Written by: Rik

Date posted: July 30, 2008


When reviewing No One Lives Forever a few months back I happened to mention that I thought the spy thriller was slightly underrepresented in the gaming world. What really set me off on that train of thought was watching The Bourne Ultimatum and wondering why there hadn’t been an official or similarly themed game that attempted to deliver a similarly breathless experience. Of course, there’s always the chance that such a thing may not be possible (the recently-released Bourne Conspiracy doesn’t seem to have gone down all that well) but it seemed to me that the concept was certainly worth one or two more attempts than we seem to have had.

The obligatory sniper-scope shot. I shot ’em good, ma.

It’s probably a good job I didn’t rant on for too long about the lack of a Bourne-style game though, because even as I typed, an unopened copy of XIII was lurking in the ‘unplayed’ pile in my cupboard. In the game, you play a man who wakes up on a beach with no recollection of who he is or how he got there. After taking a few steps, there’s the flicker of a memory, in blurry black and white: you were on a boat, being chased, you had to jump into the sea to escape a hail of bullets…and that’s all you can remember. As you recover, it transpires that all you have in the world is the key to a safety deposit box in a bank. Sound familiar?

If the answer is ‘no’, then you probably haven’t seen The Bourne Identity, either that or you’re suffering from amnesia yourself. However, it’s worth pointing out at this stage that the source material for the game is actually a series of French comic books (sorry, graphic novels) rather than Hollywood, and that despite the similar setup (and everything I’ve already said) you shouldn’t come to XIII expecting the game version of Bourne. This is a first-person shooter, pure and simple – there’s guns and action a-plenty, but no fist-fighting, car chases or, er, getting some action in a dilapidated hotel room.

Still, XIIIdoes offer some fairly relentlessly paced action sequences which do recall Bourne (or any other decent action film, for that matter). The opening scenes are an excellent example: almost as soon as you’ve recovered from your ordeal at the beach, sinister types are advancing on the lifeguard station, smashing windows with gunfire and uttering statements to the effect that they’re about to kill you (in case the gunfire bit didn’t give you a clue). You’re unarmed and your health meter isn’t even full, but you have to find a way to get out of there unscathed. Of course, there is a way (and this being the first level, it’s not massively difficult) but the tension of the situation and the speed with which you have to come to terms with it is exactly what you want from this kind of game.

“No-one move! Or I’ll flick her ear with this card. I SWEAR TO GOD, I’LL DO IT!”

One of the most striking features of XIII has to be the graphics, which use a technique called cel-shading to achieve an appropriately hand-drawn/comic book effect. While this technique quickly became passé with the console kids, apparently due to overuse (although the only other title that readily springs to my mind is Auto Modellista on the PS2) it certainly works well here, setting XIII apart from most other shooters while remaining true to the game’s origins. It all looks very nice, and the little touches to maintain the graphic novel presentation are particularly impressive. All speech appears on-screen in a little bubble, while dramatic sound effects are accompanied by an appropriate text approximation of that sound [I think you mean ‘onomatopoeia’ – an educated reader]. The off-screen movements and story-specific dialogue of major characters are relayed via cut-scenes that appear in a real-time, in-engine, comic-book style ‘frame’ as you’re actually playing the game, which isn’t as disruptive as it sounds, and is a good way of keeping you up to date with immediate developments.

Although all of this could easily be dismissed as a superficially-impressive graphical fad, it really adds to the sense of involvement and happens to be a very effective way of telling the story, which is by and large fed to you in piecemeal fashion during play. The voiceover work is generally good too, and the English version features vaguely famous celebrities in the lead roles: David Duchovny takes the part of XIII while your closest allies are played by former Batman Adam West and, er, rapper Eve. A slightly eclectic mix, they all do a decent job, though Duchovny doesn’t have many lines and kind of phones it in and West sounds slightly suicidal (even more so than usual). Mention must also be made of the superb music, which is not only quite catchy but also totally suited to the action, (and miles better than the generic pap which normally passes for game music). In fact the only real let-down in this regard is the occasional use of grainy video clips to segue between some missions – these add little except for showing scenes that presumably couldn’t be handled by the game engine (such as driving/car chases for example) – but they’re usually pretty short and aren’t significant enough to detract from the overall quality of either the storytelling or the presentation.

Yep, this is an insane asylum. And that dude is as mad as a fish.

As ever, it’s probably best not to give too much away about the story itself, but beyond what I’ve mentioned already, I don’t think it would be too controversial to reveal a tattoo on your character’s neck initially identifies you as ‘XIII’ (hence the title) – which, it transpires, refers to your position in a group of twenty conspirators involved in a plot to overthrow the US government. With groups of shady thugs and the FBI on your tail, you need to stay alive for long enough to unravel the conspiracy and find out your true identity. While hardly earth-shatteringly original, it’s enjoyable stuff, and when the game’s finale leaves questions tantalisingly unanswered, you’re likely to be disappointed that the proposed sequel never came to pass.

When it comes to the mechanics of gameplay, XIII offers up the usual modern mixture of action, stealth and scripted set-pieces. The vast majority of the levels are pretty well designed, and only one section – where you’re called upon to infiltrate a training camp – stands out as being a little ‘iffy’ in comparison (bland scenery, ponderous pace, frustratingly difficult in places). There’s not too much in terms of innovation – as always, there are small guns, big guns and rocket launchers available to you at various stages – but there are little touches here and there, like being able to take an innocent hostage to manoeuvre yourself past great hordes of enemies and, er, sneaking up behind people and hitting them over the head with a chair (see Non-lethal takedown).

Flashbacks occur in-engine in black and white – and work really well.

Mainly, though, it’s about gunning down bad guys, which is fairly easy to do seeing as the enemy AI isn’t all that hot. The main challenge is getting past the absence of the traditional FPS staple, the quick-save key, which has long allowed panicky gamers to hammer away at the F6 key and update their progress roughly every two seconds. You can’t even exit to the menu and save wherever you like – instead, you can only do so once the game informs you of reaching a predetermined ‘checkpoint’ along the way. This is most likely a legacy of XIII’s multiformat release and goes hand in hand with the relatively small size of the levels, which in fairness would probably be over pretty quickly had a less rigid save structure been implemented. Still, that doesn’t mean it’s not irritating, and being forced to play through a long section yet again just because you were careless, rather than incompetent, is likely to provoke the occasional temper tantrum. Elsewhere, some tough boss battles will also have you pining for the quick-save feature, but hey, it ain’t there, so you’ll just have to deal with it.

XIII is some way from being perfect, but for the most part it’s stylish, involving and enjoyable. While some may dismiss the visuals as shallow gimmickry, the superb presentation is more than just some cel-shaded graphics, and the overall impression is that you, the player, are the central character in a playable graphic novel (or an action movie, if you prefer), rather than a bored twenty-something male hunched over a keyboard playing a game. Despite the first-person perspective, XIII is more similar to something like Max Payne than the heavyweights of the FPS genre, and if you found that game shallow and overrated, the chances are you won’t be too impressed by what’s on offer here. Everyone else with so much as a passing interest in a good story and a whole heap of action should definitely give it a go.