It’s no secret that the game now known as The Bureau: XCOM Declassified has undergone a troubled development process. Gameplanet first saw the shooter in 2010, back when it was simply called XCOM, and before Firaxis’ celebrated strategy reboot XCOM: Enemy Unknown was announced.

At that time we were very impressed with 2K Marin’s work. The game wasn’t faithful at all to Microprose’s famous ‘90s strategy series, but instead set itself in small-town post-war America at the height of the white-picket and McCarthyism fads. It was fedora-capped G-Men paired with War of the Worlds and Roswell, an aesthetic coupling that made a striking impression at an E3 dominated by convention, by gruff modern military shooters, and souped-up supercar racers.

But instead of focusing on what it was, long-dormant XCOM fans erupted with indignation and focused on what it wasn’t – namely, an XCOM strategy title set in the near future. To read the public reaction to the game’s E3 reveal, anyone could be forgiven for assuming that this first-person shooter spin-off somehow prohibited 2K from rebooting the franchise in a more traditional fashion as well.

The Bureau: XCOM Declassified hands-on
The Bureau: XCOM Declassified hands-on
The Bureau: XCOM Declassified hands-on
The Bureau: XCOM Declassified hands-on

As we all now know, it didn’t. The unfortunate fallout was to send the XCOM shooter project into a tailspin. It’s not difficult to imagine the effect some of the more vitriolic feedback might’ve had on the nerves of those at 2K Marin, who had until that time presented the game with a kind of relaxed, upbeat assuredness.

The XCOM shooter project went underground for almost three years, and only re-emerged in recent months like the groundhog Punxsutawney Phil timidly checking if its digital winter of discontent had finally passed.

This week, we went hands-on with the rebooted reboot and discovered that the game has undergone something of an identity crisis while in hibernation. The influence of its popular younger sibling, Enemy Unknown, is impossible to miss, and even if the late mimicry is a little unbecoming of a game that once dared to be different, it’s also impossible to deny that The Bureau: XCOM Declassified is probably better off for it.

The Bureau: XCOM Declassified is still set during the Cold War. You play gruff cliché William Carter. The CIA agent lost his wife and son in a fire some years earlier, and has spent the intervening years trying to fill the void they’ve left inside him with bourbon. Despite the similar set-up, the portrayal of Carter appears to have none of the subtle sophistication of Max Payne; he appears to be remarkably lucid and levelheaded in the face of sudden extraterrestrial invasion.

The game doesn’t waste any time setting the scene, either. It’s also hard not to feel like an opportunity was missed setting up early 1960s America and the fight against infectious domestic Communism before throwing the player into a full-blown battle against the little green men from Mars.

Successfully maneuvering agents into a flanking position and exposing the fleshy bellies of apish Greys to M-14 rounds is as supremely satisfying here as it is in Enemy Unknown.

The Bureau has transitioned from a first-person to a third-person shooter, and Carter goes into battle with two fellow XCOM agents. These agents each have permanent stats, abilities, and loadouts that can be developed through gaining experience. A core tenet of the XCOM series, if these agents die on the battlefield, they’ll be lost forever.

Carter can issue orders to his squadmates using a radial menu that 2K Marin calls Battlefocus. Here, the influence of Enemy Unknown comes through strongest. The game overlay and visual cues are drawn directly from Firaxis’ game, even to the shields indicating how much protection any position provides.

In practice, the system works admirably, and adds true depth and strategy to what would otherwise be a very mechanically mundane third-person shooter.

Successfully maneuvering agents into a flanking position and exposing the fleshy bellies of apish Greys to M-14 rounds is as supremely satisfying here as it is in Enemy Unknown.

The levels available in this demo were mostly a linear progression of small obstacle courses riddled with crates and waist-high barriers that adequately served their purpose, but felt at times perhaps a little unimaginative.

A directory that appeared during loading screens indicated that the version of the game we were playing was intended for E3 2013, a show that 2K ultimately didn’t attend, and that means it would’ve been assembled as far back as April or May. Much will have changed since then, but it’s very clear that a lot of polish was yet to be applied.

The Bureau has gameplay potential. Even with our limited time with the game its clear that when it all comes together, when the player is responding dynamically to a changing battlefield and desperately balancing the needs of the team against acts of individual heroism, The Bureau starts to hit the XCOM notes harmoniously.

We’ll learn how the rest of the package comes together when the game is released later this month on PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and PC.