XIII Review

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Publisher: Ubisoft
Developer: Ubisoft

Platforms: PC, Xbox, PlayStation 2, GameCube
Reviewed on PC

System Requirements: Pentium III 700 MHz, 128 MB RAM, 32 MB video card, 120 MB HD space, Windows 98 or more recent operating system

The President of the United States has been shot – assassinated. A man awakens, dazed and wounded from a near-fatal gun shot to the head. He has no memory – only a tattoo with the number "XIII" and a slew of armed men in pursuit. To all appearances, XIII is the assassin who killed the president, so the authorities are out to capture, interrogate and convict XIII. Unsure who to trust or what to do, XIII is left to establish the truth and his own identity, but the police aren't the only ones out to stop him.

Kyle Ackerman

XIII is hardly the first game to immerse players in an action-packed comic book, but it does a spectacular job of capturing the feel of a graphic novel with stylized cel-shaded graphics and a plot based on the established and popular comic series of the same name. Despite relying on the amnesia of the lead character, the plot in which the player's avatar seems to be part of a powerful and violent conspiracy to grab world power is the perfect framework for a first-person shooter. The places in which XIII falls short as a game are those in which it falls prey to the usual foibles of the first-person shooter genre, or in which the PC version appears to be a port of the console versions, and therefore fails to live up to its full potential.

Good Licensing and Strong Art Direction Frame the Scene

The storyline of XIII demonstrates that licensing existing properties can be a powerful tool, when the property and the story are strong. The story is good. As you progress through the game you learn more about the Twenty (XX) individuals behind the President's assassination and their underlying schemes. So often do you return to the question "Who is Number One?" that you expect the computer to tell you (in the style of The Prisoner TV series) that "You are Number XIII." The conspiracy is revealed slowly through the player's actions in the game's scattered locations, comic book-styled cut-scenes, and in-game flashbacks as XIII's memory returns. The whole process starts off nicely, with XIII washing up on a beach. Unknown enemies immediately arrive, making the opening sequence intense without being excessively difficult.

Simply cel-shading a game isn't enough to make it feel like a comic book. As soon as you start XIII, the frames of a graphic novel surround you. Shoot enemies off a high ledge and additional frames will open, showing your foe screaming and falling. Step near a security monitor and the camera view will appear in a smaller frame. As you step away, the frame shrinks to nothingness, making for a seamless graphic-novel effect while still conveying the information from the monitor that you need. Key sounds are scrawled across the screen in onomatopoetic text, and every new level begins with multiple panels. As you move forward, one of the panels will expand to fill the whole view, literally taking you into the comic.

But It's Still Just an FPS

Aside from the visual stylings of XIII, much of the game ends up being a conventional (and unexceptional) first-person shooter. Players get the usual assortment of weapons, ranging from handguns to an assault rifle to a hunting crossbow to a bazooka. Automatic weapons can be set to burst or automatic fire, the assault rifle has a grenade launcher as an alternate attack and the alternate attack of many weapons can be used to physically strike nearby foes. Assorted tools help XIII in his missions. The power grapple and lock pick are nearly always useful for passing through locked doors or reaching high ledges. Other devices, such as listening devices or explosives, are acquired as needed. More entertaining is XIII's learned ability to take hostages (even using them as human shields) or use environmental objects (such as ashtrays, brooms or bottles) as non-lethal knockout weapons. Many missions require you not to kill innocents (such as armed and hostile FBI agents or marines), or otherwise require stealth, so these tools come in handy.

Despite being built with the Unreal II underlying technology, the models and environments in the game can be quite blocky. This works well when viewing scenes from a distance, and in such situations the comic book feel is nearly flawless. When you get close to human models, however, they look ungainly and the comic book sensation is lost. This is particularly true when you move corpses or if you stand close behind enemies to stealthily knock them unconscious. The PC version of XIII can be run at high resolutions, but one can only assume the very blocky models are as much the product of the game being simultaneously produced for consoles as of the graphic novel appearance.

