The first shot of the game is historically inaccurate, but not without good reason.
"As much as possible, I try to stick to history," says Erik Caponi, the narrative designer. "There's actually a huge pet peeve I had that I finally gave up on. It's the first shot of the game. Sputnik is there. Sputnik should not be there in 1962. Nobody recognizes the Vostok 12 satellite, which is what should be there, so we stuck with Sputnik because it's iconic and recognizable."
The Russian satellite becomes a subtle lie in The Bureau: XCOM Declassified, a game by 2K Marin that has endured several revisions throughout its history. It's not a first-person shooter (it's third-person now), warfare isn't waged in polite turns (time slows while you're issuing orders), and it's not about overseeing the modern XCOM organization, which acts as Earth's weaponized umbrella when the aliens rain down.
Instead, you're where the real Sputnik would be in the early 1960s: on the ground. Playing as pragmatic CIA agent William Carter, you assist in the Cold War birth of the XCOM defense organization, jolted into premature operation by a manipulative alien race dubbed "The Outsiders." You also learn of Carter's motivations and the fate of his family – the kind of story you couldn't quite make out from the perspective of a commander in XCOM: Enemy Unknown.
"Carter is a guy who has a strong arc to him," Caponi says. "He starts out in a low place, and struggles to get his footing, and has an internal crisis that gets explored in the course of what's happening around him. And part of bringing the camera down gameplay wise, we also got to bring it down narratively. So we really get up into who he is and figure him out."
In the game's opening hours, Carter exhibits a reflexive frustration over losing his squadmates (whereas I'd already forgotten their names). His gruff demeanor and stone-faced appearance means he won't have trouble finding work posing on an era-appropriate cigarette carton, should all the alien-busting not work out. Still, Caponi insists he's "a more subtle character than you see in games."
It's hard to settle on "subtle" when the character in question carries a big gun, but it's fair to say that shooting in The Bureau: XCOM Declassified feels less primal than the abundance of cover would suggest. In fact, playing on "Veteran" difficulty, the third-highest of four levels, I was surprised by how little my own shooting could do in reversing a poor strategy.
Commanding two AI-managed squadmates is the crux of the game, and it's no surprise to learn that 2K Marin spent years and revision after revision to get the radial interface and visual information right on consoles. Summoning it to the screen color-codes the battle's participants and slows the action to around a tenth of real time, allowing you to consider how far you want your team to spread out, or how closely they should pinch a problematic target.
The Bureau's tutorial gives you a powerful pair of training wheels, and it hurts to lose them for Level 1 rookies once the attack truly gets underway. Squad members must be built up through experience across four different classes - Engineer, Commando, Support, Recon – and using a variety of missions accessible from The Bureau's central hub. There's a nightmare lurking at the end of a thoughtlessly played game, then, since your support can be killed and force you into the final assault with fresh, ill-equipped wimps.
There's a bump at the start of the game, too, though it's exacerbated at higher difficulties. Yes, it's good that The Bureau and its vicious enemies (both Outsiders and classic XCOM foes) demand intimate consideration of your squad's position, buffs and abilities, but not when you don't have access to squat. As with many RPGs, there's a sacrifice of early satisfaction in the hopes that the long game will be more rewarding, and the options more numerous. My early game became a drag of constant healing and scrounging for ammo, because I could't do much more beyond the basics of what each class allowed at first. The ideal, and what I began to see once my characters unlocked more actions, is an engaging process of funneling weaker enemies into killing spots, and employing critically damaging abilities in unison with Carter's power to lift enemies – or his team's turrets – above cover. (The abilities, by the way, come from backpacks and outerwear infused with repurposed alien technology. "There are nerd-lore explanations for all of those things," Caponi says.)
The battles in The Bureau feel more frantic, less orchestrated, because they're anchored by Carter, who has a similar effect on the XCOM base. He's more of a cog in the machine there, given time enough to explore and talk to prominent characters in the organization, face-to-face. Carter is also, like so many video game characters and snooping parents, unable to keep his hands and eyes off other people's notes, files and confessional audio recordings. (Your honor, it's all permissible under "world building.")
The culture, political tension and treatment of women in America in the early 1960s is also felt in the XCOM base, though it's another point where Erik Caponi is willing to make adjustments to authenticity - again, for good reasons.
"Recognizing that our hero is a heterosexual white man," he says, "it was important to do [a few] things. To have female players and minority characters represented, even though the period really wouldn't treat them the same way. And it works out with XCOM because XCOM is ultimately this multinational, no-borders organization. The first director of XCOM is a guy who really defied the convention of the era by accepting one of the main supporting characters as a female field agent, as a competent person, without regards to the fact that she has no penis. For the time, you wouldn't see a woman in a law enforcement or military organization holding a gun.
"That's important to balance that she exists in the right tone for her era, but really isn't talked down to or, if a female player is playing Carter, isn't made to feel bad for that person's existence in the world. And that is a tricky ball to juggle, both keeping period reasonably accurate and not being pandering at the same time. That I'm fine with twisting, because ultimately that becomes believable with how it's treated."
Caponi's work in building characters and ensuring authenticity when necessary in The Bureau: XCOM Declassified may be what sets it apart the furthest from Enemy Unknown, which was more often driven by emergent stories. "Ultimately, I believe games are about stories - they're not necessarily always the authored stories," Caponi says. "If you look at Enemy Unknown, the authored story of that game is not the story you get told. The story you get told is, 'You ran your guy down here, your favorite agent blew up, but you pulled out the win!'"
The Bureau may curtail some of those stories when it puts you on the ground, just as it could complement them with orchestrated characters and effective world-building. A few hours in, it hints at Caponi and 2K Marin's goal: to make story "more than just something to rest some explosions on."
The Bureau: XCOM Declassified is coming to Xbox 360, PC and PlayStation on August 20.