Review by Steerpike
December 2003

Yes, It's a Shooter, But ... No, It's Just a Shooter

I'm excited about this review for two reasons. First, because I am feeling witty today and sense some reasonably clever turns of phrase coming up. Second, because I get to use our shiny new "middle of the road" verdict, and no game has ever deserved such ambivalence as Ubisoft's cel-shaded shooter XIII.

We first saw a glimpse of this title about twelve months ago. Press and gamers alike were intrigued by the real-time comic book–style graphics—the gaming equivalent of playing a cartoon. Having just read Old Rooster's Dragon's Lair 20th Anniversary review, I'm reminded of the early laserdisc games, with their vivid colors and stylized look and feel. XIII has a ton of style, but style may not be enough.

Amnesia: A New Plot Device! Or Not

Your cel-shaded self wakes up on the beach with a pounding headache, a few holes in your body that don't belong there, a shocking dearth of memory, and the game's eponymous Roman numeral tattooed on your collarbone. A friendly but ultimately unlucky lifeguard comes along to help you, and shortly thereafter the people who tried to kill you the first time are back at it and you have to blast your way to safety.

The story is a ridiculously complex and graceless conspiracy yarn. It seems that the President has been shot and killed while campaigning for a second term; his brother has taken up the standard and may be in more than a little peril himself. You have problems of your own, however: specifically, the entire world believes that you played the role of Lee Harvey Oswald in the thinly veiled JFK allegory that is this game.

Within ten minutes of play you're arrested for the first of what will become many times, and you have the opportunity to examine the FBI's case against you. Based on their presentation, I was pretty much convinced of my own guilt, which is demoralizing, and I have to admit that I felt pretty silly denying it. They have a picture of you standing at a window holding a rifle, after all, and you don't really need an avalanche of circumstantial evidence when you've got a trump card like that.

Ah, but the plot thickens. Yes, it turns out that a massive political conspiracy of which you may or may not have been a part is seething beneath the normally placid surface of U.S. politics. A group of conspirators, who rather uncreatively refer to themselves by the Roman numerals I through XX (to maintain anonymity, I suppose, but then they sort of blow it by having their number tattooed on), are behind the assassination. Some elements in the military believe you to be innocent, others believe you to be guilty, and the game's plot is so ineptly constructed that I myself didn't know what to believe. You are tasked with exposing all twenty conspirators and bringing low the secret society that so meanly framed you for shooting the Prez.

The game's protagonist is voice-acted by David Duchovny of X Files fame, and my god does he suck. I suspect he believes himself a little too hoity-toity for video game work (which makes one wonder why he took the job) and phones in his performance to such a degree that they'd have been better off casting some guy from the mail room. Though the self-important and clumsy script doesn't help, and the other voice actors (including hip-hop hottie Eve) don't do much better, I tend to think that a professional actor has a responsibility to do his very best if he agrees to take a role. The best voice acting in XIII comes from those playing bit parts.

As usual in these games, you're going to kill about nine million people before you get your problems sorted out, and it's surprisingly bloody despite the obvious limitations of cel-shading. A gore-minimizer is available to the three parents in the nation who bother to pay attention to what their kids do, and the game, which is actually based on licensed Unreal technology, ships with the obligatory level editor. I suspect that users could make some truly excellent maps and mods—better than those in the game—with the XIII editor.

XIII comes on four CDs and offers standard and full installs, the latter gobbling 2.5 gigabytes. The CDs are poorly organized, however, and you'll find yourself swapping among them much more often than should strictly be necessary. The install routine, also, is slipshod: more than once it asked for a new disc before it was finished with the old one. Switching CDs at these erroneous requests crashed out the installer and forced me to start the process over. Wise gamers will copy the entire contents of all four CDs to folders and install from there. Once set up, the game has surprisingly reasonable requirements and runs with excellent stability.

But It's Got ... No ... Still Just a Shooter

It is possible for straightforward action shooters to be fun. It's not a requirement that every new outing in the FPS style be unique or innovative; more than any other genre, each new FPS doesn't need to be more progressive than the last, because balls-to-the-wall action is still lots of fun. And XIII accomplishes that pretty well.

Yet at the same time, the only thing that's special about it is those cel-shaded graphics, and once you get past that, it is just a shooter. I spent hours waiting to be blown away by this highly anticipated game, and it never happened. It's neither so poorly put together nor so unoriginal that it scores low on the Fun-O-Meter, but it is put together sufficiently poorly and is sufficiently unoriginal to achieve a Nothing Special award.

The most egregious crime that XIII commits is the blatancy of its hybrid design. It's available for PC and all of the various consoles, and in a move that's becoming disappointingly familiar, the developers aimed for the lowest common denominator, so it plays like a console port. The game creates the illusion that you can save at any point, but when you reload a save it starts you back at the beginning of the level. It also pretends to autosave at various checkpoints but deletes them unless you manually save the game before quitting.

I don't know when developers will get it through their heads that if a game is intended for PC as well as consoles, they should develop it for the PC, then port it to the console, not vice versa. Like it or not, and I'll doubtless get flamed for saying this, not one console on the market can hold a candle to the technological might of a modern gaming PC. As it is, developers make it easy on themselves by coding for the console and then just porting the game whole hog. The only game I can think of that had a multiple release but was developed for the PC is Morrowind, and its quality on both platforms is staggering.