Let Me Save When I Want To Save!

The biggest problem with XIII is unquestionably the save system. Checkpoint save systems are common for console games – if you die or fail to complete your objectives you simply restart at the last checkpoint you passed successfully. XIII uses such a system, and while there is a quick-save button, it simply stores your progress as of the last checkpoint (making it basically irrelevant). Aside from the disheartening fact that checkpoint save systems artificially increase the difficulty and length of games, XIII's save system is poorly implemented. Difficult objectives are often immediately before a checkpoint rather than immediately after. This means that if you fail at a boss battle or have difficulty with a stealth sequence, you'll redo the entire sequence multiple times before continuing on with the game. Also, while you can skip cut-scenes between levels, you can't skip scenes in the middle of a level (such as important dialogs). Together, this means you might have to repeat sequences, replete with extended dialog, to retry the same, difficult, and short, encounter. Even using a checkpoint system, rethinking the checkpoints would have kept the pace of the story moving more rapidly. Other times, you simply fail missions without a clear understanding as to why. In a mission where XIII needs to stealthily hide a bug, it's possible to fail the mission several times over (presumably because the bodies of guards were insufficiently hidden) without being certain where the problem might have been.

Another failing of XIII is common to many first-person shooters. Everyone else in the game world simply isn't very bright. You can put a crossbow bolt in the head of a guard standing a few feet from his buddy and as long as you wait until their conversation is complete, the other fellow won't notice his friend collapsing dead. If not careful, you can even be killed by your allies late in the game if you wander near their line of fire. That out of the way, there are also some nice touches in XIII. Security cameras can spot you, putting an end to stealth missions, but only if there is someone to man the monitor. Take out the person behind the camera, and you can pass easily.

"Back and to the left ... back and to the left."

Particularly in large, open spaces, there are multiple ways to pass an area. In such cases, the player can proceed stealthily or with guns blazing. In some cases, stealth is enforced. In others, spaces are so tight as to require mayhem. Often, shooting first is so much easier that the choice is no choice at all. Despite the comparative difficulty of stealth, there are some nice game dynamics that really enhance stealth. If XIII holds still (or move slowly), he'll see (while simultaneously hearing) the "Tap Tap" of enemy footsteps emblazoned on the screen. The words appear at the approximate location of the enemy's feet, giving away his location.

The soundtrack to XIII is also something special. The original tracks sound great, are appropriate to the mood, and loop nicely. With a few exceptions, the voice work on the English version of XIII is also good. Many games will have one tune that enemies hum while alone. Plenty of henchmen in XIII sing when left to their own devices, but each individual sings a different song. It sets the mood nicely. Both Adam West and Eve give good performances as General Carrington and Major Jones, but David Duchovny falls short as XIII. He often sounds more like a college frat boy with a hangover than an amnesiac super soldier. Fortunately, as the game progresses, he has fewer lines of dialog. Of course, no one has ever said more slowly or laconically, "It's too late. Give me the access code – quick."

There is a multiplayer mode, but it's not something players will go out of their way to seek out. Despite a variety of gameplay modes, some of which are odd (the gnomish Death in "Hunt"), XIII's multiplayer component isn't going to take up much of your time. The game's main appeal is it's comic book-style and strong plot. These become irrelevant in multiplayer. The real question is, does the graphic novel-like style and storyline carry an otherwise ordinary first-person shooter? Sure. You can't overlook the fact that XIII has the most satisfying instant head shot kills of any game, be they with throwing knives, a sniper rifle or handgun. The victim's head snaps back in a sequence of three frames that open, showing the victim's death throws from several angles while a comic book scream splashes across the screen. That, and the plot (when unbroken by repeatedly reloading checkpoints) create an entertaining title that hopes to spawn sequels.

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This page contains a single entry by Editor published on December 3, 2003 4:24 PM.

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