I had such high hopes for this game, previews had been circling for it since like 2010 and the things shown in those early glimpses looked so promising. A first person investigative thriller set in the 1950s and focused on research and development that looked like the X-Files met the original run of the Twilight Zone and had a baby made of pure alien awesome. Such a concept intrigued me to no end and even after a perspective change and delay after delay I was still on board. Unfortunately though such faith was not rewarded and what we ended up getting feels like the movie game version of an XCOM game. It should have been some great expanded fiction for the franchise but instead ended up feeling like a tacked on excuse to pump out another title with XCOM in the name.
Speaking of the XCOM fiction why don’t we start off with this game’s abysmal excuse for a story. So the basic plot is that it’s the early ’60s and aliens have invaded, and not like subtly invaded, like full on massive War of the Worlds style invaded. You are former FBI agent William Carter who after surviving the initial attack is drafted into the newly formed XCOM program (which it turns out was initially designed to deal with a Russian invasion) so you can win a whole damn war almost entirely on your own. From there it’s pretty much plot hole after plot hole till the game ends and those holes are dug for pretty much one reason, to make this XCOM game connect to the XCOM game we all played last year. You see despite the insanely ridiculous scale of the attacks, the mass destruction caused, and the significant final death toll, they make clear that absolutely all of it was covered up so that when aliens invade in XCOM: Enemy Unknown everyone can go on about how “we’ve never seen anything like this before”, a phrase which loses pretty much all meaning by the end of this game. The excuses they put on for how this cover up could feasibly happen such as “aliens blocking all radio signals during their attacks” are so tightly stretched you could play a drum solo on them; while I get that they don’t want to invalidate the franchise’s fiction, this kind of lame storytelling only serves to make this entry seem like a terrible and pointless cash-in. Most important though is the fact that we’re fighting a war at all as it makes for a boring story and completely wastes the FBI style secret government agency aspect of the story. Instead of getting agents slowly unraveling a subtle alien underworld happening just below a surface of pristine Americana you get assholes running down big misshapen metal corridors with guns blazing at humanoid looking aliens in power armor, basically Gears but with fedoras. Not objectively bad but an utter and total waste of the potential the setting had. To give the story one tiny bit of praise there is a twist near the end that while overly telegraphed throughout the entire game is actually executed upon quite well and is surprisingly interesting; now back to the hate.
So the gameplay was more a mixed bag mainly because the gimmick of ordering guys around works so well despite the relative shit factor of the shooting and the upgrades. The strategic gimmick this game trades upon basically consists of you getting to slow down time and order your two team mates around Mass Effect style. Every class has a neat suite of abilities that complements your own powers and getting to pop them all off in the proper order and watch your plans come to life is a lot of fun. It’s not as original as I think they hoped it would be but it works and the game puts a heavy enough reliance on blending abilities and good unit placement that you can’t just fire away and hope for the best. Not that the direct approach would be worthwhile anyways, the AI is incredibly thick and will basically just sit behind cover futilely blind firing until you tell them to do something which makes ordering them around a little bit not optional. Also the core shooting just doesn’t feel very good, the guns all have a kind of slow floaty quality to them and the enemies suck up the damage making your basic attacks feel ineffective when not used in tandem with the team’s more interesting abilities. Another thing that really bugged me was the lack of any sort of real upgrade system, you’ll regularly find new equippable backpacks that offer minor passive buffs but that’s pretty much it. There’s no weapon or equipment upgrades, just new shitty weapons and backpacks; there’s no research, just side missions to obtain more backpacks or agents; and there’s no base management…like at all. This isn’t an XCOM game, it’s just a mediocre shooter with XCOM in the title.
Lastly we come to the presentation, which can best be described as pedestrian and technically lazy. Now I’ve heard varying reports of the frame rate troubles in this game from people, but personally I played the PC version and I played it using DX9 rather than DX11 and it was steady, not great but steady. The biggest technical fault I ran into was tons of clipping during the cutscenes, basically every time someone folded their arms their wrists went into the negative zone. I can forgive all that though, shit happens, what I can’t forgive is the utterly boring designs for the aliens and their environments. You basically get two kinds of environments, quiet American towns and alien bases; the towns look fine but the alien bases are simply boring, just dull square metal arenas connected by jagged metal corridors, it looks like something the Combine would make on a day when they just weren’t quite feeling it. Of course then you have the enemies, the majority of which are from this new alien race that look vaguely humanoid and wear power armor, their only interesting trait is that they have sideways mouths which I think look neat. They occasionally fan service it up with a squad of sectoids or a rampaging muton but those vagina dentata faced guys are really the only new xenomorphs you get to fight, aside from some sentient black slime but that barely counts.
The sound design is also rather boring with forgettable music and some overwrought VO. I’ll be honest, with the exception of the initial bit of Buddy Holly that was played as a tone setter, I can’t remember a note of the music that was played in this game. As for the VO, I wouldn’t necessarily call it bad, just overdone. A lot of other reviewers have criticized the main character of sounding too gravelly but personally that didn’t bug me and with the back story they build for him it makes sense. What bugged me was the fact that none of the other characters seem to have any range, they all strictly follow their character traits and every line is read with no emotion shown aside from that ascribed to each character’s archetype.
In the end this is a mediocre shooter made all the more disappointing by the wasted potential of the setting and the franchise attached. There are occasional glimpses of quality here in the strategic gameplay and that late game story twist but it’s mired in an tale that’s overall poorly written and so laden with plot holes you could use it to strain pasta. If they had just let this game bake a little longer and be its own thing rather than try to connect it to Enemy Unknown, they might have had the chance to make something truly interesting that lived up to those previews I read so long ago. Instead it just feels like they took a cool idea they had given up on, retrofitted it into what they were establishing as the “new” XCOM canon, and rushed it through production to capitalize on the renewed interest in the XCOM franchise. As it stands I can’t recommend this game, the gameplay can be fun but has little charm and the story is a fucking mess. The Bureau: XCOM Declassified gets a 2 out of 5 stars; if you’re really craving some XCOM action then just go replay Enemy Unknown or wait for its upcoming expansion pack Enemy Within and just let the sad pathetic secrets of the The Bureau remain buried.