The X-COM series has a tremendous impact on gaming. In the conflict between irreplaceable agents and dastardly aliens, luck and skill decide how the battles go. Putting terror and hope into percentages, the same way high stakes bets do. Attempts to tell the origins of the organisation have had a similar run of bad fortune. In 2013, after a whole host of internal and external issues, the world finally learned the truth in The Bureau: XCOM Declassified.
In the 1960s, the president has created a bureau to deal with the impending soviet threat, yet after the first contact with extra-terrestrial life becomes violent in Gloom Ridge, the bureau’s purpose is quickly amended to deal with this violent alien nuisance. You and your team are the United States’ last line of defense against the alien onslaught and must investigate this mysterious black goo that’s zombifying the nation.
Breaking from tradition, you control one William Carter, a turtleneck wearing gruff agent. It is rare for the player to directly control a solider in X-COM, especially one with such a personality. You usually attempt missions with a squad of two other agents that can level up and be customised, Customising your agents still has the same appeal as it does in “classic” X-COM, and doubly so the pain of losing them in mismanaged firefights. A lot of the set pieces are quite enjoyable, seeing countless cities’ main streets rendered eerily calm and submerged in black goop. Raiding farmyard/missile silos and battling onboard alien spacecraft. There’s not as much historical revisionism as there were in shows like Dark Skies, but I like the way the game’s writing tries to justify each of these impressive, making attempting the side stories as enjoyable as beating the campaign. In-between missions you get to explore an elaborate office complex that serves as the command centre for XCOM, while there is no way to upgrade them, you do get bonus missions occasionally, incentivising you to explore.
The gameplay itself is interesting, it feels similar to Mass Effect in the way you position and order your squadmates, to use their abilities, and hide behind cover. You also get a “battle focus” view that slows time almost to a standstill, so while it gives some turn-based breathing room, it doesn’t protect you like in Fallout. Outside of the player’s skills, both classic weaponry and alien rifles are available to you throughout the campaign, and various grenades, each can be mixed and customised to great effect.
While this prequel has suffered a troubled development, it is a triumph to see that its results are an enjoyable delve into the lore and backstory. Some will be disappointed that the ambitious early versions got scraped, while others revealed the turn-base roots are nurtured in the prequel. The Bureau is a happy compromise that shows off the best in both play styles. While it was almost buried in the endless sea of cancelled ideas, The Bureau shows that some ideas are just too good to be hidden.
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