XIII (PlayStation 2) review
"Let's just say, this case has a distinct smell to it, a certain paranormal bouquet. -- Fox Mulder, The X-Files. "
Let's just say, this case has a distinct smell to it, a certain paranormal bouquet. -- Fox Mulder, The X-Files.
XIII's heritage is that of the spy thriller -- immediately, we feel a close affinity with material like Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Identity, recently made into a major film. In that tradition, the game begins welcomingly, on a soft, sunny, SoCal beach, our heroic protagonist accompanied by a beautiful female figure. But as much as this scene is inviting, so great is the rapidity with which the situation deteriorates. First the bombshell lifeguard our hero was probably just about to make a move on gets killed, and then a split second later he’s on the run, evading both government authorities and the henchmen of a mysterious conspiracy. All we know is that there is a frighteningly large body of evidence suggesting you assassinated the President; all our hero knows is that he knows nothing -- he woke up on a beach encumbered with little more than a headache, a bad case of amnesia and a tattoo of the numeral “XIII,” which will become both his name and his personal mystery: how did this tattoo get there?
You, as XIII, will try to discover the details of your history, having received the vague outline in cinematic flashbacks that are a little too convenient for realism and yet dramatically effective. We later discover that there’s a full conspiracy of Roman numeral-tattoo fellows, and you’ll be out to spoil the plans of “Number I.” Face-Off style cosmetic surgery adds to the general confusion. The complexity of the plot is fun to follow despite some of the outrageous events, but the whole creation is also compelling -- by the end you do feel that this world is authentically in trouble and probably worth saving. A good spy thriller’s success tends to come from its cleverness in making you feel truly distressed about some outlandish, mad scientist-esque threat to the world, and here, XIII wins the day.
XIII may take obvious inspiration from Bourne Identity, often matching in plot so closely that it feels nebulously plagiaristic, but XIII looks nothing like Matt Damon. In fact, XIII looks nothing much like anything that has come before it, at least in the world of video games. To put it succinctly, it’s like you’re playing through a comic book. This will be fairly evident when words like BAM! appear onscreen as you hit an enemy, or when a visual TAT TAT signifies approaching gunfire. But it also extends to subtle details. For instance, figures have the thick black outline of the comics. You’ll see shadows falling across faces in sharp lines, as if humans really are polygonal just as The Sims would suggest, another comic convention. It is a remarkable effect of transforming a two-dimensional motif into three dimensions, engendering the stunning appearance of a graphic novel cum well-crafted pop-up book. It’s rare, I think, for graphics to make a game, but in this case your experience is visually fascinating no matter how involved or engrossed you are in the actual gameplay.
It would be easy to mistake this comic-book effect for a cartoonish one like that achieved in Zelda: The Wind Waker, but this game doesn’t have the bright visual feel of Zelda at all. Indeed, this is a dark world in many ways; the violence of your quest is presented quite frankly -- when you score a headshot, a series of three little “picture-in-picture” pop-ups show the bullet striking the enemy’s head in close detail -- and things get bloody in serious firefights. But this gritty realism is justifiably needed to add a sense of maturity and seriousness to a game full of block coloring and onscreen BOOMs. That’s not to say there aren’t problems with this whole visual effect: most noticeably, character models often aren’t quite three-dimensional in appearance, and consequently the hit detection feels a little shaky. To put it another way, the enemy models don’t seem exactly complete and solid, which can be both a distraction from the finely crafted visual world and a hindrance to playing the game. Yet on balance, these minor flaws are more than offset by the great, refreshingly different atmosphere this comic book style offers. The real problems with the gameplay are more intrinsic.
