At the end of the first season of Stargate SG-1 there’s an episode where Daniel Jackson inadvertently travels to an alternate reality where the Goa’uld (the alien badguys) are in the middle of a full-blown invasion of Earth. The planet’s military forces are quickly crushed, and the alternate reality versions of the main cast are killed off one by one as they desperately try to buy time for Daniel to make his way back to his own universe to warn people that an invasion is coming; by the time he does, Earth has fallen and the aliens have won. This episode is called “There But For The Grace Of God”, and I absolutely cannot think of a better way of summing up The Bureau: There But For The Grace Of Firaxis Goes XCOM.
Just like the Stargate episode, The Bureau is a glimpse into a terrifying alternate reality where third-person cover shooters reign victorious over the shattered husk of computer gaming, and where classic series like XCOM are stripped of everything that made them unique and interesting in the first place in the quest to make everything appeal to the lowest common denominator. It doesn’t even have the good manners to be memorably bad, to take risks and fuck up because it stretched too far. Instead The Bureau plays it safe and ends up being offensively bland and generic, like they assembled the game out of spare parts they had lying around, slapped a thin veneer of 60s sci-fi over the top and then put it in a box and called it XCOM. (Indeed, if you read the story of The Bureau’s tortured development process this is pretty much exactly what happened). There is nothing in this game that contains even the tiniest iota of original game design, and yet despite this risk-averse approach to development, despite this mentality that prioritises producing a product just like every other third-person game on the market because that’s what sells these days and the publishers like money, they’ve still managed to fuck it up. That’s quite an achievement.
That the Bureau is a terrible XCOM game won’t come as a massive shock to anyone, I think. Most people were expecting this to be the case ever since it was announced; while I don’t think it’d be impossible for XCOM to make the leap to other genres (XCOM: Interceptor was a buggy mess but it wasn’t a bad idea, while I’m probably one of the few people who thought XCOM: Alliance looked quite interesting before it was canned) you have to go about it with a very specific mindset that doesn’t involve cribbing major game mechanics from Gears of War and Brothers in Arms1, and as far as that goes The Bureau is guilty on all counts. What did surprise me slightly was that the Bureau is just a terrible game full stop. I was expecting to have at least some fun with the command system and whatever base management features had made it into the game, but I had overlooked two not-so-minor factors endemic to modern game development:
- They completely stripped out the base management. Of course they did. Of course they did. Base management is precisely the sort of thing that game developers and publishers are convinced will confuse the drooling, lobotomised simians they think make up their core market, and so it’s been completely chucked out the window. I just couldn’t believe they’d take out the base management and still have the gall to try to market it as an XCOM game, is all; once you’ve done that then what’s the point in attaching this 20 year-old IP to it in the first place? I guarantee you the sort of person this game is targeted at is highly unlikely to know the XCOM series even exists. Anyway, there’s no base management in XCOM. There is a base, and you can walk around it having incredibly tedious conversations with the inhabitants in between missions, but otherwise it has all the interactivity of a rock on a shelf2.
- The command system on the other hand has made it into the game, and as previously mentioned it takes a fair bit of inspiration from Brothers in Arms. Push the spacebar and you enter command mode, where time slows to a crawl, allies and enemies are highlighted in blue and red respectively, and you can issue orders to your two squadmates. This was pretty cool the first time I used it, and I immediately tried to use it to tell my squad to provide me with some cover fire while I flanked the enemy and took it out from the rear – which is why the time lag between my opening up the command system and my discovery that the squad AI is broken as fuck was about five seconds.
The squad AI deserves a bit more of an in-depth thrashing, since it’s the primary reason why the Bureau doesn’t even work as a mediocre third-person cover shooter. If enemies are behind cover they’ll take massively reduced damage, and while they’re kind enough to leave their heads poking out so that you can shoot them with sniper rifles eventually you are going to have to flank them if you want to kill them all. So you tell your two buddies to huddle down in covered positions and draw some fire while you sneak around the side so that you can get those sweet 200% damage criticals for flanking, but when you get to the flanking spot you realise that the enemy has redeployed to face you, and – even worse – there’s no covering fire coming in from where you thought you left your squadmates. This is because the squad AI is (as far as I can tell) coded to disregard orders and follow the commander once you get a certain distance away from them, except – hilariously – that distance is pathetically short and some considerable way less than the distance you’ll travel in the average flanking maneuver. This makes flanking damn near impossible unless you get suicidally close to the enemy, which in turn renders the cover shooter gameplay a braindead slugfest.
