Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Game Review: The Bureau - XCOM Declassified

Format Played: PC

The Bureau was hard-wired from the start to receive a difficult reception among critics and gamers.
Nervously sheltering under the XCOM franchise umbrella, it came across as a desperate turnaround from the first-person investigative shooter initially touted to the raging screams of a million neckbeard fanboys. More independent observers such as myself though that original vision looked like an interesting, creepy blend of The X-Files and L.A. Noire, but instead we have been delivered a more tactical third-person cover-based effort with some very light RPG elements slathered on top.

A good decision to have made? A big old "Nah" with some caveats.

With the re-emergence of XCOM as king of the turn-based strategy planet, a more immediate game in the XCOM universe seemed less of a sacrilege-fest for fans. But The Bureau ends up straddling so many fences that it forms a far less than coherent whole. Its setting is the ace in the hole in many ways, as 1950s small-town America is cracked open by towering (if generic) alien architecture and strewn with high school-jacketed corpses and infected humans. If there isn’t a body hidden somewhere who has been designed to look like The Fonz, the developers have missed a trick. Graphically it impresses as well, lush and complex environments unfolding ahead of you with nary a glitch to be seen aside from a somewhat odd framerate hit that some PC users (including myself) have reported.

The gameplay is split between combat missions and the central hub – in the former, you roll forward into setpiece arena after setpiece arena, splatting aliens with a range of satisfying powers and weapons. Time can be slowed significantly while you pass out orders to the two agents accompanying you, which allows for tactical decisions while remaining under the hammer to a certain degree. It’s a fine balance which the game just about achieves – and when it all comes together, it can feel very satisfying to pop your agents into flanking positions, slamming down turrets and airstrikes as you do so. A hefty flaw is that the targeting reticule for positioning or powers cannot move through cover – a bizarre decision that wastes your time by navigating the inevitable chest-high walls just to tell your agents to do the same. Enemy AI is fairly competent and will ruthlessly flank you if given half a chance, though the same compliment cannot be paid to your team members who have a tendency to try to incubate grenades flung at them by sitting on them and producing a less-than-pleasing explosion baby.

Unfortunately by the end of the game the satisfaction in combat has dulled through repetition, with no new alien types showing their faces after about one-third of the way through. Given the variation available from both the older games and the reboot, it’s a shame only 4 or so different aliens actually make an appearance. It’s justified in the backstory somewhat, but you get the impression throughout that said backstory has been constructed to limit the amount of work needed rather than to fit any kind of overall writing decision. Perhaps even more unforgivable is the amount of time you spend running onwards between encounters – some worldbuilding is attempted in these sections with dialogue and scenes of devastation, but more often than not you are just running through empty corridors or woodland clearings. Not since Space Marine has one game made you rack up the cardio so much for no obvious reason beyond padding.

Agents themselves have some levelling up within very limited skill trees, with a paltry 5 levels handed out to them while your protagonist rent-a-gruff William Carter has 10. There’s not a tremendous amount of variation on show and they're mostly standard powers veteran gamers will have experienced a thousand times before, with the likes of criticals, healing, aggro buffs all showing their faces. All four agent classes are fairly distinctive and have some use on the battlefield, though I found my favourite two fairly early on and stuck with them throughout. Much has been made of the agent permadeath in an effort to evoke the main franchise, though it’s hardly much of an imposition on anything but the hardest setting.

Which leaves us with the between-mission central hub area. Oh, the dull horrors of this. The hours spent strolling (since running is turned off inside your base) around corridors to have a boring conversation with a non-character in order that they can send me to talk to someone else. Or, occasionally, on a mini-mission that will likely involve strolling down further corridors to find something of little-to-no interest. For a completionist like me, it’s torture. For more normal human beings, you will escape some of this but are still railroaded through enough monotonous chats where Carter animatedly pounds his fist into an open palm so often that he seems to be punishing it for horribly onanistic crimes committed during his sleeping hours.
In short: these bits are awful tepid shite, and they should in no way have made it through to the finished game. It’s not often you’ll read a gaming writer clamour for cutscenes, even an amateurish one like myself, but all of this could be achieved with two minutes of inter-mission exposition. Said exposition would be drab however it is presented, since the story is largely not even worth mentioning. Aliens, protagonist with a haunted past, fighting back, this is our independence day, blah blah blah.

In fact, I get the feeling that the hub was inserted intentionally to break up the repetition of the combat. If this was the case, then they succeeded only in wedging deeper monotony into the middle of some light monotony. ‘Grats.

So what are we left with? Chunky combat that slowly exposes a lack of depth throughout the length of the game and interminable inter-mission sections. It looks pretty, it has a unique setting and towards the end manages to have a bit of narrative fun with the concept of third-person control within gaming. But none of that is ultimately enough to recommend a purchase above bargain-price. There are the bare bones of a decent game here, but the whole experience comes across as a polished rushjob.  

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