Given that making a big-budget video game requires hundreds of people doing endless hours of tedious work, it’s easy for the original inspiration to get lost, or for minor tweaks to end up dominating the final product. The Bureau reportedly had a more complicated development process than most, and it’s left us with a game that’s confused, shapeless, and frequently generic, but with a genuinely interesting gameplay idea at its core.
When The Bureau was first announced as a shoot-’em-up remake of the beloved ’90s strategy game X-Com, the Internet exploded in justifiable outrage. 2K Games’ marketing department is now trying to obscure the connection, but X-Com’s influence is undeniable. Which is unfortunate, since the X-Com elements are the weakest parts of The Bureau. In a nod to the original’s base-building, you spend a lot of time not fighting aliens, but doing stuff in your secret government bunker. But there’s none of the strategic balancing of X-Com’s excavation and construction system, just a big hub world filled with wooden marionettes trudging through poorly animated conversation scenes and giving you missions that are nothing but “go there, press this button, walk back.”
The story is even worse: a confused mish-mash of alien invasion tropes that crams way too many twists into its relatively short running time. The game’s 1962 setting is fully never developed; a good dialogue writer could have a lot of fun telling a sci-fi story with rat-pack slang and Kennedy-era clichés, but all the characters just talk with the same faux-gritty sternness we’ve heard in a thousand military shooters. The worst-written character is, unfortunately, the game’s protagonist, a dark-haired soldier who’s gruff, defiant, and haunted. In short, exactly like every lead in every big-budget shooter since the original Max Payne, without so much as a unique hairstyle to make him interesting.
When the game finally lets you onto the battlefield, though, it abruptly, and surprisingly, becomes unlike any game I’ve ever played. You can run, aim, shoot, take cover, do all the usual shooter stuff, but the real meat of game is in commanding your squad. You’ll constantly be pulling up a radial controller to tell them where to go, whom to shoot, and which class-based abilities to deploy. Jumping between one-on-one blasting and tactical calculation is a challenging and intriguing experience, and the fact that battles slow but don’t stop while you give commands keeps things tense. The only way to survive the game’s absolutely brutal difficulty is to master a kind of zen hysteria, a total battlefield awareness that’s at once reflex-driven and cerebral.
The combat levels are gleefully challenging, even on Normal difficulty; your team will be crushed if you don’t maintain total battlefield awareness no matter how many aliens are shooting at you. But the challenge of the fights is largely a product of your teammates’ incredibly stupid AI; you have to give them good orders, because without your constant instruction, they won’t even know to duck when they get shot. It’s interesting to command a squad in such detail, but it also feels like playing a co-op shooter in the company of the severely brain-damaged. Its difficulty feels fair (when you lose, it’s always because you didn’t command well enough), but one wishes for soldiers who didn’t need quite so many commands.
But at least the solid visual design means you’ll never lose because you couldn’t see what’s happening. In contrast to the boring corridors of the base, the fighting interface is bright, colorful, and immediately coherent, making it just easy enough to see your goals without removing the challenge of finding your enemy in the dark. There’s plenty of nice visual detail all through the game; while the writers didn’t do nearly enough with the Mad Men-era setting, the artists beautifully recreated the strict silhouettes of the period’s fashion, and the clean, optimistic futurism of its graphic design.
It’s to the developer’s credit that a game that began as an utterly cynical mistreatment of a beloved old title has ended up being an interestingly experimental game. The Bureau certainly can’t compare to last year’s glorious XCOM: Enemy Unknown. It doesn’t have the meat-and-potatoes satisfaction of less ambitious shooters. But a well-designed game with something unique at its center is a game worth trying, even if there are a lot of drab corridors between you and the war room.