Review by Steerpike
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 bookstyle
graphicsthe 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
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 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
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 modsbetter than those in the gamewith the XIII
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
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
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 menuwhich
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 bookcinematics 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 greatassault 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 injuryif 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
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.
Release Date: November 2003
Four Fat Chicks Links
800 MHz Pentium III, AMD Athlon or equivalent (1 GHz recommended)
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
Where to Find It
Links provided for informational purposes only.
FFC makes no warranty with regard to any transaction entered into
by any party(ies).