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XIII Review

publisher: Ubisoft
developer: Ubisoft
genre: Shooters

PIII 800, 128MB RAM, 32MB video, 1.2GB HD
ESRB rating: M

release date: Nov 18, 03
» All About XIII on ActionTrip

For years, the number thirteen has been known as the unlucky number. People the world over dread the day of Friday the Thirteenth, thinking it to be the most supreme of unlucky days. Thirteen got its bad reputation straight from the Bible itself. According to the story of the Last Supper, Judas, the betrayer of Jesus, was the thirteenth person seated at the table. There are some contemporary societies, however, that consider thirteen a lucky number - if you carefully scan a one-dollar bill, you will find 13's all over the place. As far as this author is concerned number thirteen can go either way - luck is only what you make of it. If number thirteen is unlucky for you, make sure you take great care to not cross any thirteen's (which means never carry any one-dollar bills. Send them to me instead. - Six). The same logic can be applied to Ubi Soft's latest FPS title, XIII. The mere fact that it bears the Roman numeral for thirteen is inconsequential. The defining moment comes when the effort that went into the making of XIII is submitted to the scrutiny of the general public, and the French team at Ubi Soft will finally learn if XIII is a lucky or unlucky number for them.

As a rule, when companies start doing PR for a game, they highlight a few of its main characteristics that they feel will attract the attention of potential consumers. In the case of XIII those characteristics would be its unique comic-style visuals; courtesy of a technique called cel shading; and its storyline. XIII is a FPS thriller heavily influenced by a number of famous and not-so-famous movies from the mid 80's. The overall tone of the game is fairly mature and it's clear that the screenwriters spent considerable time on making sure the plot elements are cohesive and engaging. The end result is at times interesting, but ultimately unoriginal. The story borrows many elements from films like The Bourne Identity and others. Our main hero wakes up on a beach one day with no recollection of his past or how he got there. His only clues are the number 13 tattooed on his collarbone and the key to a safety-deposit box in one of New York's most prestigious banks. Upon arriving at the Winslow Bank in NYC he learns that his name is Steve Rowland and he's a captain in the United States Army. Moments after making this discovery, he's arrested by Colonel Amos, director of the FBI's anti-terrorist department and is accused of the murder of William Sheridan, the 43rd president of the United States. When presented with the evidence, he's shown the enlargement of a snapshot in which he appears to be holding a sniper rifle. What happens afterwards is a scenario that bears a striking resemblance to the events in The Bourne Identity. In the game's defense, the narrative does manage to break the mold and provide some original plot twists, but that happens much later in the game. The important thing to note here, however, is that, while unoriginal by movie standards, this is one of the better video game plots out there. Sure, it may not live up to the standards set before it by an author like Robert Ludlum, but it's consistent enough to satisfy the tastes of the majority of game fans. The designers have incorporated sporadic flashback levels that not only successfully perpetuate the game's atmosphere, but also add more suspense by letting the players learn of the past in a visually distinctive, semi-interactive environment. This is one thing that movies cannot do, and it is used to great effect in XIII. Another commendable element of the screenplay are the casual, often entertaining dialogues between the NPCs, a-la No One Lives Forever, that offer a nice break from the main plot. The only thing I didn't like about the storyline is the designers' decision to end the game like a mini series with a "to be continued" message written across the screen. I can appreciate the fact that Ubi Soft has great plans for the franchise, but I'm sure there will be many gamers out there who will feel cheated for having to wait several months or maybe even a year to continue the adventure. Personally, I found the ending both surprising and anti-climatic.

The other crucial selling point for XIII, mentioned in the previous paragraph, is of course the game's unique appearance. To this reviewer, this is probably its greatest asset. Although several earlier released demos have caused the cell-shaded graphics, pop-up windows and comic-style effects to lose some of their initial appeal, the fact remains that XIII brings a highly original gaming experience to the table. The game represents a successful hybrid of several different art forms and some top-notch technology powered by the Unreal II engine. It's like playing an interactive comic book drawn by a group of very talented artists. The designers have managed to fuse robust features of modern-day gaming - like rag-doll physics, cel shading (the engine needs to calculate 3 times as much for a cel shaded character than a normal one), skeletal animation, pixel shaders for water and flashback sequences, and particle effects - and seamlessly blend them with excellent comic-style art work that's simply oozing with graphical smartness and quality. The end result is a highly distinctive game world that should appeal to shooter fans across the board. Moreover, the frame rate is acceptable even on mid level systems. Another really cool thing about the graphics is that they go beyond the aesthetics to leave a mark on the gameplay. Sound effects, like footsteps, are graphically represented with onomatopoeia - for example, the words "tap, tap, tap" on the screen allows you to detect enemies around the corner. Pop-up windows let you to survey the area around the corner after you've tossed a grenade and moved out of sight, or alert you to the presence of guards that are patrolling the next corridor. Such graphical novelties serve as a most welcome addition during stealth missions or when trying to root out several entrenched bad guys.

