Posted on | July 18, 2014 | No Comments
I’m not quite sure what initially prompted me to buy this installment of XCOM. As a general rule, I tend to eschew Humans vs. Aliens franchises as I inevitably compare them to Halo (for better or worse).
But the way this game was presented in trailer, as an almost perfect blend of Mad Men and Mass Effect, had me intrigued.
The year is 1962, and you are government agent William Carter, on assignment to deliver a mysterious briefcase to a US Government test center. While staying on base you’re attacked, the unknown artifact in the briefcase explodes, and you’re suddenly thrust into a battle between alien soldiers and the surviving military contingent at the base.
The story goes on from there, with forays across the country mounted from your base in the ultimate Cold War bunker while you gain experience, leveling up yourself and your Korean War-veteran team mates. Generally, you kick some serious alien butt across the US of A.
There’s something about period games that always draws me in. With Bioshock it was the glorious Art Deco styling and Steam-Punk mad-science of the 1950’s (Diesel-Punk?) used by the hyper-geniuses of the city. In Hexen the pseudo-medieval motif added to the supernatural feeling of the dungeon exploration and gathering of spells.
In The Bureau we are introduced to a 1962 America at the peak of its post-World War II power. The new tech of the coming Space Age intermingles with familiar 1950’s styles in the background. The lead character, William Carter, spends a good part of the game wearing a fedora and three-piece suit, looking like a dapper Roger Sterling festooned with hurriedly built advanced weapons technology.
The aliens themselves are varied, with the stereotypical “greys” as the Insectoid cannon-fodder along with more advanced species, empowered with abilities that are introduced as the game progresses. Over time the human characters are able to use alien guns and abilities, and not to go too spoiler but the game contains probably one of the best 4th Wall breaks in video game history.
The game itself has gone through a long evolution, changing sharply from its original FPS concept from when it was conceived years earlier. Games can often benefit from such a fundamental reimagining (again, Bioshock), but sometimes they’ll leave behind too much of what made then unique as the progress through the development process.
The original Bureau was set in the 1950’s, and alien-fighting was done house-to-house, with agents looking for extra-terrestrial activity behind the Norman Rockwell veneer of suburbia. A great concept, but over time the gameplay mechanics migrated from Master Chief fighting with his cadres of NPC marines, to Commander Shepard directing and upgrading his finite number of squad-mates. Not necessarily a bad thing, both are fine motifs, but the result was a very different gameplay and a lingering “What if…” feeling for whomever watched the original trailers.
Another issue is the bugginess. While playing the XBox 360 version I found some rooms in the main base to be inaccessible. I could tell via the glass windows that something…interesting was going on in there. No matter how hard I tried I couldn’t find a position where I could open the door.
Later, I found out not only was there additional fun to be had shooting aliens in that area, but also the possibility of unlocking an entirely new level. Very annoying to say the least.
The last real down-side to the game I found was more of a disappointment, related to the other games in the XCOM franchise. Throughout the game the weapons you’re using are either conventional human slug-throwers, or fresh from the UFO alien guns. But as you wander around the XCOM base you see scientists hard at work building human versions of the ET weaponry. You also see some of these theoretical “plasma-arms” in the early FPS trailers. As I played I wondered why we never ended up with these cool hybrids, and then later when I researched the XCOM series, I was very disappointed to find out that alien-based human-built guns were a core part of the earlier XCOM installments. Perhaps they had to skimp on the time needed to make the weapon models, or couldn’t record the cutscenes for introducing them due to a rushed release date (also hence the bugginess), but it detracted from the game’s look and feel, making it feel like a step somewhere was missing.
Overall, it was a great game to play. Not genre-changing or the next leap forward in storytelling by any means, but you certainly get your money’s worth. And the novelty of running around killing aliens in the happy hunting grounds of Don Draper can’t be beat.