Mad Med meets Men In Black for tactical squad-based shooter.
I love the 1950 & 60s, the three-piece suit wearing, precision haircut-sporting, chain-smoking decades that are best shown in detective movies like L.A. Confidential. The era gave us some of our best modern mythologies, from cold-war spooks to the Roswell UFO incident, a fact that 2K Games is exploiting to its limit with The Bureau: XCOM Declassified.
Living in what some have dubbed the “age of terrorism”, we can sometimes forget that there were more fearful and paranoid times in our collective history, times such as the one in which The Bureau is set in. The threat of the Cold War looming large, the fear of communist “aliens” in their ranks, fifth columnists, shadowy government operations such as the Bay of Pigs and even attacks on long-held values by flower-child hippies, the early 60s was often more paranoid than today. The Bureau reflects these themes andadds some extra friction to this; real-life aliens known as the Outsiders who have brought enslaved aliens from others planets to earth, with humans next on the menu.
Towns across America have gone dark as a zombie-like virus turns its populace into Sleepers, seemingly benign, brain-dead people that numbly go about their daily tasks. The general fear of communist infiltrators in the era has been transformed into this different form of sleeper-agent, with the developers telling us that the virus could have them turn on you later on or carry out secret missions of their own. With no counter-plan ready for an all-out alien invasion, the US government responds with the Bureau, a clandestine organisation which is supposed to be the pre-cursor to the global spanning power of the XCOM group from recent popular strategy game XCOM: Enemy Unknown.
As an agent of the Bureau you feel like someone out of a Men In Black meets Mad Men spin-off show, and it works to wonderful effect. A dedicated group of alien hunters, you seek out new life, new civilizations and promptly deport them with the end of a gun barrel. What could make for an interesting development, your team start out with standard human weapons and slowly swap them out for more advanced alien technology as you progress through the game. By using the weapons and tactics of the enemy, will the Bureau risk becoming like it? That'll have to wait until the game is fully released, but so far it serves as an interesting motivator; beat that tougher bad guy or explore this part of the environment and find interesting toys.
While starting out shotguns and six-shooters, not everything your team has is general issue, with each member packing a wrist-device akin the Pip-Boy from fallout and a backpack that resembles a Ghostbuster proton-pack. This backpack is used to house passive buffs from upgrades you pick up in combat, such as improved damage or greater resilience. Playing through the preview level, it reminded me of Bioshock Infinite's clothing options.
The team really has built on its roots as a Bioshock spin-off maker (Bioshock 2), the Bureau's style is still very much in keeping with the original Raputre outing and this especially so given the period-piece setting so close to that of Andrew Ryan's underwater world. Also akin to the Bioshock series, there are audio diaries, radio communication with colleagues and little bits of story written down here and there to encourage you to discover more about the environment. Where the developer departs from its Bioshock roots is where the game starts to take from itles such Knights of the Old Republic and Mass Effect from BioWare. Instead of just relying on scripted scenes and audio diaries to communicate the story, The Bureau has introduced a conversation system like BioWare's, which can see you make decisions in world that should impact on the overall story of the game.
As a cover-based tactical squad shooter, The Bureau plays like it has more in common with BioWare's efforts than Irrational's, with the game sitting somewhere between the complexity and management requirements of Knights of the Old Republic and the simpler cover-shooter focus of Mass Effect 2 – so far, it feels just right.You have pool of agents from which to build up your three-man team, with each agent gaining experience over time and customizable with weapons and unique outfits. These agents fulfil different roles in the group, there's the protagonist Carter, who manages healing and issues orders, the commando unit with an array of offensive powers and the engineer class, who comes with mines and auto-turrents. Many of the powers and abilities feel very much like the Biotics and Force Powers of BioWare's titles, and can be combined to increase tactical advantage, gain a better positioning or increase damage to foes. One particularly interesting combination is in laying a mine down with the engineer and using the commando's taunt ability lure a troublesome alien into its path.
This represents a fairly big departure from what the gameplay the series traditionally focused upon, although not as big as its original FPS plans were, however, the developers at 2k Marin were keen to point out that the level of strategy and consequences familiar to XCOM fans is still there. If you run into fire-fights without careful planning you will see your characters die and if they die they're not coming back.
When pressed to criticise what I played, I'm forced to point out that I know I'm not the only one who is tiring of cover-based shooters that make flimsier and flimsier excuses for waist-high walls to be dotted around landscapes. While The Bureau generally seems to manage this well, with cars and shop windows providing natural cover and a system that is blissfully problem free when compared to recent offerings from the likes of Star Trek, the game delved into absurdity with an enemy unit that literally raised waist- and shoulder-high cover from the ground to protect advancing baddies.
However, this a small gripe when compared to how well The Bureau came across in the relatively short time I had with it. While being shown the game, a member of 2K Marin's development team commented: “We're a big believer in story.” With the world they've created its is clear that they not only care deeply but have the talent to pull it off. If what they've shown so far is any indication of what to expect then brace yourselves for a good time, full of all the consequences and strategy that XCOM fans love.
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