During the course of a long development process, The Bureau: XCOM Declassified has morphed from a shooter to a hybrid game that resembles the game play of the Mass Effect series. You can play the title as a shooter, but you won’t get that far if you don’t constantly assign orders to your two squad mates. You can freeze the action and assign your squad to outflank the enemy. That adds elements of a role-playing game and a squad-based tactical shooter game.

XCOM 2K shooter Marin

But it certainly isn’t the first-person shooter that everybody thought it would be when Take-Two Interactive‘s 2K Games division announced it a couple of years ago. We saw that clearly in a recent hands-on preview of the game. The game has gone through a big pivot, and it is moving away from the crowd that expects a Halo-like combat experience.  It’s definitely not a run-and-gun game, said Alyssa Finley, vice president of product development at 2K Marin, in an interview with GamesBeat.

The previous preview in 2010 “hit a lot of the XCOM beats but the one it didn’t show was the interplay between you and your team,” Finley said. “That’s a key part of the XCOM experience.”

Getting to know XCOM again

The game series known as X-COM (yes, it had a different spelling) is a beloved one for gamers. The sci-fi game series dates back to 1994 with UFO: Enemy Unknown (Mythos Games and MicroProse) and 1995 with X-COM: Terror from the Deep (MicroProse). In the series, the Earth’s defenders capture enough of the invaders’ technology to turn it against them. The series hit a low point after Hasbro acquired MicroProse in 1998 and published the poorly received X-COM Enforcer in 2001. Two other X-COM games were canceled, so there was a lot of pent-up demand when Sid Meier’s Firaxis Games team revived the franchise with XCOM: Enemy Unknown in 2012.

2K Marin has been working on the title since it shipped BioShock 2 and BioShock 2: Minerva’s Den. But the game isn’t like those titles at all. The game resembles Mass Effect in a lot of ways. If you liked Mass Effect, then you’ll understand the controls pretty easily. And if this title succeeds, it will give further momentum to the revival of the XCOM brand that started with Enemy Unknown.

“In that game, you were the commander and did not put yourself at risk,” she said. “But what we are trying to add to that is that feeling of having your personal stake in the battlefield. You had to plan for your team and be responsible for these two other guys. But you also had bullets in the game yourself.”

xcom 6That way, you get to bring your own skill to the party. As for the similarity to Mass Effect, Finley said, “Absolutely. It’s a great game. We are trying to provide the kind of narrative hub that you see in Mass Effect, where you can go and talk to people and see the progression of the war from the home front view. We also have the command wheel where you can get a sense of everybody’s powers. But the thing we are trying to push on is to be the commander of your team and build fairly complicated plans that you can queue up and execute on in the field.”

On the other hand, Finley said, “We are not trying to make a Mass Effect clone.”

Battle Focus controls

2K Marin’s Finley compared the new game to a cross between a third-person shooter game and the Enemy Unknown turn-based shooter game. When Enemy Unknown allowed you to see the battlefield from above, The Bureau puts you in the shoes of the squad commander. You have to give commands in real-time to the computer-controlled teammates using a function dubbed Battle Focus.

When you tap the button for it, you called up a command wheel for both of your squad mates. You can move to points along the wheel and stop on one point to issue a command. Those commands include things like covering fire, assigning targets, and using special abilities such as deploying a sentry gun or laying a mine. It’s a lot like Rainbow Six, in terms of squad combat. Of course, sending out three lightly armed federal agents against an alien threat might seem a little understaffed. But Finley said the designers didn’t want the game to be too complicated. Also, the point is to make you feel connected to the other squad members on an emotional level.

The team also shifted the time of the story from a “Norman Rockwell style 1950s” art to the edgy, paranoid time of the 1960s, Finley said. That meant the art style was also more realistic. At the same time, it kept the tradition of having colorful alien creatures. The graphics are reminiscent of the Route 66 imagery of the 1950s and early 1960s. They’re stylized, sort of like a Film Noir movie, but with a lot more color.

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A real character and story

During the course of the game, you have to handle squad management, light base management, alien-technology research, and more. But, unlike Enemy Unknown, the game will have a deep story built around the intelligence agent William Carter. Carter is an agent whose career is in a tailspin. He drinks too much, but he just happens to be in the right spot to witness and deal with the enemy aliens as they first attack the country.

Set in 1962, Carter stumbles headlong into an alien invasion of Earth. But it is in the midst of the Cold War, and the American government wants to keep the invasion a secret in hopes of avoiding a nuclear war with the Soviet Union.

