When The Bureau was first announced, fans of the series were pissed: “Excuse me, kind sir,” they would politely say. “That doesn’t look like an XCOM game.” The series had abandoned its roots in the eyes of the verbal - and then XCOM: Enemy Unknown was released. People forgot about ‘that weird FPS’ that seemed to sit so uncomfortably within the universe... for a while.
The next time we saw it, the game had evolved into a third-person squad shooter. The first batch of screens admittedly weren’t very exciting and it seemed poised to just fill the gap between Enemy Unknown and its inevitable sequel - it looked like it was being sent out to die.
Luckily, that’s not the case. The Bureau is a reimagining of XCOM canon - again - twisting the invasion narrative to fit the story viewed from a single protagonist, William Carter. A man tasked with stopping the invasion on American soil, in contrast with Enemy Unknown’s global struggle.
The Bureau tells its tale - for the most part - through overheard conversations, notes and audio recordings. Obviously this is nothing new - especially for 2K Marin - but the execution is excellent. One of these moments stood out for me. It happened in between skirmishes, when I stumbled across a dead body and a treehouse. There was a note on the body, explaining that she had been protecting her daughter from the invaders - placing her in the safety of the treehouse. All you can do is look up, trying to see between the cracks in the slats of the wooden platform. Is she in there? Is she dead?
There are lots of little moments like this, and I’m sure I didn’t see them all, but they all flesh out the story nicely. It still feels like XCOM, but this time the tone is more personal. The experience is like bathing in a massive vat of mutated lore. Each body tells a story if you care to look. And I won’t spoil the surprise, but later the tale goes from mildly intriguing to massively captivating - and it all happens rather fast. The Bureau has a lot to say.
That’s not to say the story is perfect - they rarely are - as there’s the odd plot hole where you just have to suspend your disbelief and go with it. For instance, there are infected people, called sleepwalkers. They play out the last thing they remember over and over like an organic vinyl record. How they don’t starve to death is a complete mystery.
Overall, the narrative works well, with player choice and multiple endings being the icing on this delicious cake. It’s in the decisions where the similarities with its strategy sibling begin to become apparent. Outside of the narrative choices, there are decisions in both battle and preparation. For one, naming your soldiers is back, and so is the guilt you feel when they die.
When you’ve finished making your squad look like Teletubbies, though, you can take them into your not-so-covert ops, where they’ll hopefully not die. As mentioned, because the story takes place in the ‘60s, the XCOM agency is in its infancy, thus you’ll only have to battle to save American lives. There’s still a war map, and you can choose from a selection of operations - even sending units out on field ops, increasing their skills but rendering them unavailable for the next mission. If all your agents die, you lose...
Most missions play out in the same way, just as they do in XCOM: Enemy Unknown. You’ll come up on a group of hostiles, who are usually unaware if you sprint straight into cover, which is indicated with a full and half shield - signifying the benefit of the cover. After this you’ll send each member of your squad to a position, spreading out your firing lines and trying to take advantage of the extra damage inflicted by a flanking maneuver. Once in place, you unleash hell. Turrets are set up to provide extra firepower, mines are placed to cover blind spots, drones are sent airbound to flush the enemies from cover and a fire mission is called in to rain death on some clustered outsiders.
Abilities can even be combined - using Carter’s Lift ability to raise a friendly turret above the battle, for instance - and enemies can be turned against one another. Tactically, it feels like there are more options than during Enemy Unknown’s combat. To call it dumbed down, would lead to me accusing you of playing it on Easy. The only missing component that I cared about was the destruction. You won’t be using cars to your advantage or blowing holes in walls here. Which is a shame, but we can always hope the game gets a sequel and the omission is amended.
Blowing up walls would be a handy tool in The Bureau, too, because - like XCOM - you’re initially equipped to fight humans. The difference with The Bureau, is things escalate faster and you’re up against bipedal Sectopods before you know it, with the early weapons causing scratch damage at best. There is that same tipping point, though, the one that you get in traditional XCOM games where your tech is improved, your soldiers are battle hardened and the scales tip in your favour. That’s not to say it gets any easier, it’s just that at around the same time, all the systems seem to click - a light turns on and all is clear, you’re the master of the battlefield.
That’s what makes The Bureau brilliant: it’s a clever union of two genres. I went into the game not knowing what to expect, and I haven’t been as surprised by the quality of a title in a long time. I hope people don’t shrug the game off as being a cash-in, because it isn’t. It’s the full XCOM experience in its own right and it has lots of fan service. It even feels great to just wander around the facility between missions, looking at all the subtle differences and listening to the characters’ plights. Yet the burning question remains: are Mutons still dicks? The answer is yes, yes they are.