Platforms: PlayStation 3/Xbox 360/PC
Developer: 2K Marin Publisher: 2K Games
Genre: Third Person Tactical Shooter Platform Played: PlayStation 3
The Bureau: XCOM Declassified is a third-person tactical shooter developed by 2K Marin, set within the beloved XCOM universe. The XCOM franchise is known for its hardcore tactical aspects towards gameplay, it wants players to plan their attacks and think ahead of their opponents; with the typical guns blazing methods usually met with strong consequences. Declassified tries to replicate this motif, encouraging forward thinking and strategic planning to survive battles unscathed. XCOM Declassified emphasises the need to survive, adapt and win.
XCOM Declassified is set in the 1960’s, which is visually one of the games highlights. It provides an interesting setting for an alien invasion, with an American population threatened by Germany and the on-going Cold War. Minor touches such as recruitment posters and war propaganda throughout civilian locations are great attentions to detail. However when America is attacked by an impressive alien threat, looking to destroy human existence as we know it; XCOM must form to send back the invaders and keep the public unaware of the situation to avoid widespread panic. This divided mindset becomes extremely important to the games overall narrative during the game’s 12-15 hour campaign.
The plot is set-up well, however the game finds it hard to explain to the player what is actually happening. Missions would appear with objectives regarding issues I didn’t even know existed, even after talking with many characters throughout the base of operations. This is one of the narrative’s key flaws as it struggles to portray a cohesive tale with forgettable characters and muddled plot details. Not to say you can’t find an entertaining experience from the story; just don’t expect anything that will blow you away and hasn’t been done before.
Players control Agent William Carter, a veteran officer who has found his career slowly sink as he faces his own inner demons. Carter’s wife and child were killed in a fire while he was away in service, not finding out their fate until a year after their untimely deaths; meaning Carter has slowly sank into an alcoholic fueled outlook on life. Many would feel sorry for someone who has dealt with such horrible circumstances, but never did I care about Carter’s emotional problems due to the fact Carter is quite frankly an unlikeable person. Carter comes off as a one dimensional character, angry at the world and those around him. I found myself completely unable to connect or even care for Carter, with events towards the end of the game making me completely hate the character when the credits rolled.
In-between mission’s players can explore their base and interact with various characters, who may provide plot information, small events, or even side quests. Conversations are conducted in a similar fashion to the Mass Effect series, with a conversation wheel allowing certain dialog choices. These allow some conversations to alter significantly when changing options, yet the end goal will usually stay the same. Interacting with characters is best to unlock all the two types of side missions throughout the campaign. One of which is the standard miniature story missions, which provide entertaining sub-plots that don’t affect the overall story. While Deploy Missions work very similar to Assassin Missions within Assassin’s Creed, allowing you to send out agents to various missions to gain items, XP and level-up without your presence.
Players can also read many documents found within the environment, these can range from notes, classified files and even sound recordings. Most of these notes contain some irrelevant information; however some do attempt to tell their own story. Those who have played The Last of Us will know of Ish’s story, and XCOM Declassified tells a few stories in a similar vein. You will follow notes that tell us of a sequence of events and in some cases lead us to their eventual conclusion. These were a nice touch, fleshing out some of the side adventures that were simultaneously occurring during the invasion.
Mission structures in XCOM Declassified are fairly linear, you will explore straight forward locations, engaging in combat within larger areas every so often; the non-linearity however comes from the combat itself. Players are able to slow time to a crawl, allowing them to direct their two accompanying squad mates to use various abilities, tactics and strategies. The tactical commands work well, allowing you to arrive at a combat situation, slow-time and plot your next move. There is a thrilling sense when you arrive on an enemy platoon and can order a sequence of instructions that clears the area with swift precision. Preparation goes a long way in establishing how well your squad will do in combat, if you decide to go in all guns blazing and ignore squad commands; you will struggle. It gives a great tactical sense to combat, while you try and find the best combinational tactics to take down enemies.
