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Written by  :  Bill Clay (34)
Written on  :  Dec 24, 2003
Platform  :  PlayStation 2
Rating  :  4.14 Stars4.14 Stars4.14 Stars4.14 Stars4.14 Stars

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Summary

Old shed, new paint... but such sexy paint!

The Good

XIII's most impressive defining factor is the confidence of its storytelling. Shamelessly wearing its influences on its sleeve, the game manages to meld elements openly borrowed from 24, The X-Files, Metal Gear Solid and other obvious sources, as well as the mythology of recent history, and in doing so, create a whole that is graced with a life of its own, rather than the pastiche of dead second-hand parts that may be expected.
One of this year's great disappointments in cinema, for me, was Sokurov's Russian Ark. That film attempted to tell a large, overarching story entirely in the first person, with quiet, melancholic narrative brushstrokes applied by its unseen narrator (here echoed with ghostlike similarity by David Duchovny as the eponymous protagonist).
Comparison between cinema and videogames, as art forms at large, are usually a risky business indeed; but XIII manages to succeed precisely in many of the ways Ark failed: the first person, usually a clunky, viscerally distant perspective (cf. Ellroy's White Jazz, EA's Rising Sun, and, of course, Russian Ark), is here employed confidently and adeptly to tell a story filled with twists, double-crosses, flashbacks, hallucinations, even the odd tried-and-true visual cliche of "this person is on drugs"-cam.
Perhaps it works so well because the visual style is so confident. XIII's graphics are not excellent. At times, the game looks downright silly: large, unwieldy polygons attempt to emulate explosions, mazes of hedge and brush in later levels are rendered in unsophisticated meshes of texture (videogames just can't do foliage, particularly up close, but to see failure after failure is disheartening, particularly when there are so many things the medium can do ably). However, this doesn't matter as much as it would, perhaps because the game doesn't sell itself on any tired ideals of visual realism or graphical smoothness. Like the intentionally rough, mixed-media collage that forms the visual style of Miller's later Batman works, or the stylized-to-11 look of any Western cartoon worth the time of day (Samurai Jack, Spongebob), XIII may not always look spectacular, but it does manage a look all its own, setting itself next to Timesplitters 2 or The Wind Waker in steadfast refusal to be measured on any terms except its own.
And when it does look good, XIII looks very good. Washed-out, glowing dream sequences; comic-book panels slamming across the screen to alert the player to pertinent events or reward for a stylish action. The visual and sonic flair evident in the game propel this highly story-driven piece well, keeping the player hooked from moment to moment, unfolding like the graphic novel from which the game takes its basis.
And like a good pulp comic book, the action is immediate, flashy, taking pains to always have a task in front of the player: a gunfight, a row of guards to sneak behind, a sequence of hooks to swing between (in an admirably-realized manner that takes a cue from Metroid Prime while managing to not do that game any disservice). There is little free-range challenge-finding in this game. A game that openly states its intention to propel you via its narrative, XIII is prescripted to the nth degree, but most of the time, here it's done right. You know you're walking along a path someone else has laid out for you, but in this case, it's too much fun for you to mind.
The fact that the first-person is a perspective that, by definition, must run in constant real-time and without the luxury of editing or camera placement to enhance visual or experiential flair, means that when it's done well, such as here, it's an impressive and note-worthy exercise in any media.

The Bad

The question that must be asked of XIII, that rears up early and recurs often, threatening to justify or damn its every gambit both narratological and ludological, is this: If this looked like Half-Life, would I be playing it? Do the welcome excesses in stylistic adventure justify yet another game where I walk around a warehouse shooting guards, another maze where I must use - yawn - Stealth to dispatch my opponents with a well-placed - deeper yawn - headshot, subsequently - groan - hiding their bodies so the enemy won't - anguished howl - sound the alarm and end my mission before I've really done anything?
And the answer is: maybe. If XIII didn't sound like a cosmopolitan spy thriller and look like a gorgeous violent cartoon, it would be the bastard child of Metal Gear Solid and Deus Ex, stealing so many ideas from them, adding nothing and providing little thrill in the process.
I play XIII because if I see one more first-person shmup with realistically-textured bricks and fetishistically-realised real-world weapons, my back teeth will be swimming; but I like a good story, and I like a fun videogame, and XIII is both those things. But that doesn't mean I can't admit that if the game is a tricky exercise in influential alchemy: take this element from here, present it as seen in that movie there, and then add the life, the magic, that gels it all together.
And that magic doesn't work on everyone. And if it doesn't work on you, you'll find yourself playing a game that boasts originality, but not in spades; and pastiches elements of countless other games, but not in a manner that thoroughly overshadows the source material.
A game where enemies can take three shots to the face at close-range before dying; a game where you sneak past five soldiers, remembering the several dozen other times you've done the same thing here and elsewhere, only to be spotted and greeted with an unceremonious "failure" message and made to do it all again; a game where an old man's importance in the story can augment him with quadruple the health of a soldier who should, by rights, be a much tougher opponent, but isn't, because hey, this is a videogame, and you need boss battles, right? A game with crates, and switches, and - for the love of God - escort missions.
This, then, is several things that haven't been done before, a lot of things that have, but are in fine form here; and a handful of things that have been done far, far too often.

The Bottom Line

As a good story well-told in a medium that often overlooks both qualities, it's a standout and a joy. As a first-person shooter, it's high-quality MOR. As a showcase of things that videogames really should get over already, at times, it's sadly comprehensive.