Death in games usually carries about as much weight as an episode of The Big Bang Theory, or anything Richard Hammond says. You might be set back a minute or two, have your inventory slightly depleted, or get treated to a patronising invitation to turn the difficulty down. You poor little lamb, you. In the few instances when it does actually matter – Heavy Rain, for instance, or Dark Souls – the gameplay dynamic is totally shifted. You become cautious and tense, and actually have to give due consideration to your actions.
The Bureau: XCOM Declassified PS3 review
Xcom knows this, which is why the series embraces the concept of permadeath. If your operatives go down in the field and aren’t revived, then the man from Del Monte, he says “bye bye”. It was present in last year’s excellent Enemy Unknown, and it’s making another appearance here in third-person squad shooter The Bureau. It is, however, a less pressing and immediate concern this time around. And that’s the problem with the game as a whole: it’s ‘less’ in all regards. Less tactical, less engaging, less tense, and less rewarding.
Which sounds like a damning assessment, but it isn’t meant to be. For while The Bureau can’t stand up to the unexpected hit that was its predecessor (fair enough, considering this was a game that revitalised a genre), it’s enjoyable enough on its own terms. Telling the story of how the Xcom initiative came about, the game is set during an alien invasion of the US in the ’60s. Uncle Sam isn’t too pleased about having his cities decimated and his cows turned inside out, and so fires up the old underground base and gets set to repel the mutant threat.
At the sharp end of this counter-attack is Agent William Carter, a no-nonsense sort with a chequered past and a voice rough enough to grate cheese on. It’s his shiny loafers you inhabit throughout the game, undertaking a range of missions chosen from the kind of large, bleeping screen that people are always looking at with furrowed brows in spy thrillers. Some of these are minor missions to recover missing tech or boot ET out of Hicksville, Missouri, while others are critical operations that advance the story and – for the most part – last a good deal of time.
While its mechanics don’t satisfy in the manner of Enemy Unknown, there’s still appeal here
& when the combat works it’s excellent
Whatever the severity, most play out in similar fashion. You choose your two accompanying agents, head out into the field (generally some variation on stereotypical smalltown USA), and advance through linear levels fighting numerous battles against the alien hordes. But, this is no straightforward cover shooter.
The rub comes from the Battle Focus system, a radial menu that’s brought up with a press of e. This slows time down to a crawl, and enables you to issue orders to your comrades. You can tell them where to hunker down in cover, who to target, and which of their special abilities to deploy and where. Engineers, for instance, can drop turrets (shocking, I know), Recon troops have a Critical Strike ability, and so on. It’s through the use of this tactical menu (and the aforementioned permadeath) that the game is linked to its Xcom forbearers, and at times is a joy. Pushing back waves of Sectoids step by step with a perfectly planned assault is always satisfying and feels, in strictly relative terms, a more ‘real’ approach to warfare than many gritty modern shooters.
The trouble is, only about one in five firefights ends up feeling like this. Your teammate AI is inadequate – often they abandon their designated cover spot and dash about in the open – and at times the environments just aren’t conducive to happy hunting. Additionally, and damningly for a game like this, often times you have more success going full Rambo and doing the lion’s share of the legwork yourself.
This somewhat undermines what the game is trying to do with its story, which is adequate but limited in intrigue and ambition. With its three-man squad gameplay and extraterrestrial invasion storyline, the series The Bureau is most reminiscent of is Mass Effect, and it’s not the most favourable of comparisons.
But while it can’t stand up to the genre’s biggest dog, and its mechanics don’t satisfy in the manner of Enemy Unknown, there’s still appeal here. When the combat works it’s excellent, and the pinstripes-and-fedoras setting always appeals – as does Carter’s wonderfully overblown, “My God… the humanity” personality. Sadly, however, once you’re past the first few hours you’ve seen the best of what’s on offer. The tactical squad combat is hugely enjoyable and rewarding at times, but let down by inconsistency and repetition. Turn-based marvel Enemy Unknown’s remains the Xcom game to beat. Joel Gregory
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