Today's your unlucky day.
Ever wonder why 13 is considered an unlucky number? While those under 20 will swear it's all because of Jason Voorhies, he's actually the wrong guy to blame. The right guy, it turns out, is Judas, the betrayer of Jesus at the Last Supper. When Judas sat down at the table it became a party of 13, thus the number became synonymous with evil. And did I mention the holy carpenter was crucified on a Friday? Chalk another one up for the Christians.
"But wait," scream the Viking readers, "we've been scared of 13 for longer than that!" And it's true. In Norse mythology (which pre-dates Christianity), those lovable barbarians in funny hats were scared of 13 because of a story about a banquet in Valhalla for 12 gods. Loki, god of strife and party-crashing, indeed crashed the party and wound up killing Balder, perhaps the nicest of the gods. Yep, Loki was the 13th god there. Coincidence? We'll have to ask Odin.
In many other cultures, however, 13 is actually considered a good, happy, sexy number, like a 7 with more curves. Buddhists pay homage to 13 buddhas and the Mayans worshipped 13 upper gods. Jewish boys enjoy their coming-of-age Bar Mitzvah when they turn 13. And I swear I twice nailed 13 on a roulette table at Harrah's in Tahoe.
Well, add the French to that list of those who embrace 13, because that's where Ubisoft's new game, XIII, comes from. Unlike the relatively unheard of comic book series, this first-person shooter has enjoyed a wealth of hype thanks to its slick graphical style. The final result is admittedly pretty, yet ultimately, a boring experience.
You play as a tortured soul codenamed XIII, who may or may not have been the trigger man in a shady conspiracy to kill the president. You're not entirely sure who you are, but everyone else seems to have one idea or another, and from there the story unfolds into a complex web of undercover double-crosses and two-faced counter-betrayals. Or something.
The story is actually a good one and carries the single-player game well, but the big selling point of XIII is its cel-shaded comic book graphical style. It's presented much like a graphic novel, with lots of paneled cut scenes to move it along. The in-game visuals are a treat, complete with pop-up Batman exclamations like BANG and WHOOSH for explosions and the classic AARGH! when an enemy dies. The models are a little simplistic and the lip-synching is off, but the colors are bright and exciting and the textures aren't half bad, though the game is clearly most comfortable on the Xbox while the PS2 is a bit blurrier.
The audio features a star-studded voice-talent lineup, including conspiracy theorist David Duchovny as XIII, hip hop starlet Eve as your helper bee and the caped crusader himself, Adam West, as a general. They all do a good enough job and a nice jazzy score helps set the spy mood.
It's too bad XIII's linear single-player game isn't nearly as thrilling as the delivery. You basically go from mission to mission shooting bad guys in very typical first-person fashion using a standard assortment of weaponry. Pistols, a sniper rifle, assault rifle, machine gun, rocket launcher – staples of the trade, but none of which pack much visceral punch. The crossbow is probably the best of the bunch because of a cool little paneled sequence that triggers when you successfully snipe a guy with it.
But by and large, you won't need to stay very far back from your enemies because they're pretty dumb. They'll occasionally roll out of the way, but they rarely seek cover and never exhibit any interesting strategies beyond standing there and shooting at you. They also tend to pop up from out of nowhere since the game is so tightly scripted; you'll think you're in the clear when you push a button, and suddenly three guys come running up behind you from out of thin air.
Even so, XIII is quite easy thanks to solid control and an abundance of armor, medkits and ammo. You'll rarely find yourself in much trouble, aside from some of the missions that force you to sneak along and stay out of sight. There's no meter for this and it isn't readily clear why or how an enemy will notice your presence and run to sound an alarm, which in some cases will lead to instant failure.
At least the environments are varied, from typical corridor shooting levels to a snowy wilderness to a mental ward and even the inside of a submarine. Though the gameplay gets pretty repetitive, the different locations help make each level distinct.
All three console versions support split-screen multiplayer and the ability to play with bots, which is a nice touch even if the bots are as stupid as the main game AI. The four-player split-screen holds up well enough on the Xbox and Gamecube, but the PS2 only supports two.
However, both the Xbox and PS2 feature online play in the form of Deathmatch, Capture the Flag and two platform-exclusive modes. The Xbox gets Sabotage, a sort of Counter-strike style game in which one team defends checkpoints while the other team tries to blow them up. The PS2 sees Power-Up, an alternate form of Deathmatch that evens the playing field by giving better power-up items to worse players. While both work well enough, the maps aren't very good and the experience isn't notably different from the other first-person shooters out there. The weapons aren't diverse enough to give the multiplayer much strategy beyond utilizing your run-of-the-mill fragfest skills.
And despite its groovy style, XIII isn't much more than a run-of-the-mill game. Its presentation is definitely worthy of a look (particularly if you own an Xbox) but its gameplay is about as straightforward - and in some cases boring - as it gets for an FPS. Maybe they would have had more success if they named it XIV…