If television and film have taught me, and indeed you too, anything, it is that becoming an appendage of a covert government operation created and run to protect your shores from the sinister element of other nations will, at some point, lead to a bout of amnesia. Of course while under this hazy blanket of half memory and deja vu you will be on the run from multiple other agencies, including your own, complicating further your quest for identity. And as sure as Monday follows Sunday, you can bet that the world is going to need you to save its sorry ass when you aren't at the top of your game. And this is the initial premise of XIII, Ubisoft's much hyped first-person shooter. Waking up on Brighton Beach, New York, with scant to tell you anything about your identity, except a tattoo, "XIII", you must piece together your identity, save the world and make sure your ex-wife gets the alimony on time. I made the bit about the ex-wife up, but it could happen.
Probably the first thing that will strike you about XIII is its excellent use of cell-shaded 3D. The opening cut-scene is a finely crafted piece that sets up the initial mystery of the game. Presented in a moving comic book form, cut-aways move in and out of the screen, each playing a piece of the action before freezing and the next panel taking over. It's very slick, supremely stylish and a perfect precursor of what is to come. Moving in game there is only a slight drop in visual quality, which is pretty darned good considering the move from video to real-time graphics. The comic book style presentation continues in-game, too. Subtitles are presented in speech bubbles, and headshots are shown in a series of comic style close ups in a picture-in-picture box which makes them all the more satisfying and therefore desirable. The only real let-down graphically is the lip synching on the characters both during cut-sequences and during play, but seeing as there are but a handful of games that do this with any degree of success it is a forgivable flaw.
Gameplay in XIII takes its cues from the Half-Life stable of first-person shooters. Lots of small to-medium levels are contained therein and are tightly scripted and as a result fun throughout the course of the game. The usual mission objectives apply here, escort character X to location Y, press some switches, kill everyone. Nothing particularly exciting or earth-shattering, but all are done reasonably sparingly so as not to grate and remain fun throughout the course of the title.
The enemies display quite a reasonable level of intelligence in the game,as not only do they know when they are outgunned, taking cover, they also pick up ammunition from their dead comrades and even wait for re-enforcements before commencing their pursuit and attack. Another nice touch is how armour is dropped. You can clearly see whether an enemy is wearing either head or body armour. If you are low on either you must carefully shoot the enemy as not to damage the armour you need because, as with you, shooting their armour off reduces it to nothing more than a nifty fashion accessory that the jet-set will coo over. Some missions are pretty tough so you have to choose how to kill each and every enemy to make sure your ransacking of their freshly killed corpse maximizes your chance of survival. A pretty neat touch and something that adds a little more depth, which is always welcome.
Levels are on the whole skillfully designed, getting lost is pretty much never going to happen and they are all exciting and full of wrong doers to do away with. There are a few instances where stealth is the order of the day, and at first these appear to be the most frustrating parts of the game, but there is usually something you have overlooked, like an alternative entrance or the like, which makes things easier to manage. Exploration also reaps rewards: dotted around levels are secret documents that not only give some insight as to the story, but can also nudge XIII's memory and grant him greater skills in sniping, lock-picking and holding his breath among others. Nothing essential, but cool none the less.
This game is full of nice touches, from interactive objects and mission specific items being highlighted with a little box, to the aforementioned cut-aways on headshots; XIII is a very polished experience. Additional quality is present in both the soundtrack and voiceover work. The music is a cool mix of modern takes on sixties-styled spy themes, jazzy and most definitely coooooooool man; surprisingly it fits the mood of the game and action well. Voiceover for the mysterious XIII is supplied by David Duchovny and is actually not quite as fitting as one would expect or hope, it ends up being more noticeable than enjoyable, be it that it is because it's David Duchovny or the fact that he's not up to his usually cool standard of characterisation as witnessed in his TV and movie outings. Much kudos, however, is due for one Mr. Adam West. Conspicuously absent from our screens since the demise of the incredibly good Batman TV show of the 60's, West's talent fits in as XIII's C.O. like a glove.
As if by magic the Playstation 2 controller doesn't get in the way too much of the intense FPS action. As you may have gathered, the PS2 controller is not my favourite for console FPS's, but the developers have done a good job here making everything friendly and enjoyable for the player. Any niggles with the controls come from overly sensitive hot spots for opening and unlocking doors. The Asylum level is particularly bad for this, and it always seems to happen under fire, which makes the whole deal all the more frustrating. It's not a crippling fault by any means, just a shame as the rest of the game manages to get everything just about right.
XIII is a solid FPS and a great game to spend a few evenings on, and while it is, perhaps, another FPS by numbers tarted-up with fancy Cell Shading and a pretty interesting story, when done as competently as this it's no reason to shy away. And once you are done with the single player game there are also split screen and online multiplayer modes to play and really get bang for your buck. Or pound. Certainly something to consider until the much hyped Killzone if your trigger finger is itching.