For a brief few seconds while playing through a 30-minute slice of 2K Games' upcoming XCOM game, I thought I was in 2010. Now, you might say, 'waitaminnit, The Bureau's set in 1962, isn't it?' You'd be right. But, there's an unmistakable whiff of Mass Effect — specifically ME2, when the series became much more combat-centric — around The Bureau: XCOM Declassified.
Main character William Carter isn't Commander Shepard. At no point during the half-hour session did I feel that I was shaping his personality in any given way. But I did take Carter and two other characters into battle against an invading alien army, alternating between engaging the enemies directly and stacking tactical commands for my mates to execute. I knelt down and healed them when they were downed. And both the branching dialogue choices and squad controls were handled via a segmented wheel UI.
Right now, those similarities don't necessarily feel like a good or a bad thing; they just exist. But it's the ways that The Bureau is dissimilar to BioWare's sci-fi franchise that hold the most hope. My first hands-on taste of the prequel to last year's Enemy Unknown felt more tactical than any instalment of the Commander Shepard trilogy. I played the Mass Effect games as shooters primarily, content to let my AI partners fight however their algorithms told them to. I'd heal 'em when they needed it, of course, and would aim biotics or special weapons attacks at particularly nasty foes. But, mostly, I let Garrus, EDI, Legion or whomever do what their behaviour code dictated.
The Bureau isn't going to let you get away with any such laid-back squad management. When I tried the laissez-faire approach, Carter and his boys got cut up fast. The mission I played was called The Signal and it had the fedora-wearing agent taking Engineer and Commando-class operatives to Pima, New Mexico to hunt down missing explosives expert DaSilva. The pre-mission briefing said that DaSilva might have intel crucial to helping repel the threat of The Outsiders, which is what The Bureau calls its extraterrestrials.
I got to put some of Carter and the AI characters' skills through their paces as we picked our way through the semi-intact remains of the southwestern suburban town. Carter's melee punch was fed energy from the backpack on his arm, showing how some of the tech harvested from Outsiders gets repurposed. Players can use alien weaponry like a scatter laser or laser rifle along with human grenades and firearms. I could command my Engineer to hunker down behind cover in one spot and tell him to place the turret in another nearby location. Then, I triggered Carter's Pulse Wave ability, knocking enemies out of position from behind cover so the turret could blast them. After that, I could have DaSilva remotely set off charges he'd planted while hiding from the Outsiders. Once those orders were executed, I could switch things up as needed until all waves were dealt with. Enemy classes have varying levels of armour, intelligence and firepower, with the predictable mix of heavies, grunts and snipers all on display.
Cover-based shooting, real-time tactical commands, deployment of squadmates' special abilities… the mechanics I experienced were all familiar from what I could do in other games. Things felt tense in each firefight, though. In the last combat sequence of the preview, a big hulking Outsider stomped towards Carter and crew and I had to scramble to space out my squad so they weren't easy pickings. There was the sensation of having to flick a mental switch between two mindsets through the demo, too.
As satisfying as it is to mow down Outsiders yourself, the combat chatter of your allies constantly drove home the idea that they need to be told what to do. And while I was in slo-mo Battle Focus figuring out commands, enemies were still bearing down on me. Squadmates' dialogue let me know where enemy advancement was happening so lines like 'they're coming in on the right' helped my brain go from shoot mode to strategy mode. There was a bit of fussiness to the cover implementation. At times, I wasn't actually sure when cover-chaining would trigger and Carter would unexpectedly pop up to catch a laser right in the fedora. It's the kind of thing that I chalked up to playing a build that was still a work-in-progress. But that twitchiness is also the kind of thing that will ruin The Bureau if it's still present in the final game.
Still, for me, the main draw for The Bureau is going to be how well it executes as a period piece. When the game first came out of the development shadows, much was made of its proximity to popular entertainments like Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Mad Men. The voice acting reminded me of the tight, clipped cadences of old-school tough guys like Lee Marvin and my eyes feasted on the mid-century architecture and graphic design language. Seriously, the art direction kicks arse. Carter's vest-and-slacks ensemble, the fins on the cars used for cover and the grainy film-stock effects used in some of the cutscenes all felt appealingly retro. You'll be laser-sploding your way through a catalogue of classic American cool looks.
And I saw a few signs that The Bureau would be poking beneath the shiny, happy mirage of America's golden age. Audiologs, collectible notes and visual puns each exposed some sort of turmoil beneath the perfectionism of the 1962 setting. When you catch up with him, DaSilva's bleeding from his eyes and nose, trying to fight off some kind of biological subjugation that threatens to rob him of free will. Along the way, Carter and crew encountered other residents of Pima who fell to the plague — which was reminiscent of The X-Files' black oil — and those poor townsfolk could only soullessly repeat the words and actions of their former lives.
Overly familiar though it might be, I can't deny the game's sparked a desire to control a character dressed like Eliot Ness and guys in original G.I. Joe fatigues and vintage mechanic's coveralls. I didn't have either of them die on me, but the game's supposedly going to make you ache when that happens. Based on what I've seen so far, The Bureau might not be a whole new revelation on its own. However, there might just be enough to make it a retro-slick variant of already extant experiences. My half-hour session with the game has me imagining an episode of Dragnet where strategically complex shootouts happen with aliens instead of mobsters and where you find out that the guy you smoke Lucky Strikes with has a none-too-kosher secret, like being gay. That's a game I would play. That's the game that 2K Marin has to deliver.