One of the core differences between strategy video games and other genres is personhood. In most of them, you’re often playing the role of a voiceless, bodiless overlord, looking at a scene from on high. This is opposed to the more action-based “shooter” genre, of which The Bureau: XCOM Declassified belongs, where players see the action from the point of view of a boots-on-the-ground grunt. While the latter is more often used to make war an enticing action movie (Call of Duty‘s Modern Warfare/Black Ops sub-franchises and Gears of War), but can also be used to show the horrific effects of carnage on individuals (Spec Ops: The Line), the former lends itself to cool detachment: The Bureau‘s predecessors, including Firaxis’ excellent remake XCOM: Enemy Unknown, allow players to throw recruit after expendable recruit at the alien invaders while maintaining focus on “the bigger picture.” While The Bureau is a shooter, it attempts, and fails, to utilize squad-based mechanisms to keep the strategy spirit lurking over the running and gunning, which threatens interesting implications for the game’s Cold War setting. A more ambitious studio than 2K Marin could have made the disconnect between those two modes a source of palpable tension and escalating paranoia, but it’s rare for any element of this prequel/reboot to be lingered on or followed up.
Progression through the game is a list of tedious chores. Between shoot ’em up missions, one can wander XCOM base, but apart from world-building notes and side quests which mainly consist of running back and forth, one will find a barren, charmless series of corridors. The base’s commander, Faulke, warns about “infiltrators,” a direct analogy to Red Scare fears of communist subversives, and orders staff and agents to undergo tests every time they return from the field, yet when gravel-voiced player character William Carter shows intense reactions to one of these tests (the lone bit of foreshadowing for a lame third act twist meant to evoke Bioshock‘s questions of free will), nothing happens as a consequence. It isn’t even brought up again, even when the plot twist is implemented. There are no characters in the game, in spite of an attempt at tragic backstories for Carter and fellow agent Angela, just blobs of Americans as uniform as the hive-minded aliens or the infected humans (called “Sleepwalkers” because they move about but seem unaware of their surroundings). It especially becomes noticeable in field missions, where the lightly-customizable squad members all tend to look exactly alike. And behave alike, too: give them orders like taking cover, and many times they will disregard it in favor of running straight at the enemy, as if they were kamikazes. Personality rarely crops up, and when it does it’s drowned out by Carter’s barking and a score that attempts Jerry Goldsmith. The rare occasions where disobedience occurs (Carter not waiting for reinforcements, Angela pursuing a vendetta) are quickly forgiven, taking “no harm no foul” to an absurd degree.
Instead of using the change of perspective to flesh out what X-Com fans may take for granted, The Bureau instead dulls them down to Modern Warfare‘s monotony. After a devastating attack in the game’s prologue, Faulke orders, “Survive, adapt, win.” It’s meant as a distillation of the X-Com franchise’s core mechanics of researching/repurposing alien technology, learning from the enemy to gain an advantage (to hammer home the point, one of the scientists is a former Nazi). The player, as Carter, is even told they will have to find devices and bring them back. Sadly, this directive requires neither differing strategies or objectives: UFOs don’t need to be investigated, aliens don’t need to be captured, civilians don’t need to be rescued; all that’s required of players is to shoot and find new ways to shoot. This relinquishes one of the key opportunities to explore the notion of trust between commander and commanded, such as when using stun weapons to capture aliens in Enemy Unknown (failure of which would elicit wry comments like “Permission to use a real gun, sir?”). Given a chance to make such encounters more visceral, terrifying, and personal, 2K Marin opts to instead limit adaptation to the banal, post-Halo method of picking up dropped weapons. No thought or effort required but what is provided for you.
The Bureau‘s half-hearted measures end up becoming the worst tendencies of shooters and strategy games by virtue of indifference: bland jingoism and surveillance state apologia already inherent in both rolls up into a Moebius strip. 2K Marin take away the sense of a bigger picture, with only obtuse references to J. Edgar Hoover and the Russians to mark the game’s politics, while denying individual thought of worth. In the game’s final hour, Carter is cast aside quite literally in favor of a new, more obedient protagonist (saying something in a game where authority is never actually challenged), justified because Carter was never in control in the first place. Similar twists in Bioshock, Spec Ops: The Line, and Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, which exposed the player’s impact on their interactive worlds as illusion, are meant as ethical and philosophical questions about what change a lone person can make: in all three, the players and their avatars are mere pieces of a scheme or the momentum of human behavior, tragically unable to change their fates for the better more often than they can. Here, The Bureau suggests this is noble, that one should just fall in line like a good Cold Warrior. Perhaps Faulke’s directive should have been “Lead, follow, or get out of the way.”