By Cara Ellison on July 22nd, 2013 at 1:00 pm.
There is a button you can press in The Bureau: XCOM Declassified where it slows everything down like in the tennis replays when you want to see how close the ball was to being ‘out’ but then it wasn’t. Instead of being Andy Murray though, you are Fedora Fedorasson and there is a film grain on everything and aliens are running around on the court. Also it is a third person XCOM game and not tennis.
This Special New Button, named ‘Battle Focus’, means that you can play a cover shooter whilst queuing up orders to your AI friends to do a Special Power on the Other Team.
(The Other Team is aliens, if you haven’t played an XCOM before. Aliens are helpfully mostly labelled ‘The Outsiders’ which is just what my grandma calls people who move into her village in Falkland. So now I just think of the tall dorky fluorescent dudes as people from Fife.)
This function is curiously close to one I saw in that Femshep game I played once, Femshep Effect or something, which had some parts where you went on tiresome missions to mass laser people. These missions obstructed her actual job of punching journalists in the mouth or interrupting people or sitting on her bed eating cybercandy and scanning for minerals. Actually, outside of the awkward battles, quite a lot like my ideal life.
I’m not sure a third person cover shooter where you deploy orders to AI characters was ever actually fun. In Mass Effect it just made me feel like I was Gordon Ramsay in a really hot, incompetent kitchen and I am barking orders at absolute jerks and they are doing their best to dump all of the flour in the gravy, or straight up duck their face in a vat of hot pea soup so I have to call 999. Third person cover shooter AI characters look daft enough as it is, their silly slidy run animations messing up any hopes we have of ever taking their ‘special abilities’ seriously. How can we when it looks like you have just crossed the battlefield as if traversing an ice rink in ballet pumps and then ostentatiously pivoted to target the enemy with a blue firework?
Instead of making sure the two systems, ‘cover shoot’ and ‘XCOM strat’ work well together, they seem to commit some sort of consensually-unclear frottage. The XCOM: Enemy Unknown setup had no pretences about its turn-based dryness, where it was more intellectual, tactical board game than face-shoot knees-up running-about ‘oooh look I’ve done a magic’. Somehow the way the strategy has been implemented here feels like they have removed the ability to make informed decisions, and you can no longer direct your strategy game by high-functioning sinister CCTV. You’re left in a Battle Focus menu screen most of the time, though the hazard is that you are also getting shot. Sometimes I wanted to shout “I’m a WAR GENERAL not the assistant manager of a school-adjacent Homebase in Milton Keynes”, as my field of vision was overrun by tiny aliens and two guys screaming that they didn’t know what to do.
My two hours time with this game didn’t much make me feel like all of these doubts about Femshep combat should bugger off. Although the AI isn’t completely ‘oh bloody hell what’s he done now’ in The Bureau, it doesn’t seem very enjoyable to play an XCOM game from a third person view, no matter how pretty the main character is or how much he makes me want to put on a delicate Mad Men dress and pretend I like stoic alien-murdering alcoholics.
I want to see these levels top-down to plan impending doom. I want to see exactly how much health is removed from an enemy character every time my team hits them, and not be busy shooting people myself. I want to give my orders by seeing the bigger picture, not by scrolling frantically through targets to find the explosive barrel that might kill the most Fifers. The Independence Day B-movie frame of this pretty-looking thing just served to have me yearn for a Deus Ex in this setting: something with less shooting and more tactics, more stealth, more finesse with plot and information – just something more intelligent.
Having said that, the cool team building that we like about XCOM: Enemy Unknown is there, where you can recruit a team to play a level, name them all after your friends, and essentially watch them get permadeathed by your lack of orders as you spend all the time sniping aliens by yourself from behind a box. You can also do that thing where you make them wear clothes you wouldn’t be seen revived in. I was very sad to see that the choice of colours has been muted to grandpa pastels (it is the 60s, I guess), thereby outlawing lurid green. But I did make one of my guys wear the classic purple and bright pink camo trousers (popular with Bronies), and when he went down in battle I saw his expression and just let him die.
Although this game has a lovely emphasis on team racial diversity for a game set in the 60s, what it doesn’t let you do is recruit women into your team, thus proving that you can either be racist or sexist in your fantasy game about 60s aliens, but you can’t eliminate both, because that would probably create some sort of black hole that would swallow the universe. And they have Women Lieutenants With Medals in the cutscenes, even, which makes it even more puzzling that you can’t recruit them. How did they get those medals? Did they make them out of tinfoil? Did they STEAL THEM, the KLEPTO FEMINAZIS?!?! Did they get those medals for Services To Faxing A Memo?!?! Sadly, you won’t get a playthrough of this XCOM where Alec can recruit me into the virtual RPS team as the vengeful Sharpe-esque renegade I am, because ladies aren’t allowed. DOWN WITH THIS SORT OF THING.
Despite the unfortunate Unequal Opportunities policy in the bureau, team recruiting and special abilities seem the most interesting part of the whole thing: you can recruit from specialists in recon, support, commandering or engineering and they all come with special doofers. For example: the engineer has a turret he can magic up within a certain radius, or can lay a mine to enable spatially unaware aliens to spread themselves over a wide area. You can get your team to specialise in quite a lot of survival abilities, levelling up their competence in battle, and a nice narrative touch is that recruits can have, say, an FBI background or a Korean War Vet background which directly influence your teammate’s ability to cope with different battle situations. Some backgrounds will give you better endurance, some give your guy a better shot, and so on, depending on what background you give them. That’s a nice thing.
On one hand, I’m glad that there’s an attempt to put some XCOM in the cover shooter, because both are things that traditionally work well that might mutate into something interesting. But what this plays like is hedging bets on people who like mediocre cover shooters getting into XCOM strategy stuff or XCOM junkies being forced into real-time shootmans. What we’re really looking for is a game where the play seems fluid and unforced, and right now I’m not sure The Bureau: XCOM whatsisname has really found its way out of an awkward mashup. Even if it has found its way out of my silly florescent green uniforms.
However, there was only time to play the initial tutorial missions and a few of the later missions with a team of new recruits, so it’s difficult to see how interesting the rest of the game will be through particular levels. There is an emphasis on story in this game, but I think I’d need to be drunk and full of sugar to think it was good – it seemed like a superficial B-movie thing told humourless and clumsy. My introduction to the main character’s ‘pained’ backstory was cringeworthy, and he seems remarkably functional, uncomplex and crisply-dressed for a man the game has told me that J Edgar Hoover has written off for being an alcoholic family-less loser with no respect for him or the FBI and nothing to lose and everything to prove and he’s a RENEGADE and… oh I could go on. It’s a tad heavy-handed, no sign of emotional peaks and troughs to come. At least in Independence Day you could get on board with Will Smith yelling at jellyfish men and Jeff Goldblum saying ‘must go faster': they had a little charm and a grin now and then. Fedora man has been botoxed to fuck and is about as expressive as Arnie on Temazepam.
1) I wish I looked as good as that guy in a hat.
2) ‘The Bureau’ could be a twitch game where you are a bored office worker whose job it is to shred financial documents, get coffee, and occasionally sneak off for a wank in the stationary cupboard, which I hope 2k will consider
3) ‘Bureau de Change’ would be a really good Chow Yun Fat movie, where Mr Fat has to take out all the slowest people at the front of the queue to change money thus saving the world from infinite vein-popping rage and simultaneously implementing world peace
4) Maybe this game gets good after you play it for more than 2 hours.
5) Maybe they will let me make Fedora man wear florescent green
6) Jeff Goldblum.