Reviewed: December 27, 2003
Released: November 18, 2003
As a huge fan of the FPS genre I’m always looking for the next great action title. When I first heard about XIII at E3 I was more than mildly intrigued and as more information kept trickling out of Ubisoft’s PR department my anticipation grew to an almost frenzied state. Sure, FPS games are a dime-a-dozen, but when you stack the deck with the Unreal II, engine, a unique graphic novel visual design, and an all-star cast including David Duchovny (X-Files) and Adam West (Batman), how can you go wrong.
Based on a French comic about a special ops agent suffering from amnesia, the game start off and plays out much like the movie The Bourne Identity. Between and during the dozens of missions you become increasingly aware of your identity, and the growing conspiracy that surrounds you and threatens the free world. Sound dramatic? It is.
Sadly, XIII is all about substance and presentation and very little about groundbreaking gameplay. I’ve come to realize that just about everything a FPS can offer has come and gone, so I really don’t expect too much from the new crop of titles we are seeing. But I do have problems with games that are just poorly designed.
Releasing for the PC and PS2 first and the Xbox and GameCube a week later, it's quite easy to tell this game was designed for the console in mind. Normally I have issues with playing an FPS game on a console but the control and lock-assist targeting made XIII a dream to play. My only real complaint was with the checkpoint system used for reloading your game. Some of the levels are very large and only feature two or maybe three checkpoints. Many levels are stealth based and if you (or any of your previous victims) are spotted or if an alarm sounds the mission is failed and you start from the last checkpoint. This means you get to play and replay many of the more difficult sections of the game over and over again. There are also lengthy cutscenes included in some of these sections, and since you are unable to skip them you will waste valuable gaming time watching the same movies over and over again.
Thankfully, that’s the only bad stuff I have to report about this game. From the moment you wash up on the beach sans memory and are rescued by the lovely Baywatch lifeguard the action is non-stop and quite intense.
Being based on a comic book, the designers chose to emulate the graphic novel style, not only in the storytelling but in the gameplay as well. This is done through creative use of remote camera inserts, multiple panels, and visual audio. Visual audio cues are quite clever and in some ways might make many of the encounters a bit too easy. Everyone has audible footsteps that show up as “Tap Tap Tap” on the screen. These increase and decrease in size based on the proximity of the target. There are also the more obvious cues like “ARRGH”, “BOOM”, “CRACK”, and other appropriate words to backup the sound effects. It’s all very reminiscent of the old 60’s Batman TV show or any comic book you might read.
XIII (that’s your name, at least until you learn your true identity) has many skills he will learn throughout the game. These include; Silent Walk, Dual Weapons, Breathing, First Aid, Sniper, Stunning, and Lock picking and will allow you enhanced stealth abilities, sneak attacks, faster lock picking, and the ability to hold your breath underwater for extended periods of time.
You also have an assortment of gadgets ripped right from the prop list of any James Bond movie, including a very useful grappling gun that allows you to attach to hooks and rings to rise or lower to new levels or swing across gaps. You also get to plant explosives, surveillance bugs, and your lock pick and med kits have their obvious uses, as do keys and keycards.
There are more than a dozen unique weapons that will eventually find their way into your hands. These range from standard handguns to machineguns, sniper rifles and my personal favorite, the scoped and silent crossbow, perfect for long distance stealth kills. Machineguns are realistically modeled in that they have a progressive recoil effect that keeps kicking the weapon upward the longer you fire. This means you either use very short bursts or start at their feet and unload a stream of lead all the way up to their head.
There is some minor modeling of location-specific damage but only for headshots. A headshot on anyone not wearing a helmet with a scoped weapon will put them down, usually with a few panels of gratuitously violent inserts. Those wearing headgear will require a second shot after the first one knocks their helmet off. Since sniping is the fastest way to kill most enemies you will seldom be tempted to use the other weapons until you are forced to do so by ammo limitations.
I was a bit disappointed that the silenced pistol took nearly an entire clip to bring down a guard, even if all the shots were in the head. I literally chased one guard down the hall unloading a full clip into his head and he still reached the alarm. If sniping isn’t available for silent kills you do have the ability to sneak up behind them and do the old karate chop to the neck before stashing the body. You also have the unique ability to use chairs, bottles, ashtrays, brooms, bricks, or even broken shards of glass as impromptu weapons.
Level designs are creative and offer a wide variety of exciting locations, again ripped right from a James Bond movie. As previously mentioned, you begin on a beach then move on to the bank then an abandoned apartment building. Eventually you head to a winter wonderland and then to a golden orange desert canyon complete with abandon ruins and mine shafts. There is even one very exciting mission that takes place on a submarine.
Unlike most FPS games, XIII is played at a much slower pace. Even when your discovery doesn’t end a mission in failure, stealth is still your best friend in this game. One loud gunshot or explosion can bring the entire army down on you, and the AI is so quirky they might just kill you. If you are spotted a “?” appears over the guard and you have about 2-3 seconds to get out of sight before that turns into an “!”. Then you have about 1-2 seconds to disappear before they attack, sound the alarm, or yell for backup.
AI is all over the place. If you shoot a guard next to another one they will immediately rush over to them then look for the shooter. If you aren’t good about cleaning up your “mess” (dead bodies) any patrolling guards might discover those bodies and sound an alarm. Guards also take cover behind objects and will tumble sideways to dodge your fire. As good as all this sounds sometimes guards will rush right by your exposed position to examine a body rather than attack. Other times the guards will simply crouch and wait for you to approach or stand there as you unload a clip into them.
