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game: XIII
four star
posted by: GF! Back Catalogue 10/2004 => 1995
publisher: Ubisoft
date posted: 12:00 AM Mon Jan 19th, 2004
last revision: 12:00 AM Mon Jan 19th, 2004

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By Matt James

Videogames thus far have had an even worse track record than Hollywood when it comes to adapting comic books. I think the biggest reason this is true is because most people just don't get comic books. When people set out to develop a movie or game out of a comic they don't bother figure the comic out. Comics tend to get lumped together in a way that movies and television do not. A sane person wouldn't match up The Sopranos to Walker Texas Ranger or The Real World to The Simpsons. Having watched your little brother play Tetris you wouldn't walk away and think you know what those videogames are all about. But this happens all the time with comic books. A perfect example is the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. You know that some producer bought the rights after hearing the basest amount of the comic book's concept and ran with it. They could not have read the comic and appreciated it for what it really is and made that movie. It in no way even attempts to capture what the comic was; it simply borrowed the names. It's too bad too because now millions of people have seen the film and think that comic books can take some of the greatest literary figures ever and degrade them to nothing more than mindless super-heroics.

Then there are the comic book adaptations that eliminate the comic book touches and focus just on the great stories. This usually works best and XIII could have been one of those titles. I wouldn't have blamed them. I might not have even realized it was based on a comic. I had never heard of the French comic that inspired the game until I read Shawn's wonderful preview. That is saying a lot because I am a big comic fan. (All of you cringing each time I say comic book instead of graphic novel, poo poo on you. They will always be comics to me.) XIII could have been just another first-person-shooter and few would have been the wiser. But they didn't go that route. They did something that hardly anyone had done before. They took the time to understand the comic. This is what makes XIII special and will forever set it apart from other FPS. Maybe not far apart but just enough.

When they learn it is based on a comic book, the first thing people will latch onto are the graphics. I wouldn't have thought to use cel-shaded graphics in an FPS but somehow it works here. Usually they want a more realistic, gritty look for this type of game. The hand drawn look that the cel-shading highlights does more than just play up the comic aspect, though. The more cartoony feel serves up a contrast to the more brutal elements that punctuates XIII's ambience. Occasionally the screen splits into comic book style panels. Instead of looking silly, it actually gives XIII a unique pacing that most videogames lack. The visual representation of sound effects also work for this title. Most comic fans hang their heads when they see clips of Adam West pummeling the Riddler with and enormous WHAM! across the TV screen (oddly enough Adam West does provide a voice for this game). In XIII though it works with the graphics in a way it never does anywhere but on the page. Not only do they add style, they are functional. You can gauge where an enemy is by watching for the tap tap tap of their feet as they walk. This is what is exciting about XIII. Not only does it understand the comic book medium, but it also knows how to use it. The thing it understands best is that it is all about the story and so is the videogame version.

Too many games play by a format. You get a little bit of story, you play a level, you get another snippet of story, and you play a level, and so on. Often the things you end up doing in each level are the things your High School English teacher would make you edit out of your first short story. With XIII the gameplay is as important to the story as the cut scenes are. This changes the way you play the game and adds to the intensity of each level. You will play through levels where you really don't know if you can trust those helping you, levels where you honestly feel your character's disorientation, and levels where you scramble using little more than your wits to keep you alive. It creates an experience that mere cut scenes alone cannot.

Not that the cut scenes aren't amazing themselves. Don't expect Final Fantasy style cut scenes that blown your mind with amazing graphics like a blockbuster movie. Expect the subtle feel of your favorite piece of film noir. Expect subterfuge, intrigue, and the Kennedy assassination with a Bourne Identity twist. Great voice work goes far as well. David Duchovny (of The X-Files fame) lends his voice to the title character. Also of note the previously mentioned Adam West and rapper/actress Eve do voice work for XIII. This game oozes cool.

Oh and then there is the music. So much of mood is dependent upon the soundtrack and XIII definitely warranted something a little different in the music department. The developers went with a Jazz sound, a gamble that pays off in spades. Not only is if perfect for the story but it is another little way that XIII sits apart.

I didn't really do the traditional review thing for XIII. I don't want you to focus on how many guns you can get. If that is all your interested in I'm am sure there are better games out there for you. If you want a real experience, that just happens to have plenty of guns, grappling hooks, multiplayer modes (including decent online gameplay), and some fairly gruesome deaths then this is you ticket. While the online play is fairly basic (there are only a small number of games, and it feels a little hollow not being able to voice chat) it adds an extra bit of replay value to an already delicious story mode. But like I said, XIII isn't really the kind of FPS that shines in a deathmatch game. It loses its little nuances and tends to highlight XIII's more mediocre qualities. It is there though and still fun. Just not a good enough reason in itself to pick up the game.
 I hope people get this game the same way that the developers get comic books. I would hate to see people pass up these uniquely beautiful cel-shaded graphics because it is not what they are used to. Or dismiss XIII's unusual score. Give this game a shot and maybe pick up a comic book while you're at it.