The Bureau: XCOM Declassified's Uphill Battle

2K Marin's tactical third-person shooter is aiming to bridge the gap between strategy and action. But can it succeed?

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"There's nothing wrong with falling back," says Morgan Gray. "That happens in real fights all the time. Fall back 15 feet, catch your breath, get organized, and push all over again."

The creative director of The Bureau: XCOM Declassified is talking about how modern shooters have trained players to constantly barrel forward without taking the time to think things over, but he could just as easily be referring to The Bureau's own cautious transformation. This is the game that riled up a hornet's nest of strategy fans when it was announced as a first-person shooter back in 2010. A decade had gone by since the series had shown its last signs of life, and to many it looked as though 2K Games had revived a franchise so beloved for its turn-based tactics only to transform it entirely.

Fast-forward a few years, and things have calmed down considerably. 2K has shown itself willing to embrace the strategy genre by handing the series over to Civilization developer Firaxis, which last year released a stellar--and very faithful--continuation of the franchise in XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Once again, the world was at peace…if not entirely free from alien invaders.

Now 2K Marin, the development team behind The Bureau: XCOM Declassified, is ready to show what it's been up to these past few years. No longer a first-person shooter, The Bureau has since transformed into a tactical third-person shooter whose focus on squad leadership carries echoes of Rainbow Six and Brothers in Arms. It's neither a turn-based strategy game nor a run-and-gun shooter; rather, it's something in between.

Bridging the gap between those two genres is one of the big focal points for 2K Marin. "We're going after two types of players," says Gray. "There's the classic XCOM fan--like most of us on the team--that wants to check it out from a different perspective. Someone having played the classics and Firaxis' great Enemy Unknown and wants to try a new twist."

"But we know there's also a percentage of the gaming public that thinks--probably foolishly--they don't like turn-based games. They like a lot of action. They'd like a lot of the tenets of XCOM in a genre that's a little more immediate for them. We'd like to bring them in too. So it's these two audiences: give classic XCOM fans this new perspective, and take people who like [shooters] and turn them into XCOM fans."

The Bureau's tactical aspirations are anchored by a feature called Battle Focus, a fancy phrase for the radial menu used to issue commands to your two squadmates. With this tool you're nothing short of a commander on the battlefield--albeit one who dons a fedora as he wages war against aliens throughout the remote corners of 1960s America.

The Bureau's tactical aspirations are anchored by a feature called Battle Focus, a fancy phrase for the radial menu used to issue commands to your two squadmates.
Triggering Battle Focus slows time to a crawl, allowing you to carefully consider your next attack without giving you enough time to get up and make an entire sandwich between moves. You can tell your squadmates where to go and which bits of cover to hide behind, but in typical XCOM fashion, there's a statistical bonus to firing from up high and flanking your enemies. You'll also be managing when and where to use your agents' special abilities, those class-specific skills you choose to unlock as you level them up from one mission to the next.

These skills come with a fairly lengthy cooldown timer, forcing you to be careful with how you use them. When you get a jump on your enemies, you can afford to be clever. This might mean placing a mine with one agent, and using another's taunt ability to lure your sectoid foes to their fiery demise. In the midst of a chaotic shootout, however, you'll need to make more fast-paced gut decisions. Do you send your agent up onto a high balcony to stay safe, or make sure he's close enough to the action so that he can knock those foes to the ground with a mighty pulse wave? Option A will give him a nice little fire bonus, but option B will give your other agent just enough time to deploy a laser turret without getting completely swarmed.

These are the types of choices you'll need to make in the thick of combat--choices that might not be apparent the first time you lay eyes on The Bureau. "People who just see the power wheel might say, oh, it's like Mass Effect," says Gray. "Well, kind of. But you can do a lot more in terms of movement, positioning, and building these little plans. That, to us, is the heart of XCOM."

All of this requires a little suspension of disbelief. While your agents may belong to an elite government organization whose job it is to save the world from alien invaders, they're not at their best until they're being bossed around like a pair of kids. "They're smart enough to keep their heads down," says Gray. "They're smart enough to grab cover, shoot enemies, run away from grenades. They're smart enough to keep themselves alive."

"What you do with them is turn them from a mob into a team. Your orders are what give them focus. You make them critical."

When you're not commanding your squad, The Bureau feels like something more akin to a traditional third-person shooter. Cover is paramount, grenades are often your best friend, and while you have access to exotic alien weaponry, that doesn't diminish the value of a good old-fashioned headshot.

However, going at it as a lone wolf might work okay for short stretches of time, but in the long run it's a great way to get yourself killed. If you want to succeed in this game, you'll need to accept that you're not a one-man army.

Where The Bureau departs from shooter norms is in the way it throws classic XCOM mechanics into the mix. Most notable is the presence of permadeath. When your agents get knocked down, there's a brief window of time when you can revive them. If you fail to do so, it's lights out. Those agents won't be coming with you to the next mission. That's especially bad news if you've been building them up over the course of several missions and you suddenly find yourself with a roster full of rookies fresh out of the academy. But as always, the losses that hurt the most are those agents that you've taken the time to name. Goodnight, sweet Spider-Man.

Where The Bureau departs from shooter norms is in the way it throws classic XCOM mechanics into the mix. Most notable is the presence of permadeath.
That said, the ever-present specter of absolute failure isn't looming over your campaign the way it was in Enemy Unknown. Time does not pass between missions, nor do you need to micromanage the status of various partner nations or defensive resources or any of that. These are the early days of the alien invasion, when the US government is trying to find out what's going on rather than wage a full-on defensive campaign against the aliens. In other words, you can fail an individual mission, but you can't fail the campaign as a whole.

All of this plays out in America circa 1962, as dapper government agents try to keep the lid on alien invasions occurring everywhere from the suburbs of New Mexico to the college towns of Georgia. It's the beginning of a turbulent decade, with rapidly advancing weapon technology, the Cold War, and the space race all rolled together. But 2K Marin is also cranking up the dial on the science of the era, in terms of both the advanced technology brought to Earth by the aliens (referred to as Outsiders in the story) and the highly classified lab work done by the government (think of Air Force-built UFOs).

"For touch points we want somewhere between The Right Stuff and James Bond, going back to the '60s with Q and the superspy bent on all the tech," says Gray. "I think the juxtaposition of the regular world as we know it, 1960s veneered superscience, and extremely modern sci-fi in the form of the Outsiders and their technology--it gives us a good canvas to work with."

Whether or not the gaming world is ready to embrace that work is another question entirely. XCOM is one of those franchises that players hold next to their hearts with a vice-like grip. Likewise, diehard shooter fans aren't always the most willing to embrace a methodical, tactical approach. Can The Bureau successfully bridge those audiences?

But hearing Gray describe The Bureau's setting confirms the notion that stranger things have indeed happened. "It's an amazing century," Gray says. "In the same century that the Wright brothers took flight, we're putting a foot on the moon. That's pretty incredible when you stop to think about it."

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