You're in for a shock if you buy The Bureau expecting it to be the forthcoming expansion for last year's wildly acclaimed alien invasion strategy game XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Frankly even if you buy it knowing full well it's a third-person shooter spin-off, you'll be in for a bit of a shock too.
'Spin-off' isn't entirely accurate, in fairness. The game now known as The Bureau actually began life long before Enemy Unknown did, but a torturous development cycle and difficulties in recreating some measure of the original X-COM's tense, turn-based, squad-based strategy from a real-time, high action perspective has seen it repeatedly rebooted. The result is a game that pairs several years' worth of often spectacular in-game environments with a rather slight and awkward shooter. There's so much to look at it, but half of it is only there to be walked through en route to another frantic but joyless fight.
The Bureau tries to be bold on two fronts, however. The first of these is an early 1960s American setting, all Mad Men-esque bright colours and sharp suits, accompanied by agreeably oversized, B-movie style sci-fi weapons and paraphernalia. It's a striking juxtaposition throughout, and for XCOM fans there is a chance to see that game's rogue's gallery from a more lo-fi perspective.
The other especially laudable thing is an attempt to add strategic, squad-based elements to the standard shooty bang-bang formula. You, playing as jaded ex-fed Agent Carter, are usually accompanied by a pair of other agents, from a pool you manage and gradually upgrade. They're pretty useless if left to their own devices, so it's on you to enter a sort of slow-mo mode and dole out orders.
Or, indeed, to dash about resuscitating them when they're inevitably struck down by an angry Sectoid. The Bureau's fights wind up being high maintenance, and teeter between being satisfyingly tactical and frustratingly micro-management-y. It doesn't quite work, and it doesn't help that your agents seem so personality-free. They can and do die, and it's a pain to replace them with one of a lower level, but somehow there's none of the sense of loss there is in XCOM.
There, each shot (or missed shot) seemed to count - here there's just a meaningless body count. All aspects of managing a base and a specially-selected fighting force, essential as those are to the better instalments on the two-decade-old X-COM formula are neglected, mashed into just one clunky menu that's no fun at all to spend time with.
The Bureau also falls on the wrong side of implausible, which shouldn't really be an issue for a game documenting an alien invasion in the 1960s, but that it is speaks to how awkward this is. Agents essentially have access to magic powers, the world seems unperturbed that aliens are levelling entire cities, and incredibly secret documents are written in a comically large print font and just left lying around the large but sterile XCOM HQ.
If the plot and characters had any sense of humour whatsoever, it might get away with its silliness, but there's a jarring clash between the story's deadly seriousness and the art's colourful, Rockwell-like preposterousness.
Most of all though, it's hard to feel that this The Bureau is cobbled together from parts, trying too hard to cover up the cracks in an idea that was never quite there. It's such a shame that its amazing-looking environments are wasted on something so confused. The Bureau's far from the X-COM series' lowest ebb - unlike outright disasters Enforcer and Interceptor, it's frustratingly close to working. That almost makes it worse.