In order to make the visual experience complete, the team at Ubi Soft has made a valiant attempt to complement the game's stylish art with some equally moody sounds and tunes. They've spared no expenses by hiring actors like David Duchovny (of X-Files fame) and Adam West to name a few. Unfortunately, this has only brought them partial results. While most of the actors do a very good job at lending emotion to their virtual characters, David Duchovny damn near spoils it all by giving a very flat and uninspiring interpretation of the main character. Steve Rowland doesn't have too many lines, and as it turns out, that's probably for the best. Clearly, David was brought on to provide a much needed marketing boost and Hollywood glitter to the project, but it's sad to hear just how lousy his portrayal of the main character can get at times. I swear, he's had much better lines in some of his early work, and I think you know what "early work" I'm talking about here (Red Shoe Diaries - my favorite soft-core porn show - Six). The musical soundtrack is engaging for the most part. It generally brings more suspense to action scenes, but it also struck me as out of place and over-the-top at times. On the whole though, short of David's antics, the rest of the sound design is generally pleasing. There are no fancy 3D effects to write home about, and some of the gun sounds are a little shoddy, but, by and large, examples of excellent voice acting by actress/musician Eve, starring as Major Jones, and Adam West, as General Carrington, ensure that impressions of the audio remain largely positive.

Still, as you all know, form can only do so much for a game. In order for a AAA shooter to stand out, it must feature examples of gripping and addictive gameplay. It must have substance. XIII basically combines two distinct gameplay styles. The single-player campaign is a mix of stealth-based and action-oriented missions. The idea is to have these two gameplay types provide sufficient body to bring all the other game design elements together. Without this, all the flashy comic-style graphics and other innovations don't surmount to a truly addictive gaming experience. Unfortunately, it is this reviewer's opinion that the team at Ubi Soft hasn't fully managed to achieve this in XIII. It takes quite a while for the action to heat up. Level design is fairly unbalanced in a sense that some of the later levels look and play substantially better than the preceding ones. This goes for both the map design and the layout of the bad guys. The designers achieve a much better pacing at the later stages of the campaign, which pretty much goes in line with the dynamics of the plot (it gets much more attention-grabbing as it draws to a conclusion). The problem here is that many gamers may not have the patience to get to the later stages, and will most likely dismiss XIII as "kind of boring." I must admit I was only truly grabbed by this title in the last several missions. Up to that point, the levels just seemed too short, linear and uninspiring. It's very hard to explain this, and I fear I'm not up to the task. Nonetheless, I have to try. The game's linearity can often be effectively masked if the core gameplay is gripping enough. Sadly, that wasn't the case with XIII, not for the better part of it anyway. XIII lacks certain intangible qualities that drive the player forward, and this especially applies to the first segment of the game. The stealth-based missions never really make you jittery, and the ones that focus on action never truly make you feel like you just came out of a serious fire fight. The same can be said about the puzzles. Most have to do with the grappling hook (you use it to swing yourself to hard-to-reach areas), and those that don't, often boil down to finding a ventilation shaft or a key card. Again, not something that would challenge or entice a player to "play just one more level."

There is nothing particularly noteworthy to say about the AI code. On the other hand, I couldn't notice any glaring drawbacks either. Your computer opponents do a good job of running for cover and are fairly aware of their environments, so I've had no complaints there. The in-game arsenal is pretty standard; there are fifteen weapons in all. You have your assault rifles (AK-47, M16), handguns (9mm handgun and .44 special), shotguns, sniper rifle, bazooka ... and one relative novelty: a scoped 3-bolt crossbow. Incidentally, this is by far the most effective weapon in the game. It's very accurate at long distance and doesn't make any sound when fired. In addition, a head shot means you get an instant kill and that's very useful when you don't want to raise any alarms. Hence, the crossbow is perfect for stealth missions. The M16 with an under-barrel grenade launcher, on the other hand, is ideal for everything else. These two weapons are pretty much the bread and butter of the in-game arsenal. The only other guns I ever used were the silenced 9mm handgun (when I didn't have anything else to use) and the bazooka (effective against choppers). Another rather fun weapon is the harpoon. Sadly, you can only use it in one of the missions. The thing I liked about it is the way harpoon arrows would lose speed and eventually swirl off course whenever you tried hitting anything underwater from more than ten feet away - quite a nice application of the physics model.

In summary, XIII has several things going for it: its stylish and original art design, certain graphical elements, like the pop-up windows, that not only look good but add new gameplay nuances to boot and a good story that unfolds through enjoyable dialogue and atmospheric flashback sequences. If you're patient enough you'll find the final missions to be engaging both in terms of the way the plot unfolds and how the action picks up. On the other hand, the core gameplay often lacks substance, and will leave you longing for a more fulfilling gameplay experience. And just about as things start to heat up, the game comes to an abrupt ending that leaves you wondering what comes next. Is XIII worth your money? I guess it is, if you're patient enough and willing to overlook certain gameplay failings in favor of a good thriller story and plenty of style. Just make sure to cover your ears or take off your headphones whenever David Duchovny is about to say something. I guess when it comes to acting he's more about facial expressions and body language than anything else.


7.4   Good

Oozing with unique visual style, flashback interludes, comic book elements add a few novel gameplay nuances, good thriller story, dialogue, action picks up in the later stages of the game;

The game ends as a mini series, core gameplay simply isn't addictive or fun enough through most of the levels, David Duchovny's voice "acting," unbalanced arsenal, game wouldn't save my key configuration after quitting.



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