'Third-person squad-based strategic shooter' is a mouthful of a game description, but after so many years in development with numerous drastic revisions (not least the switch from a first to third-person view), The Bureau: XCOM Declassified probably needs that extra bit of clarification right now.
Our hands-on begins with agent William Carter reporting for duty at the XCOM Emergency HQ, 47 days after the initial alien invasion and a little way into the campaign. Surrounded by banks of bulky computers, a map of America dotted with glowing red hotspots pinpoints troubled areas in need of your attention.
This serves as the game's mission hub, from which you can plan your next move against the encroaching alien threat. You can choose from Minor Operations, which are optional side missions that level up your squad and offer them new equipment, and Recon Missions, which you can send squad members on while you tackle problems elsewhere. Finally, Critical Missions are necessary to progress the story, and the one we embark upon tasks us with locating Bureau agent and devastatingly sharp dresser Nico DaSilva, who's gone MIA in smalltown USA.
The locations are exactly what you'd expect to accompany a 1960's Americana setting; a backyard barbecue, a garage stuffed with Ford Thunderbirds, a parking lot, a radio station. The visuals, however, bear some telltale signs of the game's troubled production: Carter's facial animations are twitchy, and there are a few too many texture pop-ins throughout. Still, it's fun to wander around, sightsee, and spot secretive signs of the undercover invasion. Soon enough, though, we cross paths with the alien usurpers themselves, and prepare for our first firefight.
Pushing B activates Battle Mode, which slows time and brings up a squad wheel to allow you to issue commands. It's here that one of the game's combat inspirations becomes apparent, as controlling Carter's team will feel familiar to anyone who's ever started a fight in Mass Effect.
You can direct your squad to specific locations on the field, ask them to mark particular targets, or direct them to use their special abilities - attack orders follow move orders, in a sort of pleasing mimicry of turn-based XCOM. If you don't assign orders, your team will muddle through as best they can, shouting out for instructions when under pressure.
You can choose two squad mates from a total of four types of agent: Commando, Support, Recon and Engineer. Each type comes with their own abilities, equipment and perks, which are unlocked as they level up. Abilities offered by our team include Pulse Wave, which pushes enemies back to give your allies a bit of breathing room, Fire Strike, which calls in a localised attack from the air, and Shield Sphere, which protects the team inside a force field for a limited time.
While you're limited to two squad mates, it's possible to control other ally characters as and when they appear using Battle Mode. During the demo, DaSilva helped out by sniping enemies from the radio station's roof, detonating rigged explosives with well-placed bullets on command. We were able to exploit this by herding enemies towards these explosives using the Scatter power.
Certain abilities can also be combined for more deadly assaults. For example, Carter's Lift move can be used on an Engineer's laser turret to give the weapon a better vantage point to take down surrounding enemies. The combat is enjoyable, if familiar, but at present getting in and out of cover feels far too sticky, with Carter obstinately hugging any available wall even when you're trying to move him elsewhere.