I also suspect that the developers used chimpanzees to test the menu interface, because it's awkward in the extreme. The comic-book panel buttons are obtuse, you can't remap the quick load/save buttons, and you can't look at important game data such as recovered documents or identified conspirators anywhere but in the main menu—which you can't access without quitting your current session.

Multiplayer in XIII is pretty straightforward deathmatch fodder; it works fine but I doubt we'll see much of an online community with this game. Unreal Tournament 2003 and Counterstrike both offer more fun and variety in multiplay sessions, and XIII deathmatches don't exactly pack a thrill a minute.

But the ... No. No, It's Still Just a Shooter

XIII does include a few fairly clever style twists that save it from utter banality. I really like the ability to take hostages and use them as a sort of human shield (while still using a weapon with the other hand). Objects such as chairs, mops, and bottles can be employed as improvised weapons and are dead useful when you need to disable but not kill an opponent. And in many levels you have access to a mechanical rappelling line and grappling hook, which you can also use in conjunction with a weapon. It is definitely cool to take potshots at enemies while dangling from a cable above them and watch as they run around wondering where the shooter is.

XIII also features quasi-positional damage, in that a head shot usually kills immediately. It's surprising how many shooters still don't include this, and XIII's visual cue for a successful sniper attack never gets boring. The game is intended to feel like you're actually playing a comic book—cinematics and even gameplay often breaks into panels, and auditory clues are presented as comiclike text messages. The goal of immersing you in a graphic novel environment is superbly realized.

Weapon physics are also great—assault rifles and other high-rate firearms have devastating kickback, and it's literally impossible to hold a straight line if you just open up with one of them. Scoped weapons "wander" the more you zoom in, realistically simulating the difficulty of holding such a weapon absolutely still. And there's a nice variety in the weapon types available to you, though the names are rather inexplicable: an Uzi is referred to as a "minigun," a Kalashnikov AK-47 as a "Kalash," and an M-16 simply as an "Assault Rifle." That's just weird and makes me think that the developers either wanted to be different or have very poor vocabulary skills.

But other physics are awful. For example, you can drop a significant distance without injury—if you just step off the edge. If you jump off, however, you'll probably die. You can't climb many slopes or attach your rappelling line to anything but metal hooks. There's little rhyme and less reason to destructible objects, and great variance in what you can and cannot shoot through: Glass, yes. Snow, no. Snow men, yes. Canvas tents, no.

The final significant problem is with level design. There's been a trend of late that has seen shooters grow increasingly linear, with fewer and fewer divergent paths from which to choose. The worst offender by far is Unreal 2, a game that was quite literally a straight line from beginning to end. XIII is better than that, but not by much. In most levels, the designers attempted to hide this fact by creating the illusion of multiple paths, all of which eventually loop back onto themselves or dump you out in the location to which you're supposed to get.

Levels are heavy-handed as well as linear. Obstacles such as shrubbery represent impassible barriers for no other reason than the designers didn't want to include more game world than was necessary. XIII's exteriors are an embarrassment of canyons, logslides, barbed wire fences, and the ubiquitous impenetrable hydrangea bushes. In some cases, you just can't go in a direction even though there's nothing in the way. You run smack into an invisible wall and there you stay, looking wistfully at whatever's beyond it.

But This Game Has ... Absolutely Nothing Other Shooters Don't

XIII is by no means a crushing failure, and it is fun to play despite some annoying idiosyncrasies. I've played through it and will probably do so again at some point in the future, but it's not likely to make it onto anybody's "must have" list. Simply put, XIII is worth twenty dollars but not fifty. My advice is to wait for the bargain bin unless you absolutely need to kill something right now.

All shooters, be they first- or third-person, are going to be judged differently in the wake of Max Payne 2, a game that sets the bar so staggeringly high that few contemporary accomplishments can hope to measure up. Come February, shooters will be judged in the shadow of Doom 3, which like XIII is not expected to bring anything unique to the genre other than astounding visuals. In the case of that game, however, astounding visuals alone might be enough.

Many who play this game would argue that XIII deserves a Thumbs Up, which would mark it as a pretty good game that would appeal to fans of the genre. But while the gameplay is enjoyable (for the most part), its overall clumsiness is too much to forgive. Labyrinthine interface, bizarre physics, obvious console port leftovers, rotten voice acting, and the lumbering story eclipse what could have otherwise been a real FPS coup.

If you're in the mood for a shooter with style, action, and lasting value, you're better off with Serious Sam than with XIII. I like what Ubisoft was going for in this game, and there's no doubt that it has more panache than most shooters. It's the little things that ruin XIII, and its unique presentation of the game environment just isn't enough to offset the flaws. The End

The Verdict

The Lowdown

Developer: Ubisoft
Publisher: Ubisoft
Release Date: November 2003

Available for: PlayStation 2 Windows Xbox Game Cube Macintosh

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System Requirements

800 MHz Pentium III, AMD Athlon or equivalent (1 GHz recommended)
Windows 98/Me/00/XP
128 MB RAM (256 MB needed for XP users and recommended for all others)
Keyboard and mouse
1.2 GB free hard disk space
32 MB DirectX 8.1-compatible video card that supports Hardware T&L (64 MB recommended)
DirectX-compatible 16-bit sound card
DirectX 8.1 (included on disk)
4X CD-ROM (not recommended for use with CD-RWs)
Multiplayer: Internet connection at 56 kbps or better

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No reproduction in whole or in part without express written permission.