May 13, 2013 at 11:50 AM ET
When "XCOM: Enemy Unknown" came out last year, some game critics equated it to a slower, more boring version of "Gears of War." Whether or not you agreed with that assessment, the influence of third-person cover-based shooters that "Gears of War" pioneered was hard to deny. "Enemy Unknown" publisher 2K must have felt similarly, because when the company brought the long-rumored "XCOM" shooter back from the dead late last month, it sounded a lot like the developers had just set about turning "XCOM" into a game like "Gears of War."
That's partly true, but when I got first look at the actual game play in "The Bureau: XCOM Declassified," the game that really kept coming to mind was "Mass Effect."
The inspirations from BioWare's space opera are unmistakable. "The Bureau" is a third-person squad-based shooter with a remarkably similar layout and user-interface. Players control William Carter, the protagonist who doubles as the squad leader. Being the team leader, Carter can steer the other two squad-mates that he brings with him on missions — ordering them to move to a better tactical position, drop down explosive mines or turrets, or even taunt the little green (or sometimes grey) men out of cover.
Carter's superpowers seem lifted straight from the "Mass Effect 2" playbook, down to the level of the ethereal blue aura they cast around bad guys when deployed. "Pulse wave" is basically "Mass Effect's" "shockwave" ability, while "lift" is, for all intents and purposes, the same exact thing as Commander Shepard's "biotic lift." —both cast enemies asunder, leaving them dangling helplessly outside of cover while you make your move.
In other ways, however, "The Bureau" pales in comparison. "The Bureau's" developers at 2K Marin emphasized that they wanted to preserve "XCOM's" legendary difficulty by keeping permadeath as a feature, which means that all of your squad mates can actually due when they're fatally wounded in combat.
This is a nice touch that's always separated "XCOM" from the rest of the pack when it comes to modern video games. But it also limits the ability for character development—something that both "Gears of War" and "Mass Effect" built through countless hours of companionship with nothing but your virtual teammates. Similarly, the single-player campaign in "The Bureau" offers a story that's mostly doled out through cut-scenes and dialogue wheels, but most of the choices that Carter had to direct the narrative during the level I played were basically choosing between saying "tell me more" and "shut up and let me keep shooting things."
That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it gives "The Bureau" a steeper hill to climb for prospective players. The game is being released late this summer, just before the onslaught of next-generation consoles and their corresponding games begins in the fall. That, combined with the fact that "The Bureau" had become as mysterious and ephemeral as a crackpot theory about aliens itself in the months leading up to its re-reveal, it's hard to shake the feeling that 2K is just trying to get this thing out the door at this point.
Nico Bihary, a senior producer at 2K, understandably chafed at the suggestion that his game was essentially a response to the "Gears of War" generation of gamers, telling NBC News that he felt "The Bureau" had a more substantial tactical overlay on top of its shooting gameplay than a game like "Mass Effect" and "Gears of War" had. While I was hesitant to accept this at first, after getting a chance to play the game myself, I think he may be right.
Bihary described Carter as the "combat quarterback" for your team. Despite the game's unique art-style, the description is surprisingly apt. What separates "The Bureau" from "Mass Effect" and "Gears of War" is the hefty amount of responsibility it puts on the players to manage all of your players. While side-kicks in the earlier two games essentially acted on their own AI-powered volition to help you take out enemies, squadmates in "The Bureau" sit tight and scream for new orders until you're able to give them a new directive. This makes the opportunity for mistakes a more fraught decision for the player, sure. But it also makes playing even a short level like the one I previewed recently a far more dynamic experiencing simply because the game asks players to do more things during its moment-to-moment gameplay.
There are still some much-needed tweaks to make the guns and super-powers in "The Bureau" even half as satisfying as those in "Mass Effect" or "Gears of War," and Bihary admitted that much of that comes down to restless fine-tuning during the last hours of development. But if the rest of "The Bureau" is able to maintain the same level of tactical ingenuity that I recently saw, I think this mysterious and storied game will still be worth checking out.
"The Bureau: XCOM Declassified" will come out in August. Watch the first gameplay trailer below.