It’s the 1960s: Cold War is in full swing, aliens have crashed in Roswell, and you’re a Clint Eastwood look-and-sound-alike. What could be better? This new XCOM is designed to explain and reignite the franchise. It is very different in its gameplay, and offers players deeper understanding of the XCOM origins. The Bureau takes place in the 60s, something that was hammered home throughout the evening I spent getting hands-on experience with the game, and it will have permadeath.
There were lots of 1960s details that I liked: the men wore hats and waistcoats, and everyone smokes. Awesome. However, certain 60s aspects were conflicting. If you bother to listen to the recordings (collectibles?), you can hear men talking down to women and telling them to go back to reception. Meanwhile, there are several high ranking women throughout the American military – something that just was not a reality in the early 60s. When I asked the representative from 2K Games about it, I was asked, “Well, isn’t it great to have such awesome, strong female characters?” Ummm, yes, but it breaks from your 1960s vibe. Sure, I can suspend my disbelief to accept that aliens are invading, but at least explain how some of those women got to be so high ranking in a period when they were expected to coordinate their lipstick and nail colours. It sorta feels like they’re riding the Mad Men trend, rather than actually picking a time period because it’s worthwhile – wonder if I’ll feel the same about the new Wolfenstein.
Another element that was stressed to the point of beating a dead horse was that of permadeath. When your squad members die, they die. The end. As it was explained (excessively), your actions have consequences. This means that you don’t want to just focus on your “favourite” squad members – you will need to level-up your other guys in case of accidental death. However, apparently this will follow a similar mechanism as Assassin’s Creed does with the recruit assassins – you can send your lower levelled squad members out on missions while you’re busy doing the real stuff. I didn’t get to play with this feature, but it sounds nice to me. Also, you can fully customize your squad members – from name to clothing to skills and attributes.
I got to play through about an hour or two of content, with pretty mixed feelings about the battle system. At first, it felt a bit like Valkyria to me (a game I thoroughly enjoyed). You can direct your squad and flank enemies, plus your squad will continue to fire from cover while you attack. However, XCOM is much faster paced. Time doesn’t stop while you’re in battle mode, figuring out what to do. Yes, it slows down a lot, but you can still get shot and the enemies are also moving around to try and kill you. I really enjoyed queuing up my squad’s actions – run there, then kill that guy, then plant a turret – leaving me to hide behind cover and do my own pew pew.
However, I found the battle system’s interface clunky, and rather frustrating at times. Your squad mates may be the first ones to notice the evil alien invaders charging at you, but they don’t bother to duck down behind the wall they’re a step away from. No, they’ll just take gun shots until you get into battle mode and tell them to take cover. It would be nice if they built self-preservation into their AI.
There were still some bugs that need to be worked out of the code, and I really hope that when you walk into the room you don’t aim at walls in the final version. Plus, it’s irritating that every time you open a door it does a little cut scene of you walking through with your gun raised. Cool the first time, but thereafter it gets lame.
The Bureau seems to be striving for a more character and story-driven game play. We get a lot of hints about William Carter’s (the main character) past. You can explore it more deeply by reading his file, and engaging in all the dialog trees – which you can also skip if you just want to get on with the pew pew. That said, I found the character development to be rather heavy handed. I know it’s not the final game, but I hope they find a way to be a bit more subtle about the whole thing.
It seems that the goal of The Bureau: XCOM Declassified was to move the franchise in the direction of Mass Effect. You operate out of HQ, where you chose your missions, customize characters, organize side missions, and research new weapons and technology. There’s plenty of room for chatting to NPCs and you can select from a range of conversation options to be as much of a good cop or bad cop as you like. I just hope that it is well executed in the end product.
In general, I was excited by what I saw. The graphics are pretty, the game play has some fun aspects, and you get to kill all different times of aliens, from massive blobs to little sectoids. If you’re looking for a new take on turn-based strategy shooting, this is your game. However, I’m just not sure it has all the story and RPG elements that I was promised. Also, with the exception of seeing people smoking all the time, I didn’t see anything that made its being set in the 1960s worthwhile. It just adds inconsistencies to the game. Although it does open up some awesome Roswell and J. Edgar Hoover jokes. In the end, I was happy with what I saw, but just not ready to board the hype train.