Saturday, May 24, 2014

MeekinOnMovies on: XCom: The Bureau

The Bureau: XCom Declassified started out as a game no one wanted made and is now a game we're surprised to see. 

In 2010, 2K games endeavored to turn one of the most atmospheric strategy games of all time into a first person shooter, which sat about as well with longtime gamers as a fat guy on an upside down bar stool. Eventually 2K came to their senses and drafted Firaxis to make a proper strategy game after a reasoned and well organized response from gamers across the globe. I’m kidding, gamers lost their shit as they always do. Firaxis released last year’s Xcom: Enemy Unknown to many accolades and positive reviews. It was a blast.

But what of all the work done on that XCom branded First Person Shooter everyone hated? Seemingly everyone thought it disappeared into the vaporware black hole that long ago engulfed StarCraft Ghost, Duke Nukem Forever, The Phantom, and countless other hardware and software titles that were never officially canceled but seemingly disappeared.

Welp, thanks to hard work, a bloated budget, and maybe even a hint of good will brought on by Enemy Unknown, it morphed into The Bureau: XCom Declassified, a strategic third person shooter, with a lot of style and a lot of problems.

Lets start with the style. The Bureau brings the goods aesthetically. While there are numerous graphical glitches and animation hiccups (characters literally standing still and not moving while ‘checking a radio’ for example), it does a mostly great job of immersing you in a world of 1960’s paranoia. Outfits seem accurate, you’ll come across a couple of famous people from the era you probably heard about, and early levels that take place on college campuses and in rural towns and farms go a long way to making the game stand out from its competitors.

Whereas practically every other sci-fi focused 3rd person shooter takes place in space, or a dystopian future, or in a dystopian future in space, XCom really *does* take place in 1960s America, with 1960s American-y things like diners and telephone booths and bandstands and bleachers and banners and Studebakers. It’s charming in its own way, and taking cover behind a pickup truck with a rounded hood and wooden bed is really more cool than it has any right being. Essentially what I’m saying is that you should never underestimate the ability of a cool setting and good atmosphere to endear an audience to a given title.

But endearment only goes so far. Unfortunately these early levels eventually give way to more sci-fi settings, and it’s a lot less fun to do standard third-person-shooter things on a spaceship you’ve seen a thousand times before in a dozen different games, than it is to do them in a southern American city you never have, especially consider gaming’s recent push toward understated and realistic locations like in Euro Truck Simulator and that game where you play as a Roomba. Once the game flips from aliens invading America to Americans attacking aliens, the game loses a ton of appeal and starts to feel samey and derivative.

Which it is. While The Bureau does a really good job of covering up the fact it’s essentially Mass Effect To The Future, at some point you’ll eventually realize that you’ve been here and done this a million times before across four Gears of War games, three Mass Effect games, three Uncharted games, and a Last of Us here and a Fuse there, to boot. You’re taking cover behind chest high walls, popping up, shooting things, popping down, directing your squad, collecting weapons, hitting buttons, defending territory, and every other trope this console generation has afforded gamers who keep buying these sorts of games, and there isn’t really much to say beyond that. Which is fine. If you can’t get enough 3rd person shooter action after 8 freakin’ years of it, by all means give The Bureau a shot. It’s not bad as much as it is overdone.

Which is funny because the remaining elements of The Bureau feel underdone. Considering this games tortured production cycle it’s very likely they got to a point where they simply ran out of money. The plot goes way off the rails, doing that Assassin’s Creed thing of introducing supernatural elements in a mostly science based experience. The XCom standby of managing troops and customizing them remains, but they lack personality, and eventually you’ll just stick with whomever you start with, and reload or bring on another squadmate without much fanfare or feeling, unlike in previous XCom games where the loss of a favorite soldier, depending on his or her level, could result in a period of mourning.

Thankfully gamers won’t be mourning for the XCom name anytime soon. While my feelings on The Bureau are mixed, I’m glad that 2K games is attempting to build the XCom brand into something that’s going to be around for awhile. After years spent chasing after the original PC game and falling in love with it instantly, only to finally get a proper sequel 10 years and several facial hairs later, its good to know this franchise I cherish is going to be around, even if this particular game isn’t quite as out-of-this-world as I would have liked.

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