What would you get if you crossed Mass Effect with Mad Men? Something probably quite close to The Bureau - XCOM Declassified.
Yanking the XCOM universe from a turn-based near-future and moving it to an alternate-reality 1962 with third-person squad-based gameplay, it's not only a departure for the series, but a departure from the vision of the game that was first revealed back at E3 2010.
At that point, the game was merely called XCOM, and was a first person shooter. But, debuting to a somewhat muted reception and with the intervening years seeing the critical and commercially successful X-COM: Enemy Unknown released, this new title has evolved into something quite different. We went hands-on to see if it can live up to strong pedigree of its much-loved namesakes.
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The Bureau - XCOM Declassified will reveal the origins of the intergalactic peacekeeping force that has been central to the series since its debut back in 1994. The Bureau focusses around Special Agent William Carter, whose team had initially been pulled together by President Kennedy to battle the threat of invasion from communist forces. It quickly transpires however the threat is not from communism, but from the stars, and The Bureau must adapt rapidly to learn how to defend themselves and their country from alien foes.
We played a mission roughly halfway through The Bureau's campaign that saw the fedora-wearing Carter lead a three-man team into a small suburban town suffering the effects of an alien invasion, with its human inhabitants turned into sleep-walking, black-goo drooling zombies. Carter's team are tasked with finding out what's going on in the town, and to extract a fellow agent called Da Silva who has been pinned down by aggressive alien forces.Action plays out very similarly to Mass Effect's combat system. Played from a third-person perspective, all shootouts occur in real-time, but you still retain full tactical control of your squad-mates. Each is assigned a different class with different associated abilities (an engineer can lay down turrets, a commando can unleash a shockwave), with many skills picked up over the course of the game's story as The Bureau agents gain access to alien technologies.
Controlling these abilities is handled through a pop-up radial menu that lays over the onscreen action, slowing time to a crawl as you select targets for your squad and unleash abilities, as well as selecting when to fall back, regroup or precisely where they should be taking cover.
Though it can at times be a little sluggish picking out cover spots for team-mates (the game at this point tends to get snagged on sticky cover areas), the system works well, with a good mix of abilities that can be combined to great tactical effect. Taunting a powerful alien bad guy into a well-placed mine for instance is very satisfying, as is placing and then "force lifting" a turret to give it a height advantage over foes.Those alien foes will be very familiar to any who have played one of the many earlier XCOM games, from big-headed grey Sectoid grunts to Muton elites. With shielded and armoured enemies littering the battlefields (themselves offering plenty of tactical positioning options), you'll have to focus fire on weak spots to fell baddies most efficiently. Weapons range from period-accurate handguns and rifles to futuristic laser weaponry, unlocking as you progress through the game.
As with classic XCOM, your fellow agents will also become more efficient and skilful the more battle experience they gain. Dotted across levels are resupply stations that allow you to swap agents in and out, adjust yours and your teammates arsenal and select perk upgrades as squad members level up. Each squad member can be customised too. And, as with classic XCOM, death here is permanent, meaning your top-ranking officers can be wiped out for good, with you losing all their skills as a result. Our experience so far with the game suggests it's going to be a little easier than the usual XCOM bloodbaths, which may make this a somewhat moot point unless difficulty ramps up beyond the halfway point.
Though it's not a breathtakingly gorgeous game (we played on a high-end PC), The Bureau benefits from a well directed sense of time and place. The now-retro-chic of 1960s furniture and fashions is well used here, bringing to mind LA Noire and its well-realised historical location. Faces and lip syncing may be a bit rubbery, but those slim-fit suits and formica furniture ground the sci-fi shenanigans in a colourful and relate-able world not often explored in gaming. The story too looks set to be an intriguing one, and a brief conversation with Da Silva midway through our demo session suggested that there may be room to direct its outcome beyond the blasting with branching conversation trees.There are a few things that need to be ironed out ahead of release. "Roadie Running" into cover feels incredibly tank like, making it very difficult to turn while keeping your head down, and guns are lacking a bit of punch at the moment, as well as the afore-mentioned squad-cover snags. But there's a unique aesthetic here that we're very keen to see more of. The B-Movie style and "Space Race" setting have never properly been exploited in gaming, and The Bureau seems so far to have managed the marriage between real-time shooting action and XCOM's more studied tactical action well.
The Bureau - XCOM Declassified is headed to Xbox 360, PS3 and PC on 23 August. We'll have a full review ahead of release, so keep checking back for our final verdict.