2003 was an important year for Ubisoft. After launching one of the most prestigious franchises in the stealth genre one year early with the release of the then Xbox exclusive Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell, they tried to launch not one, not two, but three potential new franchises in the fall of ’03 with their major releases: Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time from Ubisoft Montreal; Beyond Good & Evil from the creator of Rayman Michel Ancel and XIII, a beautiful cel-shaded first-person shooter based on the Belgian comic series of the same name. Of the trio, only one seemed to click with an audience sales wise, Prince of Persia, which received three sequels and a reboot in 2008. The critical darling Beyond Good & Evil only received a rerelease on PSN and XBLA and has struggled to get a sequel off the ground for many, many years. XIII, however, is a game that not many people talk about today and hasn’t sparked a fan outcry demanding for its return. Is is because XIII is just not that good? No, that’s hardly the case at all, it’s just a case of a game that has a lot of style with not that much substance to back up its gorgeous presentation.
In XIII you play as an amnesic who wakes up on a beach with no recollection of how they got there, nor who they are, save a tattoo of the Roman numeral “XIII”. You quickly discover that you are the prime suspect in the murder of the President of the United States of America and not only do you have to recover your lost memories, but also prove your innocence and uncover a vast conspiracy to topple the government. XIII is a beloved comic series that has been adapted into not only a video game but multiple TV series and movies because of its story, but the game falls to tell the tale in a way that’s compelling despite having some stylish comic panel inspired cut-scenes and well-known talent voicing the main protagonists. Traitors are revealed, conspirators are unmasked and terrorists are on your tale, yet somehow none of this is delivered in a way that excites you or compels you to move progress through the game’s story. Through the course of the eight-ten hour campaign I constantly forgot the names of comrades, the villains, who was dead, who was alive even the main characters real name when it’s revealed.
This is perhaps due to the actors who make up the characters who are on-screen the most. Instead of going for veteran voice actors, Ubisoft chose to seek out known celebrities which I’m sure is great for marketing, but little else. The X-Files David Duchovny plays XIII and couldn’t sound more bored if he tried. Each line he delivers has zero emotion behind it and anyone can tell he just went into a booth, read some lines on a page, left, and collected a pay cheque. The other two celebrity voice actors: Adam West of Batman fame who plays an ally named General Carrington and singer/actress Eve who plays the female lead named Jones do a much better job, but neither really elevate the material they’re given as well.
More so than its rather decent but poorly told story, the element of XIII that most people remember about it are its visuals. As opposed to most first-person shooters which tend to push realism, XIII has a cel-shaded look along the lines of The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker and the Sly Cooper series which I strongly believe was an excellent choice from the development team at Ubisoft Paris. Not only does it help the game stand out against other games in the genre as well as feel closer to its comic book roots, such as when you can spot guards based on the words tap tap tap appearing on the screen when they walk, but it also lets the game age much more gracefully as well. This game is also available on the PS2 and GameCube, but I played the original Xbox version which is backwards compatible on the Xbox 360 where it runs flawlessly. XIII is a game that now is approaching, well, thirteen years of age and it was more visually appealing than a lot of games that were released many years after on the system I was playing it on.
What adds to the visual splendor more so than the colourful art direction is the varied locations you visit. XIII at times rivals a James Bond film in the amount of vistas you travel through in the thirty plus mission campaign. You’ll visit beaches, snowy mountain tops, prisons, mansions covered in lush greenery and a submarine to name a few, each accented by the very fitting jazz soundtrack. Though I wasn’t engrossed by the story as much as I hoped i would be, I still felt like I was in a spy-thriller because of the way the soundtrack and visuals fit so well together to create that atmosphere.
Despite the music and atmosphere creating the world of a spy-thriller, XIII fails to be anything better than above average in where in counts: gameplay. The developers it seems went all out in creating a very visually pleasing world, and then settling on mechanics that are merely okay. XIII isn’t a bad first-person shooter, it just doesn’t really stand out from other games in the genre, whether on console or PC. Guns feel good to shoot and aiming works fine, but there’s nothing particularly exceptional or note worthy about the act of shooting, which also applies to the arsenal. All the weapons you fire are what you would expect to find in a run-of-the-mill shooter: pistols, machine guns, shotguns, sniper rifles and rocket launchers. The only noteworthy or memorable gadget is a grappling hook that you can use to swing across platforms or raise and lower yourselves at designated parts in levels, but this and a lock pick which requires no effort to use are the only gadgets you’ll use which is a disappointment.
Breaking up the shooting are stages that require stealth which also works just fine but fails to impress from the studio that brought us Splinter Cell. Whether when beating shot out or snuck up upon, the enemy opposition doesn’t have the brightest AI, though they can get the best of you if they happen to have a rocket launcher at the ready and catch you off guard. There’s never a lack of health, armor or ammo to be found, but a well placed rocket or grenade shot can leave you in rough shape as XIII has some of the most unfair splash damage I’ve seen in a shooter. Be prepared to hit restart more than once the second you find out someone is lying in wait with a rocket launcher.
In levels that required me to avoid being seen, I often at times would grab an item from the environment like a shovel or chair and run at them full tilt to hilarious knock them out. When these tactics weren’t an option, you normally have plenty of bolts for your crossbow to snipe enemies silently from a distance, or a silencer and plenty of ammo for your pistol. The best thing I can say though is that the stealth portions never become annoying. Games that try to do both stealth and action usually fail at one or the other, but the stealth sections here never becomes frustrating and are sprinkled in just enough to avoid getting shoot out or sneaking fatigue.
XIII is a game that certainly stands the test of time from a graphical perspective, but visuals aside, everything else in the package is what you would expect from a combination shooter/stealth game. The game itself is never bad, but it doesn’t really have anything going on mechanically that help differentiate it from other first-person shooters, and that’s including the conspiracy heavy story that’s not terrible, just told and acted in a way that’s not really that interesting. If you’ve never played XIII and are a shooter fan, it’s worth looking into based on its graphics alone, but don’t expect it to stick with you in the way that the best Ubisoft franchises normally do.