13 is often considered by some to be a rather unlucky number, and the idea of enveloping a product of yours with such a mark would not seem like the best marketing practice for the superstitious. Yet there are signs that it is nothing more than a mere number as Ubisoft's XIII (because Roman Numerials are cooler) has enjoyed its fair share of success.
First, let's get some background details on this title. Unless you happen to have read up on this game previously then you may not know that this is actually based on a comic (or graphic novel - whichever you prefer) of the same name. Therefore it is not too surprising that the story is exceptional, although credit is still due to the writers on the development team for taking the premise of the series and translating it into a coherent video game format.
The general gist is that you wake up washed up onshore minus your memory. After a brief interlude involving a Baywatch lifeguard and medical treatment your rescuer is killed in a hailstorm of bullets. Left with a bank key you try to uncover your lost memory only to find that a politician has been killed and you're the prime suspect. The game ends up with various factions after you for one reason or another and a tentative alliance is formed with a group that claims to know you. It provides some interests twists and set pieces that really shine and form an immersive plot to really get you interested in gunning down waves of henchman.
Coming from a comic book the dev team have worked to recreate the same visual style for this, and it succeeds for the most part. The characters really do look as if there were drawn in and the thick colours work very nicely to compliment the style. Other objects like the guns you get to use have a similar look about them. What is perhaps most interesting is the implementation of special effects. Instead of light shows that would put grand firework displays to shame XIII instead opts for the classic comic style of slapping phrases onscreen. Toss a grenade at a group of grunts and watch as Kaboom literally appears, or when a soldier is walking nearby you can actually see 'tap 'tap 'tap', which is cool to look at and also serves as a rough estimate of their position and direction. There are even cool moments like when you headshot some at long range, as you are rewarded with a 3 panel strip showing the hit close up.
There are some niggles with the graphics though. Environments are varied and there is some decent detail to them, but they don't have the same sketchy vibrancy the object and character models do, so it feels a little unbalanced. Animation is great most of the time, but there are moments where it goes a bit weird and characters don't move as naturally as they should do. There are pretty minor issues so they don't affect things too much.
The audio isn't quite up to the same level of standard set by the rest of the presentation. The music collection is quite fitting, sounds nice and has good timing to work with the sequences, but it's ultimately forgettable and sometimes disappears into the background. Sound effects do a decent enough job but they do seem somewhat underwhelming, especially when it comes to the big guns that should be earth-shattering.
Voice acting, at least, is done right. There are some talented actors behind the characters and they deliver their lines with skill. The script itself is pretty good too, helping the overall tone of the title to remain at the forefront of the concept.
Despite the alternative presentation XIII is a fairly traditional FPS at heart. Each level tosses you a few guns, exotic locations, swarms of bad guys from henchman r us and a playable character tough enough to withstand a nuclear bomb if there are medkits nearby to heal upon afterwards.
Fortunately the game only hands you a few weapons at any given time so switching between them or choosing the right one is done fine. It's not great, as the age old 'pressing buttons to cycle between them' is still pretty cumbersome even with limited options but nothing too drastic as to interfere with gameplay. The items system is done in a similar fashion too, so it works but could be better. Actually aiming and shooting feels great though. The sensitivity of the stick seems set just right to sweep over the screen without lunging five miles past the target and firing is responsive. Different weapons have different handling traits and this is represented well by the controls. It's not going to compete with a keyboard and mouse setup, but for a console shooter it works. Auto-aim could use a little work, as sometimes I've found that it actually interferes with what should be clean headshots, making precise hits with anything other than sniping equipment against skulls awkward.
If it doesn't involve explosions you're not doing it right.
Unloading bullets is not the only approach you can take though. Make use of the scenery by grabbing a chair, ashtray, bottle or anything else that doesn't look like it's nailed down and smash it over the nearest head. You can also creep up behind someone and grab them in a choke hold, where you can either knock them out or use them as a shield. These aspects are more for fun than anything else though because they're certainly not practical. It's rare that you can get close enough to an enemy to bash them over the head without getting filled with holes, and it's even rarer you can grab someone only to realise they suck as a shield because your back and head are still horribly exposed to gunfire that can come from any direction. More consistent implementation of these concepts would have helped XIII to stand out from the crowd, but as is they are a little too sparse and pointless to bother with much.
