A shooter based on a beloved strategy franchise? It's the kind of idea that makes strategy fans nervous, but games like Command & Conquer: Renegade have proven that the possibility isn't meritless. The Bureau: XCOM Declassified is not a great argument for an XCOM spin-off, however. It often puts its best foot forward, but while The Bureau mimics some of its inspiration's touchstones, it doesn't re-create their impact. The result is a third-person cover shooter that is decent fun but ultimately rings hollow.
What the Bureau nails is its retro-futuristic atmosphere, which channels an early-1960s view of the world straight from a Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalog. Protagonist William Carter looks as if he leapt from a postcard or periodical advert from the era: his hair is shellacked to perfection, and a heavy turtleneck sets off his freshly shaven face. Environments look slightly yellowed in the way we often imagine the 1960s, given how photographs fade over time. Sectoids--alien mainstays in the XCOM universe--have the big bulbous heads and skeletal bodies of the extraterrestrials you might have seen described in Amazing Stories magazine. This was the era of famous alien abductees Betty and Barney Hill, whose descriptions of bald-headed, gray-skinned invaders fueled generations' worth of pop-culture depictions of men from outer space. The Bureau looks like a Hill hypnosis session come to life.
The Bureau's structure somewhat resembles that of a typical XCOM strategy game. You spend some of your time in XCOM headquarters, getting updates on recent global events, before heading into the field and confronting the alien threat the planet faces. And this being an XCOM game, you don't just go it alone but rather take two squadmates with you and issue them specific orders: take cover over there, call in an airstrike, target this enemy, and so forth. Carter and his squadmates all level up, earning new abilities and improving old ones as they go, by way of The Bureau's skill trees. At first, you're only healing fellow squaddies, ordering them to boost you with stims and perform critical strikes on outsiders and laser turrets. In time, however, you're pulling healing drones out of thin air and temporarily convincing foes to become friends.
You're not stuck with the same two squadmates, but can hire and choose from a variety of them. You can also rename them and customize their physical appearance, which you'd think would keep The Bureau in step with its strategic siblings. But this is one area in which the shooter copies elements of the series, but cannot capture its essence. In 2012's XCOM: Enemy Unknown, your connection with your squad was closely tied to the tension built into every move. Losing a squadmate was devastating not just because you had named her after your girlfriend, but because she played a valuable role on the battlefield--and because you invested a lot of time and mental energy into each element of the skirmish in which you lost her.
Unfortunately, The Bureau doesn't capture that tension, nor does it make any given squadmate feel more valuable than any other. Though you can revive a squad member should he fall, it's possible for one or both to perish in battle. In an XCOM strategy game in which you take six soldiers into the field, losing a buddy is a setback you typically push through, hoping the percentages work in favor of your diminished squad. In The Bureau, losing a squadmate makes battle a monotonous slog, making loading the most recent checkpoint the most appealing option. And where you would carefully construct a squad in Enemy Unknown for greatest effectiveness, any old soldiers will do in The Bureau. Once you select your initial squad, there's no pressing reason to use anyone else, unless you want to mix things up just for the sake of doing so.
Why can battles be monotonous? It comes down to The Bureau's very blueprint for battle, which has you slowing down the action to a snail's pace so you can issue specific orders to your squad in addition to performing your own special powers. The idea here was to translate turn-based combat into a shooter milieu, but when the mission gets tough, the stop-and-go pacing gets disruptive. Your vulnerable squadmates are dunderheads, thinking nothing of stepping on a mine or into heavy fire, and forcing you to carefully plot their every move during the most challenging battles. Combat gets especially cumbersome when squad members start going down; a single felled soldier can initiate a tedious resurrection loop with you and squadmates reviving each other over and over again rather than doing the fun stuff.
When you aren't bogged down by micromanagement, The Bureau can indeed be entertaining. The shooting isn't as snappy as in the best shooters, but there's joy in raising an alien tech commander into the air and zapping it with lasers as it helplessly dangles there. When a sectopod lumbers into the fray, combat can feel perilous as you use your squad members to distract it while you slide into cover and fill it with bullets from behind. The way sectoids spurt neon goo as you shoot them before they spin about and collapse makes them enjoyable to face. The occasional spot of cheekiness also fuels the fun; it's hard not to giggle when you're fighting off little gray men in a small-town car lot advertising its "out of this world" sale with an inflatable alien head atop its roof.
You can spend almost as much time roaming XCOM headquarters as you can mowing down evil invaders. Where previous XCOM games allowed your imagination--and the series' own pop-culture portrayals--to fill in narrative gaps, The Bureau dumps plenty of information on you, encouraging you to roam the halls between missions and speak to the tie-wearing scientists and chain-smoking bureaucrats driving the secret anti-invasion effort. At first it's great to soak in the period 1960s atmosphere, admiring touches like the whirring reel-to-reel tape machines and wood-paneled radios that clutter the offices.
Just like squad micromanagement, however, roaming XCOM HQ becomes tiresome. You guide conversations using a Mass Effect-like dialogue wheel to get insight into extraterrestrial dangers and increasing tensions between staff members. The Bureau's problem isn't that it has a lot of story, but rather that story points become redundant, with characters repeating many of the same themes in a variety of different ways. (Carter is a loose wire; alien technology is powerful; it's difficult being a woman in a man's world; and so forth.) Choosing dialogue in any order other than top to bottom can result in out-of-sequence communication, which is jarring, and the bizarre facial animations can have you wondering how a mouth in that position could possibly produce the words you are hearing.
There is good reason to pay attention to the story, though: an explosive narrative reveal changes the way you see both sides of the conflict, and a subsequent choice makes for a drastic change in the tale's direction. At this point, the plot goes haywire, and it becomes difficult to make sense of any given character's motivation. The disruption is welcome, but what at first makes your jaw drop will have your eyes rolling instead as each story point makes less and less sense. The excellent soundtrack tries its damnedest to sell the ensuing drama both on and off the battlefield, however. The discordant piano motifs and syncopated bongo rhythms would have been at home in any thriller scored by the late Bernard Herrmann. Too bad the rest of the audio design can't keep pace with the soundtrack; sound problems plague The Bureau, from battlefield chatter that doesn't make sense in context, to dialogue that refers to on-screen events that aren't happening.
The Bureau: XCOM Declassified mirrors but never masters. When it gets down to the shallow shooting, it fares well, equipping you with some fun futuristic weapons and letting you go to town on nasty intergalactic intruders. But the game gets in its own way, stumbling when it seeks to siphon strategy mechanics into a formula that doesn't support them. The Bureau wants to rocket you into outer space, but it can't escape the gravity of the games that spawned it.