While we are conditioned by the opening action to expect a spy thriller, what we get in the game is something more resembling a classic FPS: you are present as a one-man killing machine, ready to pacify an onslaught of enemies with hearty doses of bullets, just like a kindly pharmacist in a land where white-hot bullets are a kind of medicine. This has worked well in some past games, but in XIII it is not very well executed. First, the level design and enemy AI are such that this is certainly no Splinter Cell or Metal Gear Solid. Each environment is nominally non-linear, but ignoring meaningless branching points that are actually all the same, the game does not offer you a lot of choice. Instead of posing you a real decision between a stealthy approach, a shooting approach, or bits of both, XIII really just lets you decide between sniping from afar or assault-rifling from point blank -- but you must kill that enemy to get through. Moreover, killing every adversary, even ones you could otherwise bypass, is greatly to your benefit: ammo is at a premium in this game and you’ll usually be replenishing your supply by looting enemy corpses. A game like Deus Ex, when it claims to offer you a choice of attack patterns, is legitimately making room for strategies both of assault and of silent infiltration. The choice XIII offers you is one between strategic, calculated assault and Rambo-style reckless assault, which is a far less diverse set of options. The result is that the game does not have the depth it’s undeniably trying to achieve; what draws you back to this title will not be the gameplay, but the amazing presentation.
On that note, I’ve mentioned the great, unique visual environment, but describing XIII as a proverbial “feast for the eyes” fails to do justice to the figurative-culinary offerings on the soundtrack. A tasty combination of uptempo jazz and funk accompany you through this quest -- a daring breach from the norm by Ubisoft, though in the presence of this visual adventure that’s likely to get ignored. The alluring mix of instrumental and synthesized orchestration places the game outside of time: the funk elements make it feel 70’s, the jazz elements place you in a world of 50’s noir, and then a futuristic thumping bass comes into play and you feel like its 2025. The accompaniment to the game’s dark moments -- i.e. the story-driving cutscenes -- can feel out of place; one feels they demand deep strings and piano, not a somber jazz melody. Nevertheless, the overall effectiveness of the score is high. Even better, the somewhat adventurous style makes it just plain fun to listen to as you play.
While in the audio frame of reference, I should also mention that Ubisoft recruited David Duchovny -- who gained fame as Fox Mulder in the X-Files television series -- to voice XIII. Sadly the script is fairly nondescript, and Dunchovy’s disinterest comes across thickly. At least, he’s either disinterested or he recorded this during Lent and had chosen for that season to abstain from even the slightest display of emotion. Still, Dunchovy’s voice does have a quiet, mysterious flair well suited to the brooding XIII. In any case, the real coup here is that Ubisoft managed to secure Adam West for another of the game’s major roles. That’s right, Adam West as in POW! BOOM! BAM! Holy poetic justice Batman! What could be more appropriate than the original campy action hero who frolicked among big onomatopoetic words onscreen returning to do a voice in a brand new, vaguely campy, action production that also has big onomatopoetic words appearing onscreen? Well, you’ll argue, lots of things could be more appropriate -- in fact, pretty much anything seems more appropriate than hiring Adam West for a job whose title includes the word “actor.” But despite his farcical ineffectiveness portraying Batman, West does a very good job in what is, sadly, a limited role. It’s evident, I think, that West took this gig more seriously than Duchovny did -- David needs to realize that no matter how bad the script is, a major video game is ten steps up from his buddy action flick with yammering 7-Up promoter Orlando Jones, Evolution.
Anyway, enough jokes, and enough razzing on a comic genius like Orlando. Despite their camp humor value, Duchovny and West are pretty decent actors to secure for a video game. XIII betrays its solid cast -- and its great score, and its amazingly unique appearance -- by being simply an average game at heart. Raw shoot-‘em-ups can be great, but a story so complex and a visual world so obviously labored over deserves more than a one-off, linear, guns-blazing FPS -- I’m left feeling unsatisfied for want of a rounder experience that engages my tactical and strategic thinking on the same high level as it does my eyes and ears. This is like creating a visual style based on postimpressionist pointillism…and then using it to produce the next Madden title. By working on two completely different mental levels, XIII fails to exploit the true promise of its brilliant concept.
Community review by denouement (April 16, 2004)
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