To deal with the invasion, the U.S. government creates an agency called The Bureau, which eventually evolves into the XCOM organization. At first, the super-secret organization was created to deal with the Communist menace. But it has been rechristened. In the operations center, you can see a bunch of red dots on the map of the U.S. All of those spots are places where the aliens have landed. The game is non-linear in that you can pursue any of the missions on the map. Some of the missions are urgent, like an assignment to stop a missile launch in Great Falls, Montana. Some missions are passive, where you just send an agent to investigate. As the war against the aliens proceeds, you can see your progress on the strategic map.

The organization’s job is to hide the dangerous truth of the aliens, which could spark a mass panic or even a Russian invasion. But the invaders don’t go along with this, and they quietly take over small towns across the U.S. The agents try to stamp out those fires. Each effort to do so is considered a mission, and you have to take a squad to each location to stamp out the effort.

You can level up the capabilities of your comrades as you go. You’ll have a bunch of comrades to choose from, and you can view their capabilities before you assign them to missions.

If you send them to their deaths, you’ll feel bad. But it’s worst than that. If they die, your colleagues are permanently gone. In that case, you have to get a substitute player and start over with the leveling up. That means you have to be careful about placing your teams in danger. That means you’ll have to think through the best way to handle an enemy. And, hint, the frontal assault isn’t always the answer.

At some point, you’re going to run into tougher enemies, Finley said, and you may not have enough weaponry and skills to take them on. That’s where’s it’s going to matter which missions you do, and how many of them you take on, before you try to move to the big-time battles.

XCOM The Bureau Declassifed 2K Marin shooter

XCOM 2K Marin Shooter

The story has a lot of government conspiracy in it, giving you a flavor for the paranoia of the time and the twin boogeymen of the Communist threat and UFOs. Part of your mission is to make sure the public doesn’t find out about how successful the aliens are. Once you complete a mission, you conceal the truth.

A hands-on mission

In the mission I played, Carter had to take a team to Jpima, New Mexico, where a previous team had already been sent to check out a tower that had been set up by the “outsiders.” A military helicopter drops your team off at the town.

When you land, you’re wearing a retro-looking backpack that you use to store your weapons, ammo, and other gear. When you arrive, you see a bunch of towns folk wandering around in circles, like zombies. They’re dubbed “sleepwalkers,” and they repeat the same things over and over, as if the aliens have brainwashed them.

In the actual combat, you can see how the game resembles Mass Effect and its sequels. You can target an enemy with a special gun that disables the alien and levitates him in the air, where your comrades can shoot it. You can also assign locations where you want your agents to move. But a location will flash in red if you try to send an agent to a spot where he will be exposed to enemy fire.

xcom 4You meet a fellow squad leader named DeSilva, who is all that is left of the previous squad. He asks you to help him. Pretty soon, you find your way is blocked by aliens with a lot of firepower. If you charge them, chances are you or your squad mates will die. You can dispatch your squad using the D pad quickly, but I found that was best for sending them to obvious cover that was visible. But if you want to send them to the opposite sides of the battlefield, so they can try to be in a position to flank or to enable you to flank, then you have to use the Battle Focus and call up the move command. When you do that, you can assign them spots to move to more easily, even if those spots are out of your line of sight.

“You can use that to get precise control of your guys and when you do move that way, they stay where you tell them,” Finley said. “They will try to execute the orders you give them.”

If you want a squad member to set up a laser turret, you have to get close enough to get it in a spot where it can command a good chunk of the battlefield. That means you’ll put your squad member at risk when you order him to set it up. But once it is there, it can be devastating and it will hold the enemy in place, or even take the enemy out altogether.

Along the way, you run into different types of aliens The equivalent of an alien quarterback arrives to direct the battle. The enemy commander uses smart tactics to counter what you do. He drops a laser turret onto the battlefield for you to deal with. It pins down your soldiers and forces you to flank. They also send in a burly boss for you to attack. You have to concentrate all of your firepower on the boss and keep your agents alive at the same time. That’s not an easy task, especially if your agents are on the opposite side of the battlefield.

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The game is certainly an original blend of story, familiar game controls, action, and interesting characters. If the game develops Carter as a personality, it could well turn out to be a very engaging game.

“At 2K Marin, we believe in making sure there is something there for the player to discover that is interesting to them and this story lives up to that promise,” Finley said.

The game is coming out on the PC, Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3 on Aug. 20 in North America for $59.99. It debuts in international markets on Aug. 23. The game isn’t rated yet.

That timing will be good for people who want to play a solid game with an extended story before the next-generation game consoles start arriving in the fall.