These combinations can be established by combining the four classes of agent available, these classes range from the Commando focused soldier, the Recon Sniper, the Support class who can drop shields and the Engineer who can drop turrets and mines. Mixing these classes allowed me to find my perfect combination, while also trying a various amount of unique abilities. If you get sick of using one ability, swap out your squad member for a new class and a range of new tactics open up.
These skills are chosen by the player himself, as you kill enemies you and the squad mates along participating in the mission will gain XP; which can be increased by combining abilities each member of the team possess. As you gain XP you will level up, allowing the player to choose from a small amount of perks to give the team members, from increased health, to a brand new ability in itself. I found my squad mates leveled up to their maximum (Level 5) way too quickly, leaving me to have almost a fully maximised roster by the game’s conclusion. The problem here was that I had established my favourite duo early-on, so there was an abundance of XP being earned that was not being used to upgrade your team members. It felt like a waste, since Carter can reach level 10 with many more options available; more options to customise your team would also have been appreciated.
Players can also edit their squad mate’s names (in true XCOM fashion), weapons, appearances and outfits. However the options here are very limited, with only a handful of facial options and clothing colours; it can be quite unsettling to have two squad mates along for the ride that are identical twins.
Strategies are made vital due to some intelligent enemy AI, they will flank, charge and catch you off guard at any time they can. Mix these smart enemies with an abundance of varied enemy types, and battles become a tough task especially on the harder difficulties. Your squad mate AI is also competent, however they will do some odd decisions if you’re not directing them using your squad commands. The intensity is increased due to the fact that if your squad mates die, they will be gone permanently; unless you die as well then they will re-loaded at a previous checkpoint. So balancing their livelihood alongside your own is another aspect players must balance.
The enemy varieties in XCOM Declassified are quite substantial, ranging from huge alien gunships, to small Sectoid enemies, to overgrown hulking foes known as Muton’s. Players will also have access to a large range of weapons, although it is not the most creative arsenal of weaponry. Normal weapons such as shotguns, SMG’s, pistols and rifles all exist alongside alien variants; however these weapons are basically just laser forms of the original human design. Sadly, they don’t sound or feel powerful which was disappointing. Using these weapons however does work well, shooting is responsive and precise, allowing you to pinpoint various locations on enemies to remove armour and get those vital headshots.
The sound design is far from stellar, with sub-par audio accompanying weapons, explosions and the occasional missing sound effect and audio drop during conversations. On the other hand most of the soundtrack and musical score work well, with music from the 60’s echoing throughout human populated areas, to the ominous orchestral scores that accompany some of the major events of the campaign.
XCOM Declassified’s biggest flaws lie in its technical problems that are experienced throughout the campaign. Visually the game provides some very poor textures on environments and characters, with some character details not appearing for over a minute when interacting. There is still an impressive amount of pop-in despite these visual shortcomings. Additionally the constant screen tearing, framerate drops and multiple game freezes were a constant issue. At one point a squad mate had one of his arms lost inside his body, before flailing out on the opposite side, while he continued to fight our enemy. It was a moment that stood out due to the fact the game froze up only a few seconds later. Technically Declassified can be a downright mess, which is a shame because it stands out amongst the enjoyable gameplay and never seemed to die down.
The Bureau: XCOM Declassified isn’t a bad game; it is a game that has plenty of great tactical ideas and the potential to improve if they ever decide to keep this series running. It’s hard to tell if XCOM faithful will find Declassified to their liking, or if Declassified would have been better as a standalone game without the XCOM name. With that being said, strategically controlling your squad works almost flawlessly, providing some intense and thrilling moments as you balance your tactics against an array of difficult and varied enemies.
However the amount of technical issues that make an appearance in the final game are unbelievable, a full retail release should have these issues ironed out before coming to store shelves.
The Bureau has had a long and troubled development, but it is hard to say if that is the reason for these technical issues; but it is a shame either way. Declassified has some fun to be had throughout, but it is hard to recommend in its current state.
+ Thrilling, tactical combat
+ Some excellent 60’s styled locations
+ Enemy variety
- Many technical issues throughout
- Unlikeable main character
- Linear mission structure
- Forgettable narrative