Hide the orange! The future backpack totally won’t tip them off!
The Past Ain’t Through With YouThe Bureau is a homage to old school science fiction. Well dressed men who look like they walked off of the set of Mad Men with fedoras take on big eyed aliens with laser guns and flying saucers. The soundtrack harkens back to the Cold War, with a mixture of trombones, big band, and stern military themes alongside even a few tunes inspired by Westerns of the era. From propaganda posters plastered everywhere to the disarrayed remains of a town celebrating a victorious football game, the Sixties pervades through every pore of this game’s facets.
The situation becomes a waking nightmare as aliens attack. The President and majority of the US government seems to have been eliminated, leaving only disconnect groups of military forces to try and hold out as the aliens proceed to decimate the front line. You play as William Carter, a formerly desk-bound special agent with a tragic (and tragically cliché) back story as to why he’s been out of the game for a few years. You save the head of the agency after a brief tutorial that shows off what late-game rewards await your recruits, and then report in at XCOM base. One speech by XCOM Director Faulke later, and it’s officially up to you and your small team of agents to combat the greatest threat that mankind must never hear about.
The narrative here is a work of beauty. I could tell that the writers at 2K Marin learned from Bioshock 2 and pushed themselves to create a story that was equal parts nostalgic look back on the era of sci-fi that inspired The Bureau, even with the campy “pew-pew” of laser guns in the background. Every mission has a sub-narrative to it, meaning you're always sent in with a narrative hook to scope out the situation and deal with any alien threats that come your way.
You’re still playing a gun toting, grizzled Caucasian man, but it fits for once considering the time period. Carter’s bitter pragmatism often has him jumping between supporting and arguing with his allies. He’s been carrying the weight of his past mistakes for years, and it’s been eating him up inside. His broken sense of reality only adds to his determination. His divisive standing amongst the Bureau’s staff often leaves him torn between the right choice and the satisfying one. It becomes even more pressing on his mind once he starts being heralded as a hero who will stop the alien threat, and plays on your expectations for his story arc very nicely. Your final decisions with Carter are some of the most refreshing choices I’ve ever been presented with in a game, harkening back to Telltale’s The Walking Dead.
Hero or not though, Carter is a single cog in an army of men and women standing up to save humanity. Each member of the Bureau you talk to has something to say and their own little arcs that develop as you spend your time blasting aliens. Director Faulke looks and sounds like the father figure of old, but is revealed to be a paranoid control freak with a subtle lust for power tempered by a genuine if quiet concern for those around him. Agent Weaver is a woman in a man’s world, having to fight tooth and nail for respect from most people. She’s had to repress herself from showing any sign of weakness or emotion, and it’s up to you whether to support her or not. The pilot Barnes is wary of people misleading him and often asks the questions players would ask while also pondering what society will be like if the crisis ever ends. Your custom made agents even add their own spin to each mission through their jokes, questions, and responses to the threat around them.
I’m more of a Walrus fan myself ...
The Last Fedora You’ll Ever WearSpeaking of those agents -- stop chatting up the secretaries Carter! Get out in the field! Kick some alien behinds! Thankfully, XCOM is just as enjoyable in the field as it is engaging with it’s story. Of all the attempts to bring strategy to consoles, this is one of the most approachable variations to date that still packs a hell of a punch. You control Carter with the familiar third person control scheme, but the circle button is now reserved for summoning up a command menu. With a single button press and you can go from a strategic mastermind to a marksman. It’s simple, yet works so well at commanding your agents.
You have four classes to choose from for your agents, three of which are very versatile.
Engineers can get enemies running out of cover, deploy mines, and set up automatic guns like tech commanders. Support can give your team buffs, an energy shield, and severely damage either shields or armor on enemies. Snipers can one-shot some enemies, go invisible, send out a decoy of themselves, and call in mortar strikes. Each class has its own perks to choose from as well, and each have drastic impact on your battlefield strategies. The only class that really fails is the Soldier class, which lacks any useful abilities besides taunting enemies, and is mostly irrelevant to endgame enemies. No matter who you favor in your squad, you can always send the leftover agents on away missions, Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood style, to gain new equipment and allies.
