XIII was a first-person shooter not quite like anything I’d ever played. Although it blended many familiar elements, with stealth sections and action sequences providing gameplay familiar to almost anybody who’s picked up a controller, the presentation and the unique pacing of the game made for quite an anomalous experience, one that has stuck in my mind since I first played it in 2003. Wow, that was back when Ubisoft was among my favorite publishers, as opposed to the blackhearted enemy of all that I hold good and true today.
Based on a Belgian comic book of the same name, XIII is a story of intrigue and conspiracy, as the mysterious Number Thirteen awakens on a beach with no memory and a lot of people who seem to know him — and often want him dead. The plot revolves around the assassination of the president, an event that XIII had some involvement in, and details our hero’s mission to uncover his past and find out exactly why he’s being hunted. The game’s narrative comprised the first five volumes of the comic series, leaving room for a sequel that, unfortunately, never came.
For fans of spy thrillers, XIII’s story is gloriously gratifying. XIII leaves nothing out, playing us through the slower moments of conspiratorial intrigue as well as the bombastic shootouts and explosive chase sequences common in most other FPS games. The adventure is quite happy to feature segments of little more than walking around a space and listening to dialog, as well as some agonizingly punishing and excruciatingly lengthy stealth challenges. In many games, this broken pacing structure would be a dealbreaker, but the action is woven so expertly into the story that it works surprisingly well. Not to mention, it turns those high octane action sequences into something truly rewarding. Few games have nailed such a terrific structure, usually focusing on being all action, all the time, or instead coming off as sluggish and dreary. It’s a hard mix to get right, and XIII got it right.
It’s doesn’t always work, of course. The stealth levels can be, at times, frustratingly harsh. I still remember spending a long and unhappy time crawling around the FBI building in one of the early stages of the adventure. There are many folk these days who only really remember that side of the game, and will gladly tell you how terrible the game was. In many ways, I can’t blame anybody who has ill feelings toward it. It’s a weird little shooter when you look at what it does and how it’s paced. I am not surprised many gamers were put off by it. However, for those with patience and the willingness to do the kind of James Bond shit that actual James Bond games never let you do, then XIII is truly a masterpiece of interactive spy fiction.
Of course, one can’t discuss XIII without detailing the visuals. Utilizing the cel-shaded visuals that were incredibly popular at the turn of the century, XIII took its comic book roots to heart, even going so far as to throw visual nods to its origins throughout the game. Cutscenes are presented like living comics, while stealth kills are accompanied by in-game panels that flash across the screen to show knives going into eyes or arrows through throats. Written screams of agony will vibrate in the player’s field of view as opponents die, and explosions will be accompanied by cartoon effects. A few games have attempted similar styles over the years, but few did it so elegantly, nor merged it so fluidly into the actual gameplay, as XIII did. Of course, thanks to the cel-shaded approach, the game still looks great and holds up today, unlike so many other titles that were released at the same time.
XIII is also an amusing reminder of a period when David Duchovny was considered a good voice actor, despite having the emotional range of a damp brick. Really, the only state of mind Duchovny can convey is mild boredom, and his voice is the least interesting thing about him. I always laugh when I remember that, post X-Files, the world considered stripping away his visible physical presence, when his lost puppy face is all he had going for him. Still, XIII featured him as the titular star, as did the rather rubbish Area 51, which released around the same time. Fortunately, we have the likes of Adam West to offset Duchovny’s dire mumbling, whose voice should really be listened to by everybody, every day, forever and ever. Amen.
It’s one of those games that so many people remember when it’s mentioned, yet so few think about independently. At once, it remains memorable and forgettable, well-known while oddly obscure. At any rate, it released and disappeared without any official followup, and remains, in my mind, a criminally underrated masterpiece. To date, the only other videogame featuring XIII’s story was a mobile title, Lost Identity. Sadly, it was no real followup to the 2003, existing as its own interactive adventure simply based on the same source material. The only way to find out what happened in XIII’s cliffhanger ending is to read the comics, as it seems highly unlikely we’ll ever get a game sequel. A real shame, as a followup could be amazing with today’s technology.
Still, the original game can be enjoyed in all its glory via GOG.com, where it’s available for $5.99. I plan to spend my weekend steeped in intrigue once more. It’s going to be fun. Frustrating as well … but mostly fun!