When we first got our hands on XIII back at ECTS 2002, it was an interesting mixture of stealth, classic FPS action, cel-shaded visuals and a richly detailed story borne out of a series of Belgian comics. Sending crates plummeting onto nameless henchmen evoked memories of scripted death in Half-Life, and the boxouts, on-screen captioning and Unreal-driven cartoon visuals left us with high hopes. Fast forward to this year's trade show and the game picked up the coveted 'Best of Show' award from a panel of top games journalists. With so much going for it, it must be good, right?
From the makers of 12
It would be nice to say things have moved on since we played it at ECTS, but just three weeks later our newfound PS2 preview code isn't that much closer to complete. There are more demo levels here - including a continuation of the cable-car mission - and it introduces us to more weapons, characters and XIII's trusty grappling hook.
The cable car level was a bit of a disappointment at ECTS. A simple matter of pressing 'action' in a few choice places and gunning down a mixture of hapless and infuriated guards, it took us all of five minutes to complete and left us somewhat empty. Reunited with General Carrington on the cable car however, we found ourselves wound up in a much more enterprising concoction.
As the car swings down an icy hillside and Carrington jokes about XIII's recent exploits, the duo come under fire from a band of heavily armed undesirables on the ground below, including a particularly troublesome miscreant with a rocket launcher. Fiend! With the cable car ready to drop, Carrington heads down the wire to the ground, whilst XIII provides cover. Flicking to zoom mode with the R2 button, we immediately engage the devils below, planting a bullet in the rocket man's forehead and watching it take root through a series of three gruesome boxouts in the top left of the screen. After dispatching two more shooters, we spin round and latch onto the cable above with the grappling hook - just in time to see the car hurtle to the ground. This is more like it.
On the run
Once on the ground, Carrington needs protection as camouflaged troops dart out of the snow drifts and creep from rock to tree firing bursts in our direction. A hail of gunfire later and our assault rifle is spent. Fortunately, the men littering the ground can each be ransacked for weapons and ammunition using the context-sensitive X "grab" button, and even lifted away and secreted, MGS-style, where other guards won't find them. There's no time for that now of course, so we quickly follow the General, fending off more troops in our wake and heading up a hillside towards a compatriot's chopper.
Surprisingly enough, it won't start, so it's up to XIII to out-snipe the pursuing hordes as they crouch behind stacked logs and duck out from behind evergreens. With health numbers tumbling and a finite amount of medical kits (which have to be activated while a weapon is stowed - so much for the FPS tradition of auto-administering survival packs), it's tough going, but with very little ammo left, the final man goes down and we hit the end of the mission. A definite improvement on what we saw at ECTS.
Likewise, the other new level has XIII sneaking around a dry dock clobbering unsuspecting guards with shovels or incapacitating them with a silent crossbow and then stowing their bodies in side rooms, and it trots out every James Bond cliché in the book - an inexplicable submarine, scores of patrolling goons, explosive charges, swinging Tarzan-like from a grapple line and even underwater battles. And rather than firing silly weapons at demonic fish, this time we're firing a harpoon gun at wet-suited henchmen. You don't even need to play it by ear - you can race in all-guns-blazing if you like, tossing grenades over boxes and planting explosives on the anchored sub whilst outmanoeuvring aquatic assassins. If you're that sort of person.
And yet... we still can't quite understand the 'Best of Show' accolade. We can't help but think XIII is being celebrated because elements of what it does are original. We're all for innovation (witness our championing of ICO for a start), but it needs to be put to good use. While XIII is certainly entertaining, it's built in much the same way as any console FPS we've ever encountered. Once you strip away those luscious layers of cartoon visuals, from the onomatopoeic red "Arrrgh!"s that litter the screen as you fire into a swathe of enemy troops, to the thoughtful shading on the player's hands as he reloads a pair of 9mm pistols, the most practical benefits are the way the game highlights enemies as they appear out of nowhere using white outlines, and harnesses its synaesthetic "tap tap tap" idea to show off footsteps on the other side of doors and walls.
Actual genre innovation is pretty thin on the ground in the snapshot we've had of the game - earlier versions had XIII collaring bad guys and using them as human shields, but we can't figure out how to do that in this version, and although breakable and usable objects are always helpfully highlighted with a relevant on-screen icon, that's hardly something you can lead with on the back of the box. We're also a bit worried by the way it feels to play - auto-aim often drags the aiming reticule towards a bad guy, but aiming is a very exact science and the crosshairs and weapons can be stubborn elements.
Admittedly we do think the finished game's storyline and the way it's presented will play a big part in our final judgement. At the moment, plot segments are played out through in-game voice dialogue delivered by key characters, and through cartoon boxes that play between levels. With a rich comic book storyline, which sees XIII waking up in a beach hut having assassinated the president - with no apparent motive or recollection of events - it has every chance of being a narrative delight compared to its contemporary FPS competition, so we're keen not to turn you off the game just yet. With PS2 Online support (and similar options in the other versions), it could turn into a very nicely rounded package.
Ultimately though, we'll be damned if we're going to ride the hype bandwagon on this one thanks to a Perspex star and a few black marker pen outlines. We're not being unduly harsh, we're just disappointed that the XIII we've seen thus far isn't more interesting. Dressed up any other way, it might feel like Chaser or Devastation, neither of which won more than a passing glance from gamers this year - and for good reason. Hopefully when Ubisoft sends us final review code, the game's infamous cel-shaded visuals and cartoon ideas will gel seamlessly with a rewarding storyline and some addictive multiplayer deathmatches. But we would definitely advise you to wait for that review...