Enemy waves tend to demonstrate some level of intelligence as they fire from round corners or take up sniping positions. It's not perfect, like some will just bounce from one position to another without any real cover to benefit from, but it's good enough to pose a decent challenge. They tend to rely more on their notable numbers and firepower, but there is a level of satisfaction when that mass mob is gunned down by the lone gunman. Well, the game does start off slowly so you get a chance to get used to the interface before armies start storming the locations.
Your character seems to be built like a tank, and is capable of withstanding quite a load of bullets. With a health gauge, body armour, other protective items and two types of medikits that are quite common the difficulty isn't too high to put off even casual gamers. Veterans looking for a meatier challenge can opt to raise the difficulty level for more realistic damage, so there's something for all here.
The game is split into several large locations, and each area is further split into multiple levels. Each stage is pretty linear, with branching paths going no further than taking one of two corridors that are practically right next to each other, but there is some complexity involved in the designs to appeal to the gamer. You might be walking into a bank and then into a vault, only to blow a hole in the wall, escape through the vents and then find yourself on the wrong side of the security forces. You'll have some minor objectives to perform, like disabling alarms or something, but none of it is taxing enough to detract from the whole focus that is the action sequences of the game.
The progression of events is handled well. Things flow along at a decent pace when you're not trying to find a specific trigger and the action keeps you on your toes. Just when you think calm is returning an explosion might occur and new troops swarm in and a new objective will spring up. A fight for survival in a building can lead to dashing across rooftops. If anything XIII keeps things varied enough.
The levels can be somewhat confusing at times though in terms of what you need to be doing. You might find that some friendly AI people will stand around waiting for you to do something but not telling you what it is, or you might have to trigger an event but there would be no indication as to how to do that. There can be a few frustrating game overs, especially when an ally dies because he suddenly decides to run headfirst into enemy fire without you there to protect him.
There are also a few stealth and swimming moments which all out fail at what they do. Swimming is the worse of the two, as controlling your man underwater is not all that streamlined and can lead to some quick deaths. Thankfully these moments are very rare. Stealth seems to be a popular trait for developers of this era on consoles, and I can't figure out why. XIII is an action game, so the stealth sections do no more than break it up. Most areas don't present consequences worse than sending a mob of baddies your way, but there are some that cause an instant fail of the current mission, which is frustrating.
Splitscreen mayhem not as fun as it should be.
So overall the single player is fairly competent but inconsistent, but what about the multiplayer? Let's face it, all out frag fests is really what most FPS games are about. Well, that's true for most games, but XIII's multiplayer gaming felt mediocre.
You have the opportunity to indulge in splitscreen, local linkup and online battles. In addition you can add in bots to either boost the numbers or to just get the deathmatch feel on your own. A shame that the computer is stupid and will often stand around or even just duck down in an attempt to avoid your gunfire without bothering to try and make use of the environment. Better than nothing I guess but it's still pretty bad. There are adjustable difficulties for the bots but it doesn't seem to make too much difference, especially to the intelligence.
However, even without bot stupidity, I found the experience to lack the excitement usually obtained from these kinds of experiences and nothing like what other more competent FPS games have managed. There are a few barebones game modes like standard deathmatch or capture the flag - all pretty basic stuff that you've seen countless times by now - but there's not much to keep the interest riding high. Level design seems pretty bland, coming across as more of a mishmash of rooms or areas bolted together with little to no direction other than to make them match with set themes. The weapon selection seems a bit weak too, as there are no serious OMG weapons to wreck havoc with and it's all, once again, pretty common FPS fare by now. Granted there is some pleasure about moving down your mates in clever fashion, but certainly there are many better alternatives for this kind of thing regardless of which console you have access to.
So XIII comes out as a stylish decent FPS. Look past the cool visual effects and you'll see that XIII doesn't do anything particularly inventive and what it does do has been accomplished with bigger success in other titles in this genre. However, it's an enjoyable playthrough that is worth experiencing if you've already run through the alternatives.
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