XIII Reader Review
What strange times we live in. In an era in which the Internet has relegated us all to the point of subservience to the technological uprising, the marketing machine of the gaming industry has undergone a radical shift. On the one hand, our good friends at Activision need only spend a few hundred million dollars in order to assure the status of its gritty war shooter franchise as the primary financier of their modest collection of tropical islands. On the other, our jaws no longer drop quite as dramatically when a Swedish programmer with some time on his hands becomes a millionaire through the development of a block-building sandbox game that owes as much of its popularity to its glaring ugliness as it does to its unerring capacity to capture the attention of both the obsessive creative prodigies and the average guttersnipe with an attention span measureable only in milliseconds.
Put bluntly, both ends of the spectrum are well catered for and, like so many polar opposites, often end up blurring into a single, almost indistinguishable entity. But what everything else? What happens to all those titles that fall somewhere in the middle of the annual online frag-fests and the minimalistic bedroom concoctions?
They flounder and fade into a mire of anonymity; that’s what. And so leads us onto what I consider to be one of the most intriguing games of the last decade: XIII.
The ultimate fate of Ubisoft’s much-ignored and generally disregarded first-person shooter arguably epitomises that of almost anything these days that attempts to fit somewhere between the mindless, yet oddly dynamic warfare of Call of Duty and the mindless, yet hopelessly engaging simplicity of Minecraft. To beat the dead horse that is this analogy even further, titles like XIII are the middle-class nobodies to Call of Duty’s aristocratic bigwigs and Minecraft’s plucky working-class heroes. Just like every regular Tom, Dick or Harry, no matter how hard they try, they just can’t compete with the sheer corporate power of those at the top, nor can they reproduce the kind of plucky underdog tale that elevates the downtrodden to the Disney-esque stratosphere of dreams. XIII boasted plenty of clever ideas and innovative tricks but, as so many of us can relate to, almost nobody was there to listen.
XIII actually pre-dates Minecraft and the post-Call of Duty 4 shooters by several years, which might just make it a precursor to the struggles faced by developers nowadays. XIII is, at its core, a standard FPS, but with a considerable twist: its stylish marriage of cel-shaded graphics and comic-inspired visual nuances. Basically, it represented an attempt to merge a unique visual style with the tried-and-tested FPS formula that so many gamers knew and loved, but it might just have been this compromise that lost the attention of a potentially huge consumer base. For instance, those who considered a moment spent without laying waste to a faceless, match-made opponent online as a moment wasted would have taken one look at the box art and thrown the game to one side, returning to the relative safety of trench-based violence and intergalactic extermination of alien life-forms. Conversely, the champions of the “games as art” notion were never likely to be able to accept the distinctive, onomatopoeic “Baoom” messages that pop up as an explosive is hurled during the heat of battle, not to mention the cartoon panel-housed depiction of headshots from three different camera angles if it meant sifting through several hours of standard fare gunplay and a meandering, clichéd plot.
And yet that’s exactly what I loved about the game. Yes, the AI was laughable, bugs were prevalent and the range of guns was as uninspired as a homophobic jibe at a wrestling convention, but what XIII did so admirably was to bring back the delightful simplicity of the old-school FPS experience, albeit with a few extra bells and whistles. More specifically, one could utilise a plethora of inanimate objects, such as chairs, brooms and even bricks, in order to snuff out one’s admittedly less-than-intimidating foes, and anyone who played the game would quickly come to appreciate the cathartic pleasure that can come only with the act of hiding in a corner, hurling a shard of glass into an unsuspecting guard’s jugular and watching him belt out his final, piercing cry of “Noooooooooo” before dropping lifelessly to his knees.
But the inexplicable allure of XIII’s bog-standard gameplay mechanics didn’t end there. Let’s face it; when it comes down to it, when playing an FPS, all most of us want to do is unload bullets into the bad guys’ skulls. And XIII was all too glad to oblige, serving up no end of completely interchangeable laymen upon whom the player could quench his or her sprawling hunger for needless bloodshed.
Not only that, but the fun also spread into the wretched hive of scum and villainy known as competitive multiplayer. Again, XIII’s online component offered nothing new in a sea of copycat deathmatch-based run-and-gun killing contests, but everything it delivered came with the same robust, childishly humorous aplomb that makes it so endearing. XIII’s multiplayer is, and always was, anything but unique, but it knew it, and it never made any attempt to pretend otherwise. And, as an added bonus, it sported split-screen play and AI bots, two former staples of the genre that have, rather sadly, faded from existence as console-based online play has continued to force its way into ever-increasing prominence in recent years.
And what of the story? Well, there are two ways of looking at it. First, one might, perhaps correctly, assert that conspiracy tales centred around sinister cults involving an amnesia-suffering protagonist represent the single most overused and unoriginal style of narrative in existence. However, if one was to remove the hat of cynicism from one’s eyes for a second, one just might find oneself being – dare I say it – compelled by what could quite reasonably be described as an engaging and well-structured plot, at least by comparison with most of its peers within the gaming medium. The cut-scenes are generally well produced and executed with a surprising level of complexity and consideration, whilst the voice acting is solid and rarely disrupts the game’s narrative flow, an impressive feat considering the story’s origins as a Belgian comic book series.
If that all seems a little simple, that’s because it’s all there really is to it. XIII, when looked in the eye as a video game, had enough going for it to give it a modest level of appeal towards passionate, die-hard gamers, yet it could never hope to stand out without compromising many of the qualities that made it what it was. In attempting to draw in a wider audience by combining more than one distinctive artistic style, its developers simply ended up alienating the many players who were so fixated upon specific, clearly-defined gaming genres.
And it’s all such a shame, really. Those who played and loved the game can only look back on what might have been, whilst most of those who didn’t have probably missed the boat on what was an admirable attempt to experiment with the aesthetic appeal of the video game genre, all whilst sticking to a tried-and-true formula now shunned by the typical consumer.
But why not prove me wrong? XIII can be found for the price of a parking ticket in bargain bins all around the country, so how about showing some support for the middle class of gaming and taking this game out for a spin? Of course, such a gesture would probably be futile given the increasingly low-risk, uniform nature of present-day games development, but, if nothing else, at least it’ll give you a few hours of cheap, innocent fun. And who doesn’t want a bit of that?