When we first heard about XIII we were a little sceptical. Here was a first person shooter with cel shaded graphics (the latest gimmick), based on a Belgian comic book we'd never even heard of before. It's big in France apparently. But having had a chance to chat with one of the game's designers and take the Xbox version of the game for a spin ourselves, we're happy to report that it's actually a lot of fun.
For any of you familiar with the XIII comics, the game is based on the first five books in the series, which leaves another ten left to adapt should a sequel be called for. For everyone else, XIII begins with your character waking up on a beach with no memory of who he is or what he's doing there. Before long you're sucked into a conspiracy laden storyline, and naturally it's up to you to put a stop to the evil doers.
The game itself is a first person shooter, with a roughly 50:50 mix of action and stealth based missions, giving players a nice change of pace from one level to the next. One minute you might be sneaking into a secret base, the next dashing along a cliff to get off the island. The variety of weapons and tactics available to you means that there's plenty of scope for taking your own approach to the mission though.
The level that we played for ourselves took us along a dock and through a warehouse. It was possible to simply run into the warehouse guns blazing, but it wasn't easy. Sneakier players could use the silent crossbow and its Half-Life style sniper zoom function to pick off guards from a safe distance, while the really evil could creep around a balcony and pull a lever in the control room to drop a crate, crushing one group of guards and causing the ones standing by the gate to rush in to find out what was going on, leaving the way open for you to escape.
What really gives the game its charm though are the cel shaded graphics and the little comic book touches. As the crate plummeted from the ceiling towards the guards, a little exclamation mark appeared above their heads shortly before they were flattened, and this kind of captioning is common throughout the game. Shooting someone will elicit an "Arghhhh" or "Nooooo" which floats above them as they die, while grenades and rockets explode with a satisfying "baboom" amongst the smoke and debris. And while this may look a little goofy in stationary screenshots, in motion the whole thing ties together beautifully to create a real cartoon atmosphere, as well as bringing back fond memories of the 1960's version of Batman.
Some of these visual cues are also useful from a gameplay perspective. For example, if somebody is walking around on the other side of a door or thin wall, a "tap tap tap" will appear on the screen showing roughly where they are, giving you warning that a guard is about to emerge from around a corner or that there's someone waiting for you in the next room. Stealthy players can use this to sneak up behind an enemy and take them out with a throwing knife or crossbow bolt, or to swipe them on the back of the neck and knock them senseless. You can even grab a guard from behind and use him as a human shield, causing his friends to hesitate before firing. Obviously the downside to this is that you can only use one handed weapons while you have your left arm hooked around someone's neck, and you can't reload unless you hit the secondary fire button again to snap the guard's neck and drop him to the ground.
All of this is easy to accomplish thanks to an intuitive control system, with the Xbox version which we played currently offering the choice of a Halo or GoldenEye style setup. Anyone familiar with either of those games should be able to leap straight into XIII without any problems, while on-screen icons make interacting with the environment a doddle. For example, with a single button press you can pick up a chair which you can then use as a standard weapon, slamming it over a guard's head if you run out of ammunition, or by looking at a door and pressing the appropriate button you can climb on top of it and hide there until someone passes by underneath, jumping down to catch them by surprise.
XIII came as a pleasant surprise. The game looks absolutely beautiful in motion (as it should do - the latest Unreal technology is lurking behind that cel shading), with everything from glorious sunsets shimmering over a rolling sea and spray rising from the cliffs to ships pulled up at the docks while birds fly past overhead and bits of paper blow around in the wind. And the gameplay is so involving that I got sucked in for the best part of an hour and completely forgot to try out Splinter Cell, which was running on the big screen behind me. Which is high praise indeed. This is one cel shaded game that we're really looking forward to.