This week, Zero Punctuation reviews The Bureau: XCOM Declassified.
Why is it in those new-fangled video games of yours is no-one ever grateful when monsters invade? Everyone is always like, "Nuh, the monsters are destroying our cities, and everyone of ours that falls is joining their ranks in a nightmarish state of living death, whinge, whinge, whinge." When surely the entire history of human endeavour has been one long quest to find monsters, because it justifies our existence to know that a monster considers our face worthwhile enough to peel from our skull.
But we didn't find any monsters in the forests, or the oceans, or the skies. The Moon was kind of the last hope, wasn't it? I'm not saying we wanted to see Neil Armstrong get blindsided by a hairy giant Moon spider while he was fiddling with the flag, it's just, you know... some of us would have gotten some sense of fulfillment from it.
But speaking of monsters of McCarthy-era space exploration, I've been playing The Bureau: XCOM Declassified, a game with one of those titles that looked like they came out of the tumble drier with a load of unnecessary words clinging to it, in which space monsters invade, and everyone is very unphilosophical about it.
The Bureau is the game that 2K have been threatening to make for a while now, "Let's turn another beloved 90s franchise into a shooter, 'cause that worked out so bloody well for Syndicate, and maybe triple-A gaming is plugged up in every single orifice with generic shooters, but hey, there is such thing as DVDA". But then everyone was like, "This shit ain't my XCOM!", so 2K was all like, "Oh OK then, here's XCOM: Enemy Unknown, a faithful remake of the original turn-based management gameplay brought up to speed with better presentation and more intuitive design". "This is exactly what we want," said everyone. "Wasn't so hard, was it 2K? Thank you for not going through with that generic shooter idea." "Emm," said 2K awkwardly, "We're actually kind of still making that." "Oh, good for you, bye then."
So we should take into account that The Bureau is in an awkward position even before it starts, it's like being the follow-up act to Freddie Mercury, and before you ask, alive Freddie Mercury. So The Bureau is not just a generic shooter, it's got hub-based selectable mission gameplay, RPG elements, real-time tactics with two NPCs, and even a couple of features they didn't rip off from Mass Effect! For example, the story is absolute shite.
You are William Carter, a grizzled ex-CIA man haunted by his entire family having been wiped out by a rampaging plot device. So he's a loose cannon with a drinking problem who doesn't play by the rules, but gets results! Basically, a man who wears clichés for trousers, and a little sporty trilby-shaped cliché for a hat. Aliens invade, like they do, and Carter becomes part of a secret counter-invasion unit based out of a bunker in New Mexico run by a tough but fair, no nonsense boss man and an independent woman trying to make her way in a men's world, and a German scientist named "Heinrich" because of course he fucking is.
And you'll get to know all these shit characters through Mass Effect-style dialog trees with the usual stock still creepy fixed eye contact during which Carter constantly makes weird fist-pumping gestures, like he's trying to imply that his conversation partner is a tosser.
'Course, in Mass Effect, most of the characters you talk to while you mooch around the hub area while pretending to work are party members with interesting back stories, whereas your party members in this are short-haired white dude A and short-haired white dude B. Well, in fairness, Bureau does have party member perma-death, so probably best not characterize them, 'cause otherwise their deaths would have some kind of impact, and we might momentarily feel an emotion.
You know, characters in shooters these days are basically the same as archaeologists : their natural state in life is crouching next to a ruined a bit of wall, and they spend an awful lot of time around dead people. William Carter is a committed archaeologist in the field, but in between archaeology sessions there are always weirdly long linear paths to the next dig site, and because the mission gameplay has nothing to offer besides combat, these moments have all the appeal of navigating an IKEA showroom you have zero interest in buying anything from, 'cause you're trying to find the sodding restaurant.
The artists can pour their efforts in making lovely skyboxes and set pieces for these little guided tours, but I barely glance at any of it, because again, it's like Mass Effect; unless the room is inexplicably networked with chest-high walls, like some kind of intermediate level dog labyrinth, then you know for a fact that fuck-all is going to happen, so why bother hanging around?
Although a good game might use some downtime to get us engaged in the story a bit, but The Bureau's story is, as we have established, shite, and it just becomes tedious. Kind of inconsistent, too. There's this big baddy guy that you have to go after, but before the mission everyone was nagging me to bring him alive, for questioning. So I assumed there'd be a choice involved, but then the main character popped a cap in he ass in the mission's concluding cutscene, and nobody seems to care. Was there some kind of poorly handled romance between the story writers and they became too embarassed to talk to each other?
But anyway, the combat itself seems a tiny bit neurotic about being able to credibly call itself an XCOM game. So after you park your spotty arse in cover, you have to instruct your two friends to move to cover positions as well, because otherwise they seem a little unclear on the concept of self-preservation. They'd yell "Grenade!" and then get confused and sit on it like they were hoping to hatch a baby goose.
I hate this notion that a mixture of turn-based and real-time gameplay will somehow end up being the best of boths worlds, 'cause in practice it just turns into a mess. It's like trying to order dinner while the chef is firing jacket potatos at your mouth with a tennis ball cannon, and in keeping with the "This is XCOM, no really." attitude, you have a team of around ten or twelve agents at your command, of varying classes and specializations, but they're kind of redundant when you can only take two of the fuckers on mission at a time.
You can send them off on non-playable missions, Assassin's Creed style, and level them up that way, but that just leaves you with a squadron of people way too overqualified to be doing fuck-all. The combat's always the same, and there's no way of knowing what classes will be suitable for the challenges, so you might as well just stick to the same two guys, keep the rest for replacements. But ten substitutes for two guys, how shit at this game do you think I am?
I suppose I should have been angry when I got as far as the final mission when my save file corrupted and I couldn't go on, but frankly, it was my most positive moment with the experience. "Why were you playing this?" I asked myself. "'Cause it's me job." "...Would you be playing it if it wasn't your job?" "Fuck, no. I'd be playing the other XCOM, while eating something mother would disapprove of." "Well that's the review then, isn't it? Let's switch the discs over and see if Domino's will make us a sandwich with pizzas instead of bread. And nine pizzas instead of filling."
Never quite moved past the anal probing: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
If only 60's XCOM had kept written records maybe the present-day lot wouldn't have had to research all the bloody laser rifles again
Ooh we're not an office we're a 'bureau' are we well lah de dah
Extra: Escapist Expo
Hey, it's Escapist Expo time again soon! October 4th to 6th in Durham, North Carolina, just like last time. You'd almost think it's a regular thing now. Just letting you know I'm gonna be there again because it was a lot of fun last time and I'm looking to seeing open-quotes "all" of open-quotes "you" open-quotes "again".