There are other problems with the squad AI (the pathfinding in particular is absolutely godawful, and I lost count of the number of times I attacked the enemy only to realise that one of my squadmates was stuck on a piece of scenery some way back twiddling his thumbs) but that’s the one that kills The Bureau stone cold dead as far as I’m concerned. It’s just so boring, especially at the start of the game when you have no abilities and it’s just you running along a linear path from A to B that’s chock-full of video game clichés that block your route and funnel you down that path: the staircase blocked with furniture; the sheer drop you have to jump down so that you can’t go back; the unopenable door that has a rather unconvincing flat image of a room inside pasted on just behind a window; the knee-high wall you inexplicably cannot vault over — you’ll see all these things and more in the first half hour of play. It’s just so spectacularly unimaginative, and while it gets a bit better once you actually have a few things you can do in the command system that aren’t the janky move and shoot orders it’s a level design philosophy that’s present throughout the entire game.
Speaking of those abilities, which unlock as your agents gain experience by killing enemies: I don’t have a problem with them being in the game, but absolutely no attempt is made to contextualise them within the game world – no research, no engineering, no explanation of why your men can now put up shields and summon blob monsters. Because they’re not explained they end up being the functional equivalent of magic spells, which – again – seem to be in the game because other, more popular titles used them to great effect. For example, your character – Agent Carter – gets an early ability which allows him to telekinetically lift aliens out of cover so that his squad can shoot them. Why can he do this? It’s possible it’s explained later on, but I’m about six hours in and as far as I can tell it seems to be there because Mass Effect did it. Let’s not even get into the Soldier class’s Taunt ability, which forces aliens out of cover; it makes absolutely no sense that you can enrage an alien species by insulting their mothers and belittling the size of their genitalia, but it’s in the game anyway because that’s what other games do. It’s spectacularly shit.
Weapon upgrades are similarly awful. Again, there’s no research or engineering necessary to unlock them; instead you just pick them up during a mission and boom, your scientists suddenly know how to manufacture them en masse so that you can equip them in the future. The weapons themselves have absolutely no heft or sense of force to them – something of a jarring shock since I was coming to The Bureau right after spending twenty hours in Payday’s meaty gunfights – and give the overall impression that you’re shooting the aliens with rolled-up balls of wet tissue paper. I’d complain about the upgrades consisting of affixing the word “laser” to everything in the assumption that players will be happy with Laser Shotguns and Laser SMGs, that make a slightly different sound to Earth weapons but which are otherwise functionally identical, except the proper XCOM did this too so it’ll probably seem like nitpicking. All I’ll say is that weapon variety is somewhat more important in a shooter than it is in a turn- and class-based strategy game, and that I think the unimaginative weapons contribute materially to the Bureau’s bland nature.
Last – but not least – there is the plot. Oh good god, the plot. At first, when you don’t know what the aliens are up to, it’s nearly creepy seeing what they do to towns under their control. There’s some great use of sound effects during the opening mission that reminded me of the 50s War of the Worlds movie – just general unsettling pulses of noise that give you the feeling something big and unnatural is going on. Aside from the gameplay being dull as ditchwater it didn’t seem like the plot was going to be that bad when I was at the start of the game. Then I surprised an alien infiltrator in the infirmary who spoke to me in perfect English, mwa-ha-ha-ing about their invasion plans. Then I interrogated an alien who told me everything about the invasion plans after about ten seconds of conversation. Then – sigh — the leader of the aliens started calling me up on the batphone to taunt me about how my continued victories against his incompetent underlings were all part of his master plan. Then – double sigh – it turned out that Agent Carter had a secret history with the aliens that very much looked like it was going to turn him into the Chosen One.
It was at this point that I stopped playing the game; it was bad enough that the gameplay was repetitive and unimaginative without the plot stuffing in every single bad videogame storytelling trope I’ve seen in the last five years. On top of that there’s the general sense that the game really has been stitched together out of spare parts – character animations are awful, sound effects don’t play, conversations feel like they’ve been assembled from random snippets of voice acting that nearly make sense but which are slightly too generic to convince me that they’re being used as intended. There’s also the facial animation during conversations, which ranges from “bad” to “oh my god that guy’s face is going to fall off of his face in a minute”. The production values aren’t the lowest I’ve ever seen, but they’re definitely not what I’d expect from a big-name game in 2013. Maybe it would have been acceptable – maybe the entire game would have been acceptable – back in 2006 when they started making it, but in 2013 it looks dated, feels dated and plays bloody terribly.
And the biggest irony of all is, it didn’t have to be this way. Firaxis’ XCOM might not have been perfect, but it was a good update that felt like XCOM and which did very well commercially, proving that there’s still a voracious appetite for gameplay features which are a little more complex than Shoot The Alien Right In The Face. Development woes aside (because you’d have a great deal of trouble convincing me The Bureau wouldn’t have turned out this way if development had gone swimmingly) there was no commercial imperative to make the game this dull. That I was half-expecting The Bureau to be bad doesn’t in any way excuse it. Hopefully 2K will learn from this and leave the XCOM series to Firaxis, who at least seem to have some idea of what they’re doing. Hopefully game developers in general will learn from this and stop resurrecting old IP as FPS/TPS games that somehow seem even older and tired than their antecedents. But I’m not holding my breath.
