It’s a real disappointment, XIII. This reviewer’s hand was hovering, twitching over the trusty book of journalistic clichés, with full intent of jumping towards the old reliable ‘style over substance’. And yet it soon became clear that such a move would be folly. For XIII is that rarest of beasts; it’s got both style and substance.
It is, though, the style element of it that gets you first. Think of a game as a living, breathing comic book and you’re heading in the right direction. XIII’s narrative is pushed along with comic book style cut scenes, yet not in the static, Max Payne style. Here, frames on the comic can come alive, the camera can zoom in and out, a big ‘Thump’ will appear if a baddie falls a long distance; in short there’s some smashing work.
The reason for this approach becomes clear when you jump into the game proper, as the in-game graphics all follow a cel-shaded approach. While this enhances the comic book feel, on consoles in particular cel shading has resulted in some quite bland visuals once the novelty has worn off. Not true here. Clearly, for a team of graphic designers, XIII has been a labour of love. It’s been worth it.
What ultimately counts, of course, is the game at the heart of it all. Fortunately, this one’s excellent, with just a few slight niggles. It’s a first person action adventure, which puts you in the role of special agent XIII. Only problem is, when we see him for the first time, his memory has gone, save for a few flashbacks. These flashbacks become more vivid as you get further into the game, and it’s genuinely a damn sight more interesting than the usual ropey plot that holds these things together.
The gameplay is a tasty cocktail of lots of shooting, a bit of puzzle solving, plenty of stealth and a healthy sprinkling of tension. It doesn’t always encourage the all-guns blazing approach; take early in the game, for example, when you need to get yourself a hostage to act as a human shield against people you’re forbidden to shoot. Or later on, when you have to disable four generators without alerting guards. That means not only must you be careful about who you kill, you need to make sure they won’t be seen either. It certainly keeps you thinking.
While XIII goes on the shelves at a time when Halo, Unreal Tournament 2004 and Max Payne 2 are also screaming for your cash, it’s to the eternal credit of the developers that it still demands to be played. It’s one of the most thoughtful, well designed and thuddingly enjoyably games of the year. It might be occasionally lacking in the AI department, and it may be at heart be a more standard game than it first appears, but it’s forced this scribe to buy a different book of clichés.