The Bureau: XCOM Declassified is a game about shooting aliens, coordinating offense under duress and, in some cases, deploying blobs in a tactical fashion. As a dapper CIA agent and pragmatic not-on-MY-watch type, William Carter rejects the lexicon of XCOM, a secret organization that now finds its Cold War paranoia rerouted to deflect "The Outsiders," slender grey men from outer space. Carter's blob is actually a "silacoid," a mercurial pet formed from magnetically bound lumps of inky material. The scientists back at HQ delight in describing its fascinating properties and how they repurposed it from our would-be conquerers, but to Carter it's just a roving tool meant to distract enemies in battle. (The alternative sound bite on this order is "Blob out!" which sounds like an instruction to lie in bed and inhale a gallon of Ben and Jerry's.)
Carter's role in the action itself is to anchor your strategies, and that's what makes The Bureau a more arresting third-person shooter. There's the usual knee-high detritus that serves as cover in firefights, the pop-and-shoot gunplay, the evasive roll – and you've gotta have a melee attack, so Carter gets a huge electric bracelet that looks like it stuck after he punched through a desktop computer. Carter and his two teammates are also outfitted with backpacks that appear to have been cobbled together from toasters, tubes and sci-fi glowy bits. The equipment reflects humanity's frantic efforts to adapt alien technology for their own survival, and enables the fantastic abilities of four classes of soldier in the field. Engineers can set up laser turrets, for example, while the Support class can drop a protective bubble of energy in your vicinity. Carter himself can also levitate enemies for a quick potshot or heal the squad when the battle turns grim.
Unlike the turn-based strategy of XCOM: Enemy Unknown (to which The Bureau serves as a prequel), your maneuvers play out on the ground, under fire and in fluid time. Your overall comprehension of each encounter is limited by Carter's physical position, which must be carefully judged against the availability of cover and the position of his two squadmates. They aren't smart enough to fend for their own, and can die permanently if you don't resuscitate them in time.
The fun of playing The Bureau – beyond blob lobbing – is in the gradual elimination of stress and discomfort. It's all irritating noise and lasers at first, with not enough options to fight back. And then your agents grow, you unlock more powers, you decipher the situation, and, hey, look at your perfectly placed laser turret herding aliens through a gauntlet of mines.
The Bureau is also good at disrupting your comfort from time to time, dropping potential catastrophes in your midst – or behind you – and ratcheting up the tension yet again. This might happen when the level layout takes a 90-degree turn, exposing you to attack from a side you thought safe, or when elite-level enemies suddenly steal your attention. The Outsiders have easily readable silhouettes and telltale designs for their standout troops, with their injection onto the battlefield acting as a clear prologue to your next actions. A pair of bulky shoulders emerging from a drop-pod dust cloud indicates a Muton is about to bulldoze your battle lines if you don't back up, or set up strong defenses. You could sink plenty of your own bullets into its resilient armor, but splitting off from your trio of agents to scrounge for ammo (human or alien) is asking for trouble.
A major point of pride for the developers at 2K Marin must be the locations themselves, which are almost unnecessarily rich with details from vintage America and the otherworldly influence that threatens to claim the country. The visible preservation date on pickle jars, forgotten in a shed on a rural farm, is the most mundane counterpoint to The Bureau's grander expeditions, which lead high above the Earth and well below the water.
The influence of BioShock lurks in the smoky offices of XCOM itself, where Carter can recruit new squad mates, send agents on unsupervised missions, pursue optional objectives, listen to audio diaries and chat to crucial members of the organization. You'll have to endure jittery facial animation and some stilted exchanges, but the non-Carter characters in XCOM are worth getting to know. Angela Weaver has some cold witticisms for those who expect female hysteria from her, and nearly everyone in the building has some choice words about XCOM's paranoid director, Myron Faulke. (It depends on whether or not he's listening in.)
While Carter's backstory feels underutilized, he is instrumental in a perfectly pulpy plot – and in a truly peculiar way that suits The Bureau's themes of suspicion, infiltration and fear of "outsiders."
Paradoxically, The Bureau: XCOM Declassified feels immediate and inclusive as a strategy game, relying more closely on your rapid-fire commands than the bursts of your rifle. The odd hybrid is far from being fully evolved, but it's well suited to further study. As an XCOM alien expert says after an exciting acquisition, "I can't wait for the autopsy."
This review is based on the PC version of The Bureau: XCOM Declassified, provided by 2K Games. If you're playing with DirectX 11 enabled, we suggest lowering tesselation and anti-aliasting to increase performance.
Joystiq's review scores are based on a scale of whether the game in question is worth your time -- a five-star being a definitive "yes," and a one-star being a definitive "no." Read here for more information on our ratings guidelines.