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.