It hasn’t been an easy couple of years for the XCOM franchise. Back in 2011′ the next step in the future of that series was revealed, a FPS that was heavy on the gung-ho and light on the spirit of the original games. After being off the radar for quite a while, that game has re-emerged as The Bureau: XCOM Declassified. And it might just be the updated game that fans wanted in the first place.
Sitting down to play the game on PC with Xbox controllers, the mission started out in the New Mexico town of Pima. A team had gone missing in that area while investigating some alien activity, and it was up to Carter and his men to find out what was going on.
Landing in the town, the area was mostly deserted, save for a few townsfolk that were walking around aimlessly in a dead stupor, a result of an alien infection that left them “at best as non-combatants, and at worse as enemy sleeper agents” according to XCOM Declassified’s Alyssa Finley.
At this point, the game began with the first real battle. It’s a third-person perspective, and while the developers had explained that they weren’t making a cover-based shooter, it still retains several of those trademarks gleaned from games such as Gears of War and Mass Effect.
What XCOM Declassified does do though, is avoid becoming a game of ‘whack-a-mole’. You’re going to have to move around the battlefield here, as sticking to one piece of cover will get you killed quickly.
That lone wolf style of play is your enemy, as controlling the theatre of battle is the key to success, much like in other XCOM games that have come before. But unlike those other games, and last year’s turn-based performance from Enemy Unknown, the action in XCOM Declassified leans far more to active action than paused strategy.
It’s here where Carter’s Battle Focus comes in to play. Again, imagine the action wheel from Mass Effect, but with more detailed commands that you can use to direct your squad-mates into cover or make use of their special abilities.
What Battle Focus doesn’t do though, is pause the game and give you the leisure of planning your next move like a game of chess without consequences. The battle still rages on while you make those battlefield decisions, albeit at a slower rate. Still, take too long, and you can quickly find yourself on the wrong end of a laser rifle, as what happened to me in my playthrough.
And that’s where the core of the game resides. Not in playing the game as an unstoppable killing machine, but as a team leader who directs the action, and takes part in it as well.
And boy, do those abilities help. While Carter can show off his apparent skill with the Force, thanks to the shift ability that helplessly dangles an alien in the air (thanks to some repurposed technology that all XCOM agents possess), his team can also set up turrets, mines and taunt antagonists.
An aspect of the game which set ups an interesting mechanic of combining these skills. For instance, as we were shown in the initial demo, one could lay a mine and then taunt an enemy to charge at you, setting off that ordnance and taking out a few more soldiers with him.
Or mark an enemy, use Carter’s Shift to haul him up into the air and then concentrate all the firepower of your team onto his helpless body. I like that idea, it helps keep things fresh, and I’m hoping to see more of that particular fusion of skill sets explored more in the final cut of the game.
And with that trial by fire complete, Carter’s team made its way further into Pima, until they managed to make contact with agent De Silva. His team dead, Pima overrun with alien forces and suffering from the virus that had turned the rest of the town into brain-dead collections of walking organs, things weren’t looking good.
More trouble was on the way, but the battlefield itself had changed, as De Silva had managed to leave several remote explosives in the area around, ordinance that I could have De Silva detonate when I needed him to.
That extra aspect of the game made a difference, especially with new alien types appearing to try and take us down. While the foot soldiers of the extra-terrestrial slaver race that have their eyes on earth use Grey’s and more humanoid races as their foot soldiers, more advanced soldiers can appear to set up barricades and command troops, while benefitting from shields and added toughness.
Further on in the game such a scenario happened, as Carter’s XCOM team had to fend off a massive assault, with the aggressors soon receiving some reinforcement in the form of a foe that will be familiar to any veteran XCOM player: The Muton.
Heavy, massive and better armoured than the regular grunts, a combination of teamwork, distractions, remote explosives and good old fashioned violence was needed in order to take it down.
From there, the game dipped back into the narrative, with Carter being able to question De Silva before the hands-on ended with a glimpse at the scale of the invasion. So in short: This isn’t the XCOM remake that was shown off at E3 several years ago.
It’s a back to basics game that is drawing on several influences, going back to the core of what made XCOM so successful, but updating to contain a level of action that is augmented by on the fly tactical decisions.
It’s a tricky scenario though for The Bureau: XCOM Declassified. There’s the possibility of stepping on the toes of hardened fans, while the job of enticing more guns-ho players could be a tall order for the title.
But it is a refreshing game, regardless.