Did this cel-shaded shooter make the cut?
Ever since 'XIII's' announcement about one and a half years ago it's been high atop my watch list. I've always found cel shading an attractive alternative to realistic graphics, partially because I love classic cartoons and also, being a resident of reality, I prefer to play elsewhere.
So after several previews and much excitement I finally got my hands on a final reviewable Xbox copy of "XIII." What appealed to me from the beginning still does. The game looks fantastic. Problem is the major gulf between its aesthetics and the gameplay. While it isn't a terrible game, it's become my biggest disappointment of 2003.
Let's start with the good. This is one fine-looking piece of gamemaking. Much has been made about the comic-book look of "XIII," but it's not until you sit down and spend time with it do you catch the little nuances. The character design has an odd sketchy look, as if the black outlines are barely capable of holding its form. The visual signals like "DANGER" in bold letters appearing over a guard's head when he surprises you are perfectly written to denote your surprise. The care that has gone into these visuals is amazing and deserves every bit of praise it's already received.
What's more is that it's not gimmicky, much of this comic-book effect is essential to your survival in the game. You'll see this with the "TAP, TAP, TAP" alerting you to the enemies walking on the other side of a wall. The words move with your enemy and they grow and shrink according to the distance the enemy is from you. Since much of this game is stealth based (more on that later) this is a necessary tool to catch adversaries off guard. In addition, comic panels appear dramatically to indicate several enemies lying in wait for you. It's more of an effect to build tension, but it's still neat.
Now if only the gameplay lived up to this care and attention. For the first few levels, the flaws aren't as apparent. What turns out to be poor design could be written off as easy first levels. Eventually though you realize that your enemies are as stupid as Paris Hilton with a video camera. They all follow highly predictable routines. Once they engage you in a firefight, they love to stand still to help you dispatch them with as little challenge as possible.
The game relies far too heavily on stealth missions, which I think is due to the limited range of the A.I. They shouldn't see you, so don't worry about what the enemies do if you get caught. Stealth levels are typically used to break up run-and gun gameplay and are used sparingly. This is for good reason, because stealth levels take a long time because you're moving slowly. The absurd amount of sneaking around at the end of the game becomes overly tedious and a poor replacement for more exciting gun battles.
Stealth gaming works when a variety of options are available such as in "Splinter Cell" and "Deus Ex." Here, only one path is open to you and your thumbs start to hurt from maintaining a crouch position.
So while I have blasted this game for its gameplay flaws, it's because every step of the way you see the game it could have been. That's frustrating as a reviewer. Truth told, you could play the game all the way through, but it's with a sense of disappointment. The look of the game carries it further than anything else I've seen, and for that I say give it a whirl and use it to hope for something much better the second time round.
Also available on the GameCube, PlayStation 2, and PC