XIII begins with a premise not unlike the recent film adaptation of The
Bourne Identity. The protagonist wakes up on a sunny beach to a United
States of America that is also waking up in the aftermath of an assassination on the American president. Little does the protagonist know that he will be implicated in this far reaching event as the trigger man. The unfortunate part for the hero: he doesn’t know who he is. In fact, he doesn’t even know his own name except for the XIII symbol tattooed on him.
Another clue about his identity is a safety deposit key to a bank in New York. Making the trek, he discovers his name is Steve Rowland but before he can probe further, he is arrested by the FBI on charges of assassination. It doesn’t take long until XIII comes into contact by those fingering him for the assassination, a federal investigation led by Colonel Amos. When cleaners come to eliminate all traces of evidence, surprisingly, Rowland is able to fend them off. From there, he begins his long road to redemption and revelation.
It’s a meticulously constructed backdrop. While it has been used before in countless movies, I found it enticing. The worst disservice XIII could do to itself is having the developers script together a hammy storyline to justify the whiz bang action going on. Luckily, it doesn’t fall into that trap. Instead, XIII makes some landmark strides by bringing cel-shaded graphics to first-person shooters on the PC as well as all the consoles. This enables XIII to exude a comic book look, which to me looked like an advanced version of the old Outlaws game by LucasArts. It will also remind people of the Max Payne series. Remedy used the graphic novel (what comic books are turned into when they get longer than a dozen pages) concept for cinematic storytelling. Here, all of the comic book features, including the bangs and booms enunciations, are found inside the game while you’re shooting your rifles, pistols and rocket launchers.
In some ways, it makes the art simpler to draw. There are fewer colors and color variations, for example, than a comparably realistic scene. The wood is a homogenous tone of brown. Metal can be drawn in a hue or two. But sometimes, it makes for interesting effects. Shattered glass looks a lot different in the XIII world than it does in ours. There are tracers to the grenades you throw; another interesting effect.
Ubi Soft, it seems, pulled out all the stops to ensure XIII gets some movie star treatment. The first one is for Rowland, voiced by David Duchovny of X-Files fame. My reaction to Duchovny was mixed. His character struck about as sympathetic as the protagonist in the recently released Deus Ex: Invisible War, which is another way of saying, I really didn’t develop any attachments to the character – and I was playing him throughout the whole game. Adam West, the voice behind Batman and a man who is well accustomed to all the tat-tats and kabooms, assumes the role of General Carrington. He’s a good choice. Finally, Eve (an actress previously unknown to me) plays Major Jones, one of Carrington’s principal allies.
Great voice acting can always lend a hand to a splendid story. XIII is very much a story-driven first-person shooter. Like Medal of Honor, it relies on scripting to advance each mission’s objectives. There are interesting scenarios thrown in - hostage rescues, using enemies as human shields - but there are some you’ve seen before, possibly in that other guy who has something tattooed on him; Eidos’ Hitman. XIII, unfortunately, never develops into a proper rhythm. The action and pacing is part of the problem. Sometimes there are an overwhelming number of bad guys thrown at you. Sometimes the action stops and you’re left trying to find out which specific location you have to touch or get to in order to advance the plot. Sometimes it’s the artificial intelligence that gets in the way. Brainless opponents (and sometimes allies) rushing haphazardly into danger can dispel tension. Other times, cinematic or flashback sequences will intrude when all you want to do is just keep firing your gun. So while there might be exciting situations, the overall drama is pulled down by inconsistent execution.
The single player portion of the game will take a weekend or so to finish. If you’re drawn into the game and you have the time to spare, you might even finish it in a day. It’s worth doing so just to figure out the true assassin(s) of the president.
Once you’re done, there is a competent multiplayer offering to keep you engaged. This product, after all, is based on the Unreal Warfare engine; a base that is known for its multiplayer features. It follows that I became happy to see that you can inject bots to play against. There is the usual cast of multiplayer components - deathmatch, team deathmatch and capture the flag - but there’s also Cover Me, built for two players with one covering the other against enemy fire. And then there’s Sabotage, which is a checkpoint-based team competitive game; one group is on assault, one group is on defense. The later is only available on the Xbox and PC platforms; a pity, considering I found the new modes to be the most enjoyable. The others simply weren’t challenging since the levels were blasé and the weapons were lifted verbatim from the single player missions.
Make no mistake, though, this is definitely a single player title first, multiplayer title second. Even in the former, it lacks the material to vault it into the stratosphere and turn XIII into a classic. Style and visuals can only do so much for a game. In our post dot-com world, image is not everything, substance does count for something. While XIII has all the ducks (action, story, actors), it’s too bad they weren’t arranged neatly in a row.