Review – The Bureau: X-Com Declassified

OK, I just finished this one. I don’t normally negatively review games as I finish them (because I usually just give up before finishing) but I wanted to talk about this one.

Because by Cthulhu I hated it.

I love any number of horribly broken games. I give a pass on any number of things as long as I am entertained. As long as a game has a story I find interesting I’ll put up with whatever janky mechanics you throw at me to get through it.

By the end I hated everything about this game. I hated the mechanics. I hated the story. I hated the characters. I hated the world it created. I hated what it did to the X-Com name. I admit using a cheat code to get through the final battle just to see if it managed to redeem itself at the end and it still failed. It was bad. Really bad. Hugely, mindbogglingly bad. Bad beyond all possible conception of badness.

OK, maybe it wasn’t that bad, but f’htagn it wasn’t good!

I bought it plus the DLC in the Steam sale and regret it. I’m not even going to try the DLC because I really can’t bring myself to go back into it.

Great Cthulhu, where to begin?

I’ll start with the story, because that’s why I play games and why I got this one. (And I’m not going to spoiler anything because everyone needs to be warned of this one; it’s spoiled like potato salad left out in the sun already so everyone needs to know to avoid it. But if for some inexplicable reason you want to play this and want to be surprised, skip the rest of this post!)

It’s 1962 and aliens are invading. Yeah, I know. I missed that part of my American History classes as well. Wait a minute… I was alive in 1962 and I think I would have remembered if something like that had happened, but OK… just go with it.

You play Agent William Carter. He used to be a great agent, but his wife and child were killed when he was off on assignment and he is a bit upset about that. The first time you see him he’s basically a drunk; there are a couple of empty bottles around from where he drank himself into a stupor. Then he gets shot and strangled by an alien.

Then he gets better. Yeah, something is odd right off the start.

He starts running missions for X-Com and its commander (who has put himself in charge in best Alexander Haig fashion) and the old top agent seems to be returning. He completes missions. He starts gaining the trust and respect of his colleagues. He is still haunted by the death of his family but he seems to be overcoming it, even though there are occasional weird “flashbacks” where he seems to be in some sort of interrogation and talking about it.

Too bad nothing ever comes of that. Literally. Those scenes are never explained.

You see, about 80% of the way through the game it is suddenly revealed that he is “possessed” by an alien. Yeah, it had been hinted at (there were a few major clues that something was up) but the game immediately implies that all the successes you had been having as Carter were really the alien helping him. The alien meets another of its kind and they openly discuss killing all of humanity to allow the aliens access to Earth. Carter obviously has some objection to this and manages to get the alien to release him.

At which point it becomes completely obvious that you are playing the alien as you simply pick another character to possess. And Carter becomes a prisoner and a source of ridicule. At least one character openly states “Yeah, I knew from his file that he was nothing but a failure.”

In other words, all the character development for Carter was inconsequential and meaningless! So much for story. The only character development the game cares about is which skill you decided to select.

You continue the missions, now playing the character possessed by the alien. Carter, now an NPC (and still working on the assumption that the alien is a threat because the alien, again, had openly discussed killing all of humanity), attempts to stop you and you have to stop him. He gets arrested, breaks loose, and interferes with your current mission. You can even kill him. (I didn’t.) Yeah, the character you spent the first two-thirds of the game playing becomes an opponent and a joke.

Look… Do not ask me to play a character in an RPG then take it away from me and make that character an incompetent, inconsequential threat. Yeah, I get it. I was playing the alien. But you didn’t tell me that up front and in my mind one of the cardinal rules of an RPG is you never take a player’s character away from them.

To me the way the “plot” unfolded destroyed any character development the story had. Near the end one of the major supporting characters gets killed. It’s supposed to be an emotional moment, but since this character was the same one who had said “Yeah, I knew Carter was a failure” I was perfectly happy seeing them dead. Probably not the reaction I was supposed to have.

Oh yeah, the “plot”. Somehow after we defeat the aliens X-Com is able to somehow completely cover up everything that happened. As if the complete destruction of dozens of cities and death or disappearance of thousands of people can somehow be covered up as an accident. And there is no mention of using mind-control or something like that; they just manage to convince everyone on the planet that nothing happened.

We’ll ignore the fact that we apparently had laser and plasma weapons, interplanetary spacecraft, teleportation gates and who knows what else in 1962 and somehow conveniently forgot about it.

And the alien we were playing conveniently gets away and disappears as well. Yeah, that makes sense.

OK, so the story is garbage. What about the game.

It’s a third-person, squad-based shooter with light RPG overtones. You have the character you control plus two others, all of whom have a variety of special abilities (from being able to deploy turrets to being able to mind-control opponents). You do this in the standard arena full of chest-high barricades.

Your opponents do seem to have rudimentary intelligence (they at least seem to have some concept of staying under cover and actually know how to try to flank you) but the way the game tries to challenge you is to throw swarms of them at you at once. You are hampered by having limited ammo (you have to run around the arena looking for weapons and ammo) and the fact that the only way to heal your squad is a single healing skill on your main character that is tied to a cooldown. (OK, if you pick one particular upgrade you can have a drone that heals as well.)

Overall combat is… boring? It’s the same thing you’ve seen a thousand times before. The closest thing it feels like is Mass Effect, except Mass Effect was actually fun. You come into an area, enemies spawn and you shoot at them until you fall over. There’s a bit of strategy involved when armored or shielded enemies show up (as there are weapons and abilities designed to rip through armor and/or shields) but that’s about it. Otherwise it’s just shoot until they fall over.

The final battle sees you facing waves of enemies, including at one point four of the elite mutons that are the toughest enemies in the game (who are shielded, armored and can leap onto you from anywhere in the arena), drones that can heal any of your opponents (or who can lift your squadmates into the air, rendering them useless), enemy leaders that can continue to create more drones, and who knows how many “normal” enemies. And that was what I saw at the easiest difficulty level. After a couple of defeats I decided I didn’t care enough about the game to even try to figure out how I was supposed to win; I hacked open the console, enabled invulnerability and just killed everything on the level. And I don’t feel the least bit bad about it.

So yeah, as someone who plays for story I hated the game. And as someone who at least has fun with a shooter if it at least feels competent and fun (for reference one of my favorite games is the original F.E.A.R., so I don’t automatically hate anything shootery) I hated the shooting. And if you take out the story and the shooting… there isn’t that much left.

Stay away. Stay far away.

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