All the firepower in the world doesn’t matter if you can’t point it in the right direction. Planning ahead is a necessity. I’d often order both my agents into position and have them fire off special abilities and lock onto targets, then I would simply clean up whatever monstrosities were still wandering about the wreckage. That’s not to say you can’t lead the charge, but Carter’s abilities take far longer to recharge and place him in more of a support role. You’ll more likely have your one agent flank the enemy while the other covers you as you distract the oncoming squads of aliens. You’ll be hard pressed to beat them otherwise, as every extraterrestrial brings their A-game.
Teleporting enemies. Enemies with ground pounding jetpacks and plasma grenades that burn through your health like butter. Enemies that summon swarms of drones and blobs that knock you and your allies out of cover. Enemies that buff allies and deploy auto turrets. Enemies that double in count when damaged. Mind controllers. Stealth shotgun chargers. Heavily shielded snipers. Walking tanks that can barrage positions and melee charge you and your allies. When held up to the average shooter fare, The Bureau’s got more enemies than you could ever hope for, and they all mesh together. Each and every enemy, mini-boss, minion, and boss character fits into the game’s combat perfectly, and they all work within any level or setting.
Sectoid in the sky! I can go just as high! It’s on a disc, inside a box! Gaming Rainbow!
The level design is just as varied, with courtyards for sniping, tight quarters for charging, open fields for bombing, and interior settings for holding out. The boss fights in particular are staged in non-linear combat arenas that put Enemy Unknown’s levels to shame, paying off alternative strategies when EU just rewards turtling. Almost every fight allows for you to snipe, assault with your powers, push slowly, flank, or otherwise outmaneuver your opponents, and the few that don’t are there to teach you a new mechanic.
Levels range from short fifteen minute jaunts against small groups of aliens to lengthy forty minute to hour long core missions and even longer boss missions. The final boss battle was one of the most intensely challenging finales I’ve ever played through. I had to go through it five times before I finally found a winning strategy, but each time I got closer, and it was purely through using the game’s mechanics to their best ability, not finding an exploit. This is how a boss battle is supposed to be: a test of your skill, not your ability to understand telegraphed scripted moments.
Febreeze him so we don’t have to smell his corpse all the way back to base!
It’s the End of the World As We Know ItDespite how proudly The Bureau shows it’s battle scars, it’s not perfect. There are a significant lack of story choices for the first half of the game that leaves it feeling too linear and your involvement little beyond a gunman. There’s no base management besides your squads and their equipment, which comes at the cost of having the headquarters be predefined for story purposes. The game comes up feeling a bit short, as if a swath of side missions were cut from one particular section in the campaign. It compensates for this with replayability, although for those who want new content, there are two pieces of DLC. You have your choice of the pitifully short Codebreakers mission, which I received for free with my PS3 copy, or the new Hanger 6 prequel DLC. I wouldn’t expect any DLC to bridge forward for a sequel though, as the story wraps itself up completely by the end, hinting at ties to Enemy Unknown in the last few moments alone.
Even with all these problems, you’ve still got a fantastic strategy title. Maybe it’s not an XCOM game that older fans can accept, but I can’t say it wasn’t a valiant effort on 2K Marin’s part. It’s painful thinking it took nearly a decade’s effort across two studios and a lot of faith on 2K Game’s part just to see it be the last game for this developer.
Slender Man cleans up nicely when he doesn’t shave.
Overall ImpressionRetro sci-fi fans who prefer a campier setup will enjoy the 1960’s flair, while modern sci-fi fans will love the honest sincerity and intriguing mystery of what really is going on with William Carter. Strategy fans can finally find a middle ground with their third person shooter brethren, and fans of both finally get to flex their brains while shooting up aliens. The lack of the management aspect and some regrettable shortcomings are disappointing, but overall it’s an amazing swan song. Here’s to you, 2K Marin: You went out on a high note.
- Excellent storytelling conveyed through every aspect of the game.
- Satisfying tactical shooting on par on with the Brothers in Arms series.
- 1962 Americana vibe works great for both soundtrack and aesthetics.
- No base management elements besides your squad loadouts.
- Campaign could use more side missions.