x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Not loving the aliens

It might be full of aliens and 1960s sci-fi gear, but this XCOM is unlikely to appeal to fans of the original.

The Bureau: XCOM Declassified has a distinct B-movie feel but it never rises to the heights of other XCOM titles.
The Bureau: XCOM Declassified has a distinct B-movie feel but it never rises to the heights of other XCOM titles.

We often hear of things coming unstuck on the set of films, with actors going AWOL and budgets flying through the nearest window. In video-game land, however, which doesn’t quite get the same showbiz attention, it’s not something that gets talked about as much.

But the chequered history of The Bureau: XCOM Declassified – it was unveiled back in 2006 and has since changed names, development studios and even genres – might explain what went wrong.

A 1960s-set first-person tactical shooter, The Bureau sees you play the troubled CIA agent William Carter (gruff voice, no nonsense attitude, standard gaming character traits) who must put his issues to one side and take on a load of invading, technologically advanced aliens (or “outsiders”, as they’re continually referred to).

Working with The Bureau (also known as XCOM), you embark on numerous missions to save Earth, each time with a couple of AI grunts who you can direct on the battlefield, telling them where to move, which green spindly creature to shoot, etc. There’s a distinct B-movie feel to it, with much of the action taking place in diners and farmhouses across suburban America and The Bureau’s headquarters awash in 1960s sci-fi equipment. Sounds good so far.

Sadly, coming shortly after 2012’s XCOM: Enemy Unknown, a fantastic reimagining of the 1994 turn-based, role-playing cult classic, this is likely to disappoint new and old fans of the franchise. The trouble largely lies in the fact that the basic game plays much like a fairly mediocre third-person shooter, using elements of Gears of War here and Mass Effect there, but with the XCOM elements unceremoniously shoved in.

Each mission has you land in an infected spot, move forward, find the aliens and switch to Battle Focus, which slows things down and allows direction of your fellow ET-fighters. Sadly, the AI isn’t marvellous and you’re going to need to tell them exactly what to do.

Each type of squaddie has a different ability, so an engineer can set up a rather nice turret while the sniper can take out foes with a critical shot. But although your teammates can die on the battlefield, you can’t. A misguided charge into a flock of heavily armed Martians will simply have you re-spawned – along with your crew – at the previous checkpoint. As such, there’s not the same connection with the main character and you’re unlikely to feel that desperate urge to save his skin if you know you can just do it all again should everything go pear-shaped.

Between each mission, respite is had at The Bureau’s HQ, where you’ll encounter other shady figures from the agency and learn of Carter’s past. After a while, however, it all feels quite irrelevant and you’ll want to skip through the rather tedious cut scenes to get back on the ground with a gun.

It’s not all bad. The glow when you send a squad-mate to outflank an alien and take it out with a single shot while you draw fire from the front is warm and fuzzy. But it’s all too infrequent and the strategy elements that made the original XCOM so addictive just don’t measure up.

artslife@thenational.ae