A big announcement. A worried public. Years of silence. Rumors. Finally, everything is redacted. 2K couldn’t have planned a better alternate-reality game for The Bureau: XCOM Declassified if it tried. But the shooter that perturbed weary X-Com fans who just wanted a strategy game, dammit has another chance to step out of the shadows after Enemy Unknown’s success.
We knew XCOM was some kind of Cold-War era first-person shooter years before we saw Firaxis’ brilliant reboot of the 1994 classic, but a troubled development cycle and three different studios later, things looked grim. After talking with 2K Marin Creative Director Morgan Gray, we’re convinced the wait was worth it.
You play as Agent Carter
Welcome to the front lines, Special Agent William Carter. You lead The Bureau’s secret missions against the Soviets at home and abroad. There’s a lot to do in ’62, nestled between the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis, and plenty of communists to foil–at least, until all those aliens start showing up.
Change of plans: stop the otherworldly forces that aim to annihilate/enslave the human race first, deal with the Reds later. And while you’re at it, make sure the good people of the United States never realize how close to oblivion they came–every action has an equal and opposite cover-up. The Bureau wants to save humanity, of course, but it’s just as important to make sure nobody besides Uncle Sam knows about these new alien races and their technology.
It's a tactical shooter that takes tactics seriously
The Bureau is a tactical (“with a big T,” says 2K Marin Creative Director Morgan Gray) third-person shooter, where Carter leads his squad against extraterrestrial invaders. Gray says good thinking is as important as good shooting, so players can pause the action with Battle Focus and direct squadmates’ positioning, abilities, and firing order. Making sure the tactical combat felt right took priority over online battles, Gray said, so don’t expect multiplayer.
When Carter and his goons aren’t ducking plasma fire, he needs to make sure everybody has the proper arsenal. Just like the good old (future?) days, each soldier can be fully kitted out. Classes are back, and the growing assortment of alien technology must be distributed to the proper trigger fingers. But more on that later.
The big board is back
Carter chooses between missions that advance the main plotline, secondary operations that appear periodically, and the previously mentioned Dispatches at the Bureau’s secret base. Its big board is limited to the continental U.S., and the encounters are limited in kind: a compromise between XCOM’s wide-open campaign and the demands of a tighter narrative.
“We do want to tell a story that has a feeling of immediacy and time,” Gray says, “so we want to push you through as well, and make you feel every op matters, nothing is ever just grinding forward.” In autopsy terms, this game has a much stronger narrative spine than its strategy forebears, but it still has plenty of ribs to crack open.
Alien technology is essential as ever
XCOM’s hallmark technological progression has been simplified and abstracted: instead of balancing research projects and fretting over elerium levels, advancement through gear and abilities encountered in the field is managed with an experience points system. You still have to balance who packs what experimental gear, of course.
The Bureau’s secret base isn’t nearly as customizable as XCOM’s, uh, will be. And Carter’s squadmates are, as their potentially hazardous positions demand, not particularly talkative. But he finds plenty of less-disposable personnel to chat up between battling aliens across the lower 48, and plenty of secrets and plots to clean up back home.
There's permadeath (for everyone but Carter)
Every XCOM veteran has a few war stories, and more often than not those involve losing soldiers on the field of battle. Of course, unlike most games, death doesn’t merely set you back a checkpoint or two. In XCOM–Declassified included–death is permanent.
Squadmates are randomly generated and customizable, just like Enemy Unknown. They even level up as they fight alongside Carter or on their own in optional Dispatch missions. If Carter dies, it’s game over. But if anyone under his command falls in the field, the game keeps going, just like Enemy Unknown. Try not to get too attached–you know at least a few members of your squad are doomed.
It explains why squads in Enemy Unknown start with crummy gear
The Bureau lays the groundwork for XCOM: Enemy Unknown. It shows not just the first invasion, but the cover-ups that mean the elite international fighting force begins with pissant armor and assault rifles instead of sweet extraterrestrial gear–decades after U.S. scientists first researched alien equipment.
The Bureau probably won’t take too kindly to the Freedom of Information Act when it’s signed into law in 1966. So despite the hard-won victories and advances in alien-fighting technology, Gray says the whole program “gets put on mothballs.” Carter’s second job is making sure no one–not even you, Commander–ever finds out about all the crazy crap he just did.
It's coming sooner than you'd think to current-gen consoles
You won’t have to wait decades to try it, though, just until August 20 in North America and August 23 internationally. It will cost $60 when it hits PC, PlayStation 3, and Xbox 360. Pre-orders–which open today, naturally–get access to an extra secondary mission called Codebreakers.
“We dig games that have a lot of mechanical complexity that put a lot of player agency and expression to the players, to give them tools to tackle the game how they want to,” Gray says. “To have this come, to get ready for people to get their hands on it, to see the light of day, we’re very excited.”
After years of work and multiple transitions, The Bureau: XCOM Declassified has finally found its footing. What do you hope to see from 2K Marin’s third-person shooter? Are you nervous it could potentially sully the XCOM name, or confident it will deliver? Let us know in the comments below.
And if you’re looking for more info on upcoming games, check out everything you need to know about The Evil Within and everything you need to know about Battlefield 4.
Before you proceed, make sure you’re armed with all the knowledge hidden in this first trailer