Before we continue, what is the difference between Unknown and Within? Within is “Unknown: Game Of The Year Edition”, in other words, it is a bigger game, and the trophies/achievements are catered more towards veterans of the game. But outside of that, they’re the same. Also, I never played XCOM until this year, so I didn’t play it back in the 1990s. Since I completed it months ago but didn’t write a review about it, I’ve decided to include it with another game, a spin-off called The Bureau: XCOM Declassified. So lets get right to it.
XCOM is part strategy, part RPG and part construction and management simulation that involves “Man vs the E.T.”. In other words you have the war strategy game aspect that involves “moving players on the board” and then deciding what they should do. An RPG aspect that involves levelling up characters which are randomly generated in each play through, and who can be upgraded with better weapons, armour, abilities, and in ‘Within’ You can also turn them into genetically or mechanically enhanced soldiers. Then you have the construction/management simulation where you basically run XCOM like a business. You receive a budget each month, which can be increased by putting satellites above different countries who pay you to protect them, and with that money you can conduct research, create and buy weapons and armour, build aircrafts to fight UFOs and replace any soldiers who have fallen in battle. As the game progresses and your characters get stronger, so do your enemies. In time, you might even grow attached to certain characters, making it really infuriating if they die in battle (thankfully there is no auto-save, and unfortunately there is no auto-save…learn to save often).
The gameplay and structure design of XCOM is practically a legend. Everything about it just feels right. Every time you play it or replay it, it is never the exact same journey as the 1 before it. You’ll make great decisions, as well as gut-sinking mistakes, but these don’t end the game. You can press on. Depending on how good your are, varies the length and experience, and hopefully you’ll be smart enough to avoid ‘game over’ by not losing the countries who fund you to the alien invasion. The music sets the scene very well. Graphics-wise, don’t expect it to look like Uncharted, because it didn’t even look as good as Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, but that doesn’t take away from its incredible fun-factor. ‘Within’ provides extra options for customisation of your soldiers, such as extra voice acting and armour colours (which adds character…when I have a russian sniper, I want him/her to speak russian, for some reason), and while it doesn’t really have fixed characters created for you to watch develop, it opens up the player’s imagination as to who these soldiers are. As someone who likes to create characters, I can like this approach very much if it’s done well, and here it’s done well. I love the Valkyria Chronicles games, so this suited me very well when I got used to it. Well worth the time and money.
The Bureau: XCOM Declassified (We’ll just call it The Bureau to avoid confusion) would have been absolutely awesome if it was “XCOM, only it’s set in the ’60s”. But the final product ended up being quite different. People have suggested that this game borrows a lot from Mass Effect, which I haven’t played (yet), and for me a lot of it felt like a rather typical third person shooter with some nicely constructed command controls for your 2 supporting agents. Unlike XCOM, The Bureau has a main character and a group of supporting characters. You play as William Carter, a CIA Special Agent who was transporting a briefcase to his superiors. A briefcase he hasn’t looked inside of. While waiting to give the briefcase to them (in a room where he was busy getting drunk), an ‘escort’ comes, attacks Carter, and then opens the briefcase. Carter’s beating continues, until he wakes up unharmed, and the escort burned to a crisp. Was she a russian spy or an alien? It’s never fully explained. Carter then tries to find Faulke, Edgar J. Hoover, and any other agents who are still alive. After a long and hard journey, shooting aliens and trying to stay alive, they finally arrive at an unknown base, where XCOM officially begins…then like in XCOM, you try to stop an Alien invasion.
What else can be said about Carter? He has a tragic backstory that doesn’t get developed enough for us to care. He’s an angry rebel who was picked because he’s excellent at his job. And despite being our main character, he lacks the charisma and charm to make us care about him for very long. Heck, Nico DeSilva (1 of the other agents) is so much more interesting than Carter. The best thing I can say about Carter is that he has a decent taste in music (likes Muddy Waters and Buddy Holly). Moving on. Your (new) boss is Director Faulke (who sounds a lot like George Clooney when he speaks…which is surprisingly awesome), and he arranges all of the missions you go on. Unlike XCOM, which has an unlimited amount of missions, allowing you to develop every soldier, weapon and armour available – The Bureau is limited to providing you with enough major and minor missions to bring your whole squad up to their maximum level (which is level 10 for Carter and level 5 for all of the supporting agents). I can understand why, because each and every mission is story-driven with its own dialogue and context to the bigger picture, while in XCOM Unknown/Within it’s possible to just have some skirmishes to level up.
The Bureau’s technical and creative characteristics are highly evident when compared to XCOM. The graphics are definitely better, in fact they’re quite beautifully made, the character models look great, as do the backgrounds (although I still prefer how Uncharted and the Batman Arkham games present messy areas). The gameplay is good…but it isn’t great. The learning curve isn’t steep, and it can get fun. It also does 1 thing well, which is provide a sense of accomplishment after a mission. It is satisfying to play, and later on it can become great fun when all of the powers/abilities/gadgets are available to you. The voice acting is very good, even if the characters themselves are a bit generic. Nearly everybody sounds like they smoke, and are on their way to sounding like Tom Waits and Lee Marvin by 1975. While XCOM had a very simple, easy-to-follow story structure (the gameplay masks this well), the story is where The Bureau falls onto hard times – it’s pretty poor. The characters weren’t strong enough to cover up the lack of build-up, explanation, decent exposition or intrigue. And while it has quite a good twist to it – it didn’t follow through like you would imagine, or with much momentum or quality. It has a great soundtrack, and I like the use of old hits on the radios left around the locations, as well as the old cinematic thriller music with its treble piano and strings.
Right…I have talked about both games, what are my recommendations? Play XCOM: Enemy Within or Enemy Unknown…and unless you really want to, I suggest forgetting about The Bureau. Compared to proper XCOM, it’s a waste of time. This doesn’t take away from the fact that The Bureau is still a good game. But it’s not in the same league of quality as XCOM. Yes, The Bureau has multiple endings…endings that can all be seen by going back to replay the last few missions of the game, since auto-save provides multiple saves and allows you to start anywhere you want in the story. I quite like it…but I don’t love it. Some games aren’t good enough in gameplay, characters, writing or story to be played again…this is 1 of those games. It doesn’t add that much to the XCOM canon to begin with, even though its suppose to be a prequel. It tries to be the Peggy Carter story behind Agents Of SHIELD and fails miserably. If it used the same gameplay formula as the original XCOM, and acted more as a paint job with a different story, and was possibly sold as DLC, I think it would have been a hit. But instead we ended up with an okay game attached to a legendary game like a sterile male angler fish.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown/Within: ****3/4 out of 5
The Bureau: XCOM Declassified: **3/4 out of 5