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The Bureau: XCOM Declassified looks to be an American fable

Samit Sarkar (he/him) is Polygon’s deputy managing editor. He has more than 15 years of experience covering video games, movies, television, and technology.

The Bureau: XCOM Declassified, like all the XCOM games, tells the story of an alien invasion of Earth. It's a tale as old as the science fiction genre itself, and one that has served as the basis for countless video games over the years.

The Bureau distinguishes itself with its setting: the 1960s, easily the most tumultuous decade in 20th-century U.S. history. But the game's developers at 2K Marin want to use those large-scale elements — an invasion by a technologically superior alien race, and the era's political and social upheaval — as a backdrop for a more personal, human tale.

"In all media, the alien invasion is well-trod [ground]. For me, it comes down to who is the alien invasion happening to, and how are they reacting to it? And that's really where I think the difference between one story and another [lies]," said Erik Caponi, The Bureau's lead narrative designer, in an interview with Polygon last week. "Because we can blow things up in various ways, and that's cool and great; it's fun to watch. But in order for the story to matter, then you have to care whose stuff is being blown up and how [...] they feel about it."

We spoke with Caponi after a session in which we played the first two to three hours of The Bureau. We saw plenty of firefights and explosions, and also saw Caponi's intent in action.

In The Bureau, players take on the role of William Carter, a gruff CIA agent who's recruited by XCOM to help repel the invasion. The game kicks off with an alien assault on a clandestine government facility located in Nevada's Groom Range of mountains, an attack that leaves Carter scrambling to escape the base while he's trying to figure out what's going on.

This opening section was marked by combat sequences confined to tight spaces indoors. The simple layouts allowed us to get a handle on sneaking into a room and positioning our allies (first one agent, then two) in order to take the aliens by surprise and maximize the initial damage we dealt to them.

You control Carter directly with standard third-person shooter controls, and give commands to your associates — namely, where to go and what to do — through a radial menu in Battle Focus mode. Battle Focus slows down the action greatly but doesn't quite pause it. The setup resembles the basic mechanics of last year's XCOM title, the celebrated XCOM: Enemy Unknown, but is a largely real-time experience rather than a turn-based one.

The mission concluded with a longer firefight in a bi-level space outdoors, as we were tasked with holding off waves of aliens until a helicopter could arrive for exfiltration. We decided to send our charges into harm's way on the ground level while providing cover fire from above. The tactic worked reasonably well, although we had to repeatedly use Carter's heal ability to keep him and his squadmates alive.

Carter's standoffish demeanor and gravelly voice turned us off to him at first

After the mission, Carter was whisked away to XCOM's secret underground headquarters and introduced to the program. You'll walk around this base between missions, doing things like introducing yourself to other characters for side quests and selecting the agents who will accompany you on future operations. Carter's standoffish demeanor and gravelly voice turned us off to him at first. His growled lines stuck out as almost ridiculous, threatening to derail The Bureau's serious tone. But we soon saw hints of an actual character beneath that harsh exterior, and according to Caponi, that was all intentional.

"He starts out, he's [...] kind of barely holding it together, really locked down on himself, because as you started to see hints of, things have happened to him," Caponi explained. He added that the developers imbued Carter with a "whiskey-and-cigarettes voice" and a "very pinned-down 'the job's the only thing that matters' attitude," but that's "really a facade for him, because he's got a lot more going on behind that."

Caponi continued, "I thought it was pretty interesting to take that [...] common archetype, especially in games, and really slide in a lot of his background and his feelings under that." Early on, a brief flashback cutscene and some in-game discoveries hinted at Carter's troubled, tragic past, and the loss of a fellow agent sparked an emotional outburst about seeking revenge on the aliens.

According to Caponi, 2K Marin chose the early 1960s as the setting for The Bureau because it wanted to explore the feasibility of a massive cover-up — of, say, an alien invasion — in a time before the internet, and in an era where the American public's attitude toward its government was changing. The Cold War began to heat up under President John F. Kennedy with incidents like the Bay of Pigs invasion, and Americans lived in constant fear of nuclear annihilation.

prior to the 1960s, people trusted the government

"Previous to that, people really trusted their government: post-World War II, they trusted the news," said Caponi. "And then around the Cuban missile crisis and then later, the assassination of Kennedy, people started to realize that there was a lot going on that they weren't necessarily being told. And it went from being common wisdom to trust the government, to being common wisdom to really be skeptical of what happened."

What we saw of The Bureau did touch on those big-picture topics, but the game does an impressive job of bringing the consequences of the alien invasion to bear on what art director Jeff Weir referred to as Norman Rockwell's picturesque middle America. Its second major mission, "The Doctor," sent Carter and his cohorts to Rosemont, Ga., to find a scientist whom XCOM had lost contact with.

The aliens had struck Rosemont right in the middle of its local high school's homecoming parade, and wrought havoc on the town. Carter was clearly affected by the sight of the carnage — vehicles, parade floats and bodies strewn about the streets. One was even hanging from a streetlight, suspended by some unknown black ooze.

In designing those Rosemont scenes, the art team "went through several iterations of different levels of death and bodies," said Weir. "It's really the iterative process of working with narrative and the other teams to try to find that right balance to achieve the mood we were looking for."

Our first order of business in Rosemont was to disable an alien-built anti-aircraft gun that was preventing our pilot from landing in town. We had to make it through two or three difficult battles in order to do it, and it was in these fights that The Bureau's strategic depth began to show itself.

Carter learned a new power, Lift, which essentially serves as telekinesis for raising enemies out of cover into the air, where they're defenseless. And the game really forced us to stay on top of our two allies, constantly moving them around into flanking positions and giving them new attack orders. Absent our guidance, they tended to go down on the battlefield; we eventually got mired in chains of one partner reviving another, then dying, then needing to be brought back by the teammate he had previously revived.

We didn't get very far in The Bureau, but even early on, we found its combat very challenging. And we saw hints of depth in the story, which initially seemed to consist of every alien invasion trope in the book. Plus, you'll still have your own stories to contribute as you develop the talents of the rookie XCOM agents you take with you, just as in Enemy Unknown. It's all shaping up to be something more than yet another third-person shooter.

The Bureau: XCOM Declassified launches Aug. 20 on Windows PC, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.