By Ryan "digitaltaco" O'Donnell | Nov. 24, 2003
The first cel-shaded first-person shooter has been released, but does it live up to the enormous mountain of hype surrounding it? Ubisoft delivers a title that falls a bit short of expectations, but manages to remain enjoyable.
Aesthetics can get a title pretty far in the video game industry. But graphical tricks stand the chance of becoming clichéd gimmicks as quickly as tired gameplay mechanics. When Ubisoft announced that it would release the first cel-shaded first-person shooter, skeptics were quick to insult the company's apparent hop onto the bandwagon. But as people were shown more of the game, the dismay turned to intrigue. Could a first-person shooter really feel like a live-action comic book? It was looking hopeful, especially after an extremely positive showing at ECTS where it won both Best Console Game of Show and Best Overall Game of Show. But with the finished product sitting inside my console, I can tell you that it doesn't quite live up to the hype.
XIII tells the story of a man named Steve Rowland who awakens on a beach with a bullet wound and an unfortunate case of amnesia. Shortly after being found and treated by a blonde lifeguard the attackers return and the story begins to unfold. Though the tale seems to be lifted straight out of John Frankenheimer's 1966 film Seconds, it is an entertaining romp relative to most in modern games.
The story unfolds via in-game cinematics and cutscenes that are generally well constructed. The game's introduction, in particular, is well done and really helps kick the story off quickly. The cutscenes are edited in a manner similar to the recent film the Hulk in effort to bring the page of a comic book to life. And in most cases it works quite well. These cinematics move swiftly and present the story in an exciting manner. Similarly, certain in-game, narrative elements, such as an overheard conversation, will often be presented in a comic book panel. Like the cutscenes, these extra flourishes are quite effective, but neither of the techniques feel like they are employed enough to be completely fulfilling. While the presentation doesn't feel like an afterthought, it probably won't quite completely fulfill your live-action, comic-book fantasies.
Hitting a cop with chair will save you ammo and keep him from dying. That's important in some of XIII's missions.
While the quality of XIII's graphics will no doubt remain a controversial topic for some time, I can tell you that at the very least, I considered the game's visuals to be inconsistent. The GameCube performs almost as good as the Xbox, and better than the PS2, at least technically. The framerate usually remains high, but it does occasionally drop during more intense encounters. Additionally, the textures are almost as high quality as those on the Xbox. But because of the crispness of the visuals, I found the backgrounds to look only mildly cel-shaded. In many of the game's indoor maps, the textures are extremely bright and uninteresting, leaving the environments feeling quite sterile. While surely not everybody will agree, I found myself enjoying the less polished look of the PS2 version simply because it appeared to be more cartoon-like.
The modeling and character textures in XIII don't really appeal to me much. While at a distance, the characters do look a bit like comic book illustrations. Up close, though, the models appear quite blocky and unattractive. In addition, they don't animate particularly well. Nor do they quite accurately lip synch to dialogue. Without a doubt, we've seen better implementations of cel-shading elsewhere, particularly in Sega's Jet Set Radio series where the technique was first used.
Aurally, XIII is actually rather impressive. Positively, the voice acting is quite solid throughout the course of the game. David Duchovny plays Steve Rowland rather well, even if he does feel a bit typecast in the role. In general, most of the dialogue is easy on the ears which is important when a game is as story-driven as XIII happens to be. The game's score is action-packed during tense battles and subdued or non-existent during quieter moments. It's quite effective, really. This allows the sound designers to do more with ambient sound effects. In the snowy, outdoor environments, for example, the wind blows swiftly by your ears and as the birds caw noisily overheard. During this sequence I happened to be listening to the game through headphones, and I realized, at a point, that I was cold. The game had tricked my body into thinking I was out in that snowy environment. And what was my thought? Great sound design.
Fortunately, XIII's gameplay is interesting enough to keep the title from being a complete bust. The game controls similarly to all of the other console FPS titles that have come out over the past few years. If you're comfortable with that standard control configuration, you'll have no trouble managing your way through this title. I was impressed with how well XIII controls with the CameCube pad. I was able to easily navigate and react quickly to most encounters. I found that while I enjoyed playing the game more with the Xbox Controller, playing on the GameCube was nicer than playing on the PS2.
While in most cases, the game's mechanics don't stray far from the first-person shooter formula, there are a few elements that keep gameplay relatively fresh. The implementation of the grappling hook (The Grapnel, as it's referred to in the game.) is very well done and allows for some interesting level design. At one point, the player descends down a long shaft surging with electrical energy. Timing is key as you slowly lower yourself down, making a point to land on an enemy's head, instantly dropping him.