As far as difficulty, there are several skill modes to choose from and these will all adjust the amount of damage you take during combat. On the normal level the game is challenging in places, mainly the boss battles, but you will often fail a mission due to other circumstances like failing to protect an escort or getting discovered someplace you shouldn’t be.
One of the most realistic situations in the game (and I salute and curse the designers at the same time for this one) is late in the game I am rescuing a “person” and am forced to carry them over my shoulder. This not only limits me to weapons that are wielded in one hand, but I am also unable to reload that weapon without dropping the body first.
Even though I have long since sold my collection I used to be an avid reader and collector of comics. XIII manages to capture and present that same exciting visionary style of storytelling and brings it to life unlike anything we have seen before.
Before leaping right into the gameplay graphics I must comment on the excellent menus that are presented in storyboard fashion. Panels are black and white until you pass the cursor over them then they fill in with color and their function label appears in a box. When the game is over the entire story is recapped in a multi-page comic book format. My only complaint here is that this would have been the perfect interface for allowing you to jump back into the game at the beginning of any chapter. Since you are only allowed a dozen save slots you simply can’t save enough of the cool locations to revisit later.
Even the load screens are stylishly depicted as multi-panel comic pages displaying the level you are about to play. As the level loads (and even after until you press a button) you can pan the view around each of these panels as the active window cycles around the screen counterclockwise complete with heartbeat sound effect.
Once you start playing the game you will instantly fall in love with the carefully detailed character models that look like they leaped right off the page of the comics and have come to life in glorious 3D. The weapon models all look great and there are nice reload animations. Lighting and shadows are modeled on the weapons and your forearm and hand. There are no gimmicky artwork tricks going on here; just good old professional artistic design and a love for the genre.
Environments are also equally as impressive with snowy mountains, icy lakes, tropical islands, and desert canyons complete with dust clouds. Just when you think you have seen everything this game has to offer the next level loads up and you are even more amazed. The detail in the submarine level was wonderful and exploring the massive cliff-side estate late in the game showed off lighting effects similar to those seen in Splinter Cell.
Even though the game is presented in primitive cel-shaded design with lots of flat colors, there are still plenty of places where the designers have snuck in things like shiny floors with reflections, or some other advanced trick that almost pops the graphic novel illusion. Things like shadows and lighting are accurately reproduced, and special effects like fire, volumetric smoke and dust, and rain are all true to the high-tech comic book style.
The graphic novel presentation is made complete with the added visual audio cues, multi-panel cutscenes, black and white flashback effects and dream sequences, and picture-in-picture video inserts giving you exciting angles of sniper shots, death plunges, and sixth sense premonitions.
The PS2 obviously runs at a lower resolution that you might play on the PC given the nature of the cel-shaded graphics style the various ports of XIII are nearly identical with the exception of a few jaggies brought on the the nagging aliasing problems of the system. It's not terrible and doesn't really detract from the game unless you have seen it running at higher resolutions on the PC.
I can’t say enough about the music in XIII. Rather than going with a traditional rock or techno theme the game opts for a more classical jazz motif that really adds a lot of flavor to the gameplay. Performed by Future Primitive Sound, the music slips almost unconsciously into the background but when you are aware of its presence you will hear audio nods to themes from spy thrillers, detective dramas, and simple classical piano. The music does cue to the action and increases in tempo when you are discovered, when an alarm sounds, or during intense combat. The music is so good in fact that a soundtrack CD is available, so you can enjoy this ambient music outside the game.
What better casting than putting David Duchovny in the role of XIII. Fox Mulder was king of the conspiracy theory and XIII is basically one huge conspiracy. Adam West turns in a brilliant performance as the general with his over-the-top styling made famous in his Batman character. The rest of the supporting cast is relatively unknown (aside from a supporting part played by Eve), but the entire script (even the guard conversations heard while sneaking around) are all professionally delivered.
Sound effects are a few steps down in quality. The weapons all have unique sounds and there are plenty of other environmental effects but many or inexplicably muffled and some are downright distorted, especially when multiple gunshots are being overlaid or there are big explosions. Given the visual style of the gameplay, you will often find yourself looking for text sound cues rather than listening for them. The PS2 does offer a nice Dolby Pro Logic II mix to put you in the middle of the action.
XIII is about a 10-12 hours game that will take you 15-20 hours to complete no thanks to the poorly implemented checkpoint system that will have you replaying large portions of the levels and watching uninterruptible cutscenes over and over again. Much like any story-based FPS game, once you have experience the plot and finished the game there isn’t much reason to replay, at least the single player portion.
As you might expect from a game born from the code of Unreal 2, XIII comes with a robust multiplayer component that includes deathmatch, team deathmatch, CTF, and an PS2 exclusive mode called Power-Up. The net code is solid with very little lag on a broadband connection, provided you can find a server to play on. There just didn't seem to be a lot of people playing this game online. The lack of original mutliplayer maps (the multiplayer levels are all ripped from the single-player game) and the limitation of only 6 playeres per match might keep this game from ever taking off online. Those without a network adapter can still enjoy some entertaining split-screen two-player action.
XIII definitely has a visionary style that sets it apart from anything else in the FPS genre, but once you look through the cel-shaded visuals, professional voice acting, and graphic novel presentation and effects, you are left with a pretty standard shooter that doesn’t really innovate or improve upon the genre. The enemy AI is lacking in places and the poor save and load design will cause you nearly as many hours of frustration as fun.
Of course fans of the genre or fans of comic books will probably be able to overlook the few flaws and enjoy a great conspiracy adventure with a story worthy of the big screen. And that is where XIII’s strength lies, in its epic storyline and stylish presentation that mixes unique visuals, a theatrical score, and top-quality voice acting. If you ever wanted to see a comic book leap from the printed page and come to life on your console this is the game to play.