a strategy component. It should have base-building. It should feel tactical as well as permanent, with high stakes behind every mission.
The Bureau struggles with all those elements, although it also often executes on them better than it gets credit for doing. Many reviews decried it as trying to be “all things to all players,” but I think that’s an assessment that comes from the name. The Bureau isn’t all that far removed from titles like Mass Effect or the Brothers in Arms series when it comes to gameplay — so why is this strategy/shooter hybrid “all things to all players” and those aren’t?
It’s that damned XCOM label, and all requirements that come with it. The unfortunate result of that branding is that a game that does Mass Effect’s combat better than Mass Effect enjoys middling review scores, and will likely never have much more than a cult fanbase.
That’s not to say The Bureau isn’t without flaws, because it definitely has a few — but many of things cited as being negatives really ought to be counted in the game’s favor. Reviews point to issues such as AI teammates who need “babysitting,” and tactical gameplay that requires players to put in a lot of time in its slow-motion, order-giving interface. And yes, certainly there are elements of this that are dumb, like the requirement to physically move a cursor into a position — moving it up and down stairs and around barricades — to issue orders to characters.
But other flaws aren’t flaws at all — they’re features. AI teammates in The Bureau aren’t meant to be Mass Effect’s semi-autonomous squad, but rather, a tactical extension of the player, and complaining about their inability to get themselves out of trouble seems to be missing the point. A similar approach is taken in Brothers in Arms, in which players wield a gun of their own, but must constantly issue orders to squad members to move their positions and assign them enemies to attack.
That’s a conscious choice to infuse the third-person shooter style of The Bureau with XCOM-esque strategy. Instead of being a commander from a remote position, however, you’re a battlefield lieutenant, working with your men in the thick of battle. Those AI guys rely on you to be the smart one.