Well, fuck them. It seems that action games decided to antagonize everyone, but we have great Civilization 5, Europa Universalis 4 and Endless Space so let actions burn. Except Rayman Legends of course. And Saint’s Row.
Hmm, I think I may have come into the game wanting something different, because I have not yet gone away with such a bad impression. Yeah, all the XCOM stuff is not really XCOM (only superficially) and there is a big disconnect between a lot of things going on…
But the command and tactics side of it as actually fairly robust. Strip it of outside contexts and it actually works really well. I’ve not experienced any of the AI problems you’ve described apart from a few pathfinding issues that cropped up (including a guy getting stuck on a no-return ledge) and working out interesting solutions to battlefield problems with different characters has been interesting. I find I spend less time shooting, and more time commanding, and that suits just fine – I only start taking things out when it gets dicey with big guys or flyers.
And yeah, I am consciously blocking out the terrible plot and everything like that, so it’s perhaps unfair that I give it a free pass where I’d hate another game for it. I think I was expecting very very little, and it’s not worked out too badly so far. And they have a really nice variety of locations too – and while it’s all to the same effect, it’s still not a bad job.
Is there a shooter (3rd person or otherwise) that really does squad-based play well? Republic Commando looms over the conversation, but if you go back to it the mechanics frankly feel like they needed a sequel to really get the most out of it. Clive Barker’s Jericho had some interesting ideas let down by terrible mechanics. I seem to recall Medal of Honor: Allied Assault as having some cool squad-based stuff, but I can’t remember (so probably not really).
It’s a perpetual problem with what should be a fun, engaging mechanic.
SWAT 3 and 4 for sure, despite the mildly clunky squad controls – they were at least highly contextual. Also double up as one of the best coop series ever.
Really hope someone makes a worthy followup (weren’t some dudes doing a Kickstarter along those lines?)
I had some amazing times in R6: Raven Shield in co-op, and the single player is pretty decent, what with the pre-mission planning (although it’s still a crapshoot as to whether the team you’re not commanding gets annihilated by a shooter they missed). ArmA also makes a decent stab but has a tendency to be quite clunky (not played too much of ArmA 3 yet).
Raven Shield was the last great squad-based game. Yes, there’s a large luck factor, but I don’t see how you can do these things properly without the planning screens.
I have no idea how TAKEDOWN will shape up, but I hope at the least it’ll be as good as Raven Shield. To be honest Raven Shield is still a great game and only really needs more maps to continue to be interesting. I’m totally up for playing more Raven Shield over Steam sometime, btw, especially if we can rope a decent number in. If only to have synchronised room entries that end in us all shooting each other.
Oh, it’s also worth checking out GRAW 1 and 2 (although GRAW 1 had a mouse bug that I never fixed, making half the game unplayable).
I appreciated the Stargate reference, but I have to disagree about granite being uninteresting.
I like Granite too. Granite is pretty. And Basalt can make some interesting formations. Stop being so mean on rocks, Hentzau!
From the perspective of a solar system scientist granite and basalt are common as muck. I MAKE NO APOLOGIES.
I did get the sense in BiA that the cover began to feel a bit artificial, but I liked it overall, even if as usual sometimes it was worth doing the more dangerous jobs yourself as the AI wasn’t 100%. That said, once I picked up an MP44 I could usually snipe enemies who were behind cover fairly effectively, sort of breaking the need to flank.
An interesting thing about BiA was that you could play it in multiplayer with AI squadmates, which I remember being a lot of fun. Unfortunately the singleplayer was a bit of a one-trick pony, and while I give it points for trying something different it only lasted half the game before becoming almost as repetitive as conventional shooters.
Huh, I never tried it in co-op multiplayer. I imagine that could work quite well. Also, the most recent game was batshit insane.
Did you ever play that US army trainer that they turned into an XBox game? You controlled the squad, set up fire zones etc, used smoke grenades, but never actually did any FPS-ing. I quite liked that game. Can’t remember the name.
Do you mean http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Full_Spectrum_Warrior ? I gave it a quick go (it was on sale at one point on Steam) and I never got very far. It struck me as being a clunkier version of other squad-based games.
You know, The Bureau does actually attempt to do something pretty clever with the story and game mechanics towards the end. It’s not like brilliant, or anything, but I think in some ways the closest touchstone is Spec Ops – The Line (but nothing anywhere near as good as that).
If the tactics stuff hasn’t killed it for you, I recommend sticking it through to the end – you may be pleasantly surprised, or at least have an interesting bit to think about.
YOU’RE A TERRIBLE HUMAN BEING