According to the ECTS press panel, XIII is the best game in the room, something Ubi Soft seems keen to emphasise. We can only assume organisers CMP came round with a few Velcro-strip Best of Show placards, because a perky French lass was busily attaching several to the demo pod we were playing on yesterday afternoon barely an hour after the awards...
Unlucky for some
And yet, at a glance, XIII is a fairly bogstandard, cel-shaded first person shooter. After we played this years ECTS demo version on PC, Xbox and PS2, even we decided it was indeed a fairly bogstandard, cel-shaded first person shooter but despite that we were in awe of the way developer Ubi Soft has augmented the standard FPS formula with flourishes of comic book style. Whats perhaps most impressive is that these effects are genuinely useful like highlighting an enemy lurking on top of a cliff with a shrinking red box, a bit like the targeting system in Virtua Cop, or placing onomatopoeic tips and taps on-screen in relation to where enemies footsteps are coming from.
Fans of cel-shading will certainly enjoy the general aesthetic. Characters literally come straight off the pages of a Belgian comic - their slightly angular, thickly outlined and colourful character models blending seamlessly into a similarly cartoony environment, with objects that pick up the thick outline of a cartoon cell thanks to a standard issue level of detail effect. Blood gushes from wounds and knives remain lodged in skulls as enemies topple to the floor, and theres plenty of POW! and CRACK! to be seen associated with every action. It even looks quite nice (albeit extremely jagged) on the PS2, but the smoother PC and Xbox versions really shine. The Cube version isnt on display at the show, so we cant comment on that.
Beyond the intriguing game engine though, XIII will perhaps have to rely on its whodunnitcositwasntme story to truly impress. Were certainly interested in why the players character number XIII with a tattoo to prove it clearly murdered the president before he turned up dazed and short of memory in a Baywatch-style beach hut, but were not sure if it can carry us the whole way. And yet either the demo levels here were poorly chosen aimed more at showing off the game engine than inspiring us with their innovative approach to FPS level construction or the story may well be the only carrot.
But before we dismiss them entirely, let us consider the demo levels a bit more closely. In the first one, Brighton Beach (no relation), XIII wakes up peering into the eyes of a square-jawed blonde in a familiar red swimsuit, who is asking him about the key she found next to him in the sand. Except before the poor girl can say anything meaningful, she is brutally eviscerated by an unfriendly AK-47 at the front door. Diving into the back end of the beach hut, the groggy XIII finds a handful of throwing knives and quickly has to use them as an assailant scampers round the side and starts laying into him with a hand cannon. Back inside again he goes, where he finds a 9mm pistol and a key to the front door.
Having opened the front door (after opening fire on blondies murderer and pinching his assault rifle), XIII is out and along a jetty, pausing to take out a few more enemies flown in especially for the occasion by chopper, and to pick up a health pack from a little container. Back onto the wooden walkway and the game quickly points his attention in the direction of a mountaintop assassin, before the disoriented XIII spots a weirdo in a speedboat yelling at him about the key to a safe. Thats what that was, then. As he sprints off the jetty and up a beach towards a pick-up truck, our hero is once again set upon by chopper-planted assassins. Another health pack and a fairly obvious car key later, and its Mission Complete. Now, what was all the fuss about?
But lets not assume that this is all we can expect. After all, it was surely a casual opening level, and it demonstrated that the game plans to throw quite a few scripted sequences at us which it admittedly handled very well and that the comic book style is actually quite useful. It also introduced us to the context-sensitive action button (reload, in general, but then it also works for using inventory items, opening doors, smashing windows, using objects, etc, depending on the icon that appears) and the games rather commendable auto-aim. Ok, we could say that the firing system is a bit imprecise even on the PC, you arent guaranteed a headshot with a 9mm pistol crosshair resting on an enemys forehead but it seems quite promising. Lets see what the other level has to offer.
Short answer: not much. Your job is to get this Carrington bloke into a cable car, which needs fixing first. As you move through a glorious snowy landscape, flecks of white rushing through the foggy air towards you, you are told by the General to take out a trio of wandering guards, one of whom just happens to ask his mate where the key to the tool shed is. So-and-sos got it, he replies, before eating a bolt from our crossbow. Uh-oh, the other two guards respond, as we switch to the assault rifle and unload into the pair of them, who gush claret and groan convincingly as they tumble into the snow.
So into their little snowy cable car port we go, taking out a couple more patrolling guards and moving into the side corridors. Heroic army fellows have been mercilessly slaughtered here, so we move with caution, but alls well really as theres just token resistance standing between us and the key. With the key suddenly in hand, we realise we have to go back outside and get a fuse from the tool shed in order to turn on the electricity and summon the cable car. Looking across the room, we spy an electrical box we can interact with. Whats in there, we wonder? Oh, its the place where the fuse goes.
So, just to clarify: we have to go from where we got the key back outside to the tool shed, pick up a fuse, then come back to this exact spot not five feet from where we got the key, and install the fuse? That appears to be the situation. Stunning. Except its not as easy as that. Once we get the fuse, Carrington decides to kneel down in the snow to avoid approaching reinforcements three nasty assault rifle-wielding beggars, who will end the mission for you if they get to the General. With them out of the way though, were free to head back inside, install the fuse, move up to the roof and summon the car. All that remains then is to go downstairs again, shoot a couple of respawned enemies and say hello to Carrington. Oh ho, but now hes got a surprise for us a massive sniper rifle which looks like it could pop a wasps eye out at a distance of two miles. Eagerly anticipating the next section, we step forward and hit the action button on Carrington. Mission. Sodding. Complete. And no more.
How to kill friends
Frustration pumping through our veins, we exited to the main menu and picked the multiplayer option. The full game will be compatible with Ubi.com and Xbox Live apparently - and PS2 Online, although there was no mention of this at the show - but the version we were playing seemed to be set up with some rather canny bots, who happily ran around a grey and murky military installation raining buckshot upon one another. We had quite a lot of fun with this mode, blasting people in the face with shotguns and picking up some of the games more exotic weapons like the shoulder-mounted rocket launcher but it seemed like a fairly normal FPS multiplayer runaround. The quality of level design has yet to be really tested, but it could take off if the game proves popular and the cel-shaded engine is sure to inspire mod makers if the Unreal-based tools are made available.
But however nice the multiplayer mode may be, we still have trouble understanding how XIII rose to the top of the tree here at ECTS. Not just console game of the show, it is overall game of the show and this despite playable versions of Pro Evo 3, Castlevania, Ground Control 2, Far Cry, Full Spectrum Warrior, Mario Kart, Soul Calibur II and of course Advance Wars 2 elsewhere in the vicinity. Its an odd choice lets leave it at that.
Game of the Show!?
Disappointed? Well, yes, frankly. Although XIII is clearly capable of some nice stuff, we have yet to be shown anything in the level design department capable of making us go ooh. At this stage, it seems that the game is like a comic book beautifully layered and drawn, with an engaging plotline, but thats as far as it goes. When it comes to the gameplay, we have yet to be convinced.