It's a familiar feeling to players of "XCOM: Enemy Unknown": You flank an alien at point-blank range, line up a shot that's 95-percent likely to spill its green innards, take the shot — and miss.
Despite being in development seven years — long before "Enemy Unknown" — "The Bureau: XCOM Declassified" feels like it was designed as a counterpoint to Firaxis' fantastic 2012 strategy epic. By removing the rule of chance from the battlefield, 2K Marin's third-person tactical shooter gives you room to beat back the alien hordes with pure, clutch skill. You think you can make that shot? OK, take your frighteningly powerful plasma cannon and do it. But if you miss, you can only blame yourself.
Tactics aren't thrown out the window, though. As XCOM special agent William Carter, you're not only fighting on the front line of an early-'60s alien invasion, you're commanding the welcoming committee. Winning this war means guiding your partners into cover, healing their wounds and focusing their attention on the most pressing alien threats, all while blasting a few to smoldering gray bits yourself.
"The Bureau's" flagship achievement is balancing its franchise's signature strategy with frenzied shooting in almost co-dependent fashion. There's a few casualties — spotty partner AI and a loony story among them. But like a seductive transmission from an alien world, the game's battle arena always beckons you back for more thrilling close encounters.
The game's central balance works so well because you can't charge into that arena like any other shooter. Exposing yourself to even a lowly Sectoid will get you killed in a second. You can melee, but you should probably take that idea off the table right now. Trying to finish off 20 aliens with a punch for an Xbox achievement got me killed at least as many times. And if you see a Muton, who ranks with the Bloaters of "The Last of Us" among the year's most frightful game foes, maintain restraining-order distance.
Shooting is also less effective in "The Bureau" than similar games, like the genre-shaping "Gears of War" or close cousin "Mass Effect." Mutons and the walking-tank Sectopods can withstand several clips' worth of laser and plasma fire, and sniping the heads of Sectoids and Outsiders who peekaboo from cover doesn't reward your precision with the lethal dose of damage you may expect.
So you can't just win with bullets. But you can't just win with tactics, either — at least, not for a while.
"The Bureau" shares with "Mass Effect" a strategy wheel, here called Battle Focus, that sustains some urgency during your decision-making by slowing time, but not stopping it altogether. It's a smooth switch from down-sights aiming into selecting commands for Carter's two partners, though targeting squad movements and turret deployment around topography like ramps and waist-high barriers can be bumpy.
You could cruise through "Mass Effect" without opening its wheel once. "The Bureau" won't let you off so easy, both because of its weakened shooting and the game's most recurring and frustrating flaw: Your squadmates are morons. They follow your directions faithfully enough, but if you go too long without telling them what to do, they'll stupidly put themselves in harm's way. It's almost as though their IQs are destroyed by grenades, which aliens throw frequently to dislodge you and your allies from cover. After scrambling out of the way, they have a habit of getting themselves shot quickly by taking cover in spots that provide none at all.
Through the game's "permadeath rule," you could just let the agents die and recruit new ones. But their learned abilities and individually tailored loadouts die with them — and there's no reason to believe your next partners will be any smarter. So restarting from the game's widely spaced checkpoints is the wisest move.
In the first half of "The Bureau," your commands are more defensive than offensive — that is, they're more about keeping your squad from getting killed than doing any killing of its own. But as Carter and his companions level up, unlocking helpful abilities like rocket turrets, armor-busting enemy blasts and mind control, your partners become positively handy battlefield assets.
Toward the end of the game, I was able to complete one minor operation without Carter firing a single shot. The rush of shotgunning the last Muton dead with a sliver of life left was replaced with the pleasure of watching my drones, mines and (carefully) directed comrades decimate a field of enemies — just like "Enemy Unknown." But that wasn't SOP in "The Bureau." More often, my aim meant the difference between life and permadeath — decidedly not like Firaxis' game.
Strengthening the similarity between the two "XCOM" titles is not just the same array of alien nomenclature — Sectoids, Mutons and more — but the same symmetrical battlegrounds of car-clotted streets and alien garrisons. "The Bureau" sets itself apart with an authentic, memorable aesthetic by filtering the muted pastels and glossy surfaces of the early '60s through the film grain common in cheesy sci-fi. The highlight is costume design, whether it's the lime-on-lilac three-pieces you can clothe your squad in or the tight-fitting tinfoil astronaut suits they don later in the game.
The period polish extends, for better or worse, to "The Bureau's" story. Carter's your typical gruff, traumatized middle-aged white guy video game hero, like Booker DeWitt and Isaac Clarke before him and Max Payne before him. Though that squares well with the game's setting and subject matter, more diversity — e.g. female squadmates, like "Enemy Unknown" — would have been refreshing. The "Mass Effect" resemblance also returns in the form of dialogue wheels and tedious base trekking. I couldn't be back in the field shooting aliens soon enough.