Bargain Bin Laden #29: XIII

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The first person shooter genre has, for a long time, not been known for its wealth of engrossing, plot-heavy games. With the exception of Valve’s Half-Life series, one would be right to think of FPS games as little more than bullet-riddled, guts-or-glory slaughter fests with storyline being little more than a shallow and unnecessary afterthought.

This year has seen two very important strides made in the field of FPS storytelling, with the appearance of both BioShock and Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare — games that use the immersion of the first person to follow in Half-Life‘s footsteps and tell a real tale. We would be remiss, however, to forget that one other title took first person shooting and, with unmistakable style, truly ran with it to create an absolute thriller.

That game, was, is and forever will be XIII. Cheapskate gamers, unite! It’s time to enter a comic book world of political intrigue in this week’s Bargain Bin Laden adventure.

XIII (PlayStation 2, Xbox, GameCube, Mac, PC)

Developed by: Ubisoft Paris
Released: November 25th, 2003
Bargain Binned: $3.99 at GameStop (PS2), 100 Goozex points
“Mr. Rowland? It’s been a long time.” They remember you, but you don’t remember a thing. You are Steve Rowland, aka XIII, and you were found washed up on the shores of Brighton Beach with only bullet wounds for company. The President’s been assassinated and a group of mercenaries led by an assassin called The Mongoose are looking to have you silenced. It’s all connected, but the only clue you have is a key to a safe in the Winslow Bank. This is how XIII‘s story starts — a story of conspiracy, treachery and plenty of ghostly flashbacks.
XIII is based on a Belgian comic book, and it constantly reminds you of this, with its stylistic cel-shaded graphics and the framed cutscenes that drip-feed you information, with emphasis on drip-feed. Indeed, XIII‘s exposition plays its cards close to its chest and you are slowly given clues through in-game flashbacks as Rowland’s memory returns, or stolen moments of overheard conversation. Using both cutscenes and in-game plot development, XIII takes you on a worldwide film-noir adventure that takes you to a plethora of locales and brings you into contact with an equal amount of shady characters in your quest to discover who you really are and why everyone thinks you killed President Sheridan.
One of the greatest elements to XIII is that its gameplay is incredibly varied and never sticks to the same formula. From sniping missions to ballsy shootouts and even stealth, XIII brings together many different styles of gameplay to keep the overall product fresh throughout. One moment you’re taking on all comers who are storming your snowy mountain retreat, and the next you’re sneaking around a hospital, cracking brooms over people’s heads and throwing shards of glass into your enemy’s eye. That bit never gets old.
Unlike most shooters where you’re handed a gun and given license to rain Hell down upon your foes, XIII provides a more restricted, tighter gameplay experience. Ammo never lasts long and the stealth missions are liberally spread, meaning that you always have to play with skill and, most importantly, precision. If you’ve got a terrible aim, XIII might aggravate at times, but even the worst gunsmith should find those sweet zones when they get into the groove of the action and start coldly capping bitches with a ruthless calculation. Major accuracy is rewarded with comic book-style closeups of the action, detailing the grisly results of your handiwork frame-by-frame. Again, those bits of glass in the eye never. Get. Old.
While the game’s levels aren’t overly large, checkpoints are scarce and player death can be bountiful. There are some incredibly taxing segments where you’re required to infiltrate areas full of innocents who you’re not allowed to kill, but who are more than happy to kill you and sound the alarm if you’re spotted. Fortunately, more humane weaponry such as broomsticks, chairs and bottles are often found laying about and can knock these annoyances out cold. It’s just a shame that aiming and even seeing is incredibly hard with these one-shot weapons in your hand and if you miss, you’re often toast.
The slow pace of XIII only serves to make those rare moments when the action suddenly ramps up to fever pitch all the more gratifying. Perfectly timed and always exciting, these short but sweet, high octane sections of Rowland’s adventure are an absolute blast and a fitting reward for all that sneaking about with a broomstick. The mountaintop escape toward the end of XIII is still one of my most memorable moments of all time.
The only truly terrible part of XIII is its awful decision to make you manually use keys on doors. It wouldn’t be so bad if it wasn’t so poorly implemented. In order to use a key, your targetting reticule needs to be focused on the door itself and nothing else. While that doesn’t sound too bad, when you’re attempting to open a prison door made out of metal bars and you need your reticule on the bars and not the spaces in between to open the bloody thing, you’ll find yourself cursing the hitmen who are shooting your backside even more than usual.
Graphically, XIII certainly made its mark back in the day. Cel-shading was the in-thing around the time of the game’s release, but rarely would you see such a technique in an FPS. The comic book visuals of XIII lends it a striking quality that helps the game stand apart from the crowd. The use of speech bubbles instead of subtitles, and bold words appearing on-screen to accompany sound effects really hammers home the comic roots of XIII and also adds an element of humor which somehow enhances, rather than detracts from, the film-noir quality of the plot.
The sound is pretty solid, too, with some great tunes that feel like they were ripped from a detective movie. Explosions and gunshots are nicely captured while the screams of the dying work well. Sadly, the voice acting isn’t up to par, especially since David “the only emotions I know how to portray are apathy and death” Duchovny voicing the main character. Sorry, but Duchovny needs to stop attempting to act and find something more suited to his talents — like being a doorstop or paperweight. The only saving grace is that the legendary Adam West is also in it.
There’s even an online mode, although it really provides little of excitement. The main draw here is the single player experience, although Sabotage, a team game where you blow up each other’s checkpoints, is a little different.
XIII didn’t sell as well as Ubisoft expected, and despite a solid critical reaction, the game never did well enough to warrant a sequel. Copies of XIII can be found absolutely everywhere you go for a ridiculously cheap price, and I urge you to drop the few bucks required to give it a spin. If you’re a fan of engrossing stories and great gameplay, you won’t be disappointed.
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James Stephanie Sterling
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