Format: Playstation 2 Genre: First Person Shooter Released: 2003 Developer: Ubisoft
OK, let’s get this out of the way first: I’m not saying that XIII is one of the greatest games of all time – in fact, it’s not even one of the greatest first person shooters of all time – but I enjoyed playing it immensely. The reason? The utterly sublime soundtrack.
Music and sound effects aren’t often what people single out when they praise a game, but a really good soundtrack can elevate any game beyond the ordinary – one of the reasons I didn’t enjoy Perfect Dark as much as GoldenEye was that it lacked the aural finery of its spiritual predecessor (although as GoldenEye had a licensed soundtrack, perhaps that’s not the best example of musical creativity). The basic gameplay of XIII is fairly uninspired FPS fare, but the original score really draws you into the action.
The music is obviously inspired by classic seventies action films such as Bullitt and The French Connection (listen to ‘The Big Chase’ here to see what I mean), and it reacts dynamically to what you’re doing on screen – open a door to a roomful of baddies and suddenly the bass kicks in and the hammond organ steps up a notch as the bullets go flying. One reviewer described the soundtrack as ‘jazzaphonic electronic tripped out funkuphoria‘ (try finding that section in HMV), and he’s certainly on the right track, if perhaps the victim of the NME disease of making up random meaningless but slightly cool-sounding words.
The other major plus point was the plot – not something you often hear said about first person shooters. The game is based on a French graphic novel of the same name, and it’s a little like 24 in the sense that it revolves around a conspiracy to kill the president – the major difference being that the president’s already been assassinated before the game starts, so it’s more of a race to unravel the nefarious plans of those involved. Initially it borrows heavily from The Bourne Conspiracy (the novel of which was released a couple of years before the XIII graphic novel), with your character waking up on a beach with no memory of his past but with the key to a bank vault in his pocket. You’re rescued by a blonde female lifeguard in the classic Baywatch get-up, but almost as soon as she introduces herself she’s gunned down in cold blood by your unknown pursuers. I actually found this bit surprisingly affecting – there’s no shortage of shootings in most video games, but usually the characters on the receiving end are evil assassins/criminals/robots/ninjas… it’s not often you witness the heartless killing of an innocent whose only crime was to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Other parts of the game are less successful – some of the level design is uninspired and the bosses in particular are badly thought out. For example, why does some random military general take several minutes longer than an average grunt to keel over under gunfire? Do they get some sort of armored undersuit on promotion? Also, I seem to remember the cel-shaded graphics didn’t go down too well on the game’s release – I think a lot of people were put off by the cartoony look at a time when most ‘serious’ first person shooters were moving towards realism. I admit that the cel-shading does seem an odd decision at first – and it really dates the game to that time in the early 2000s when cel-shading was all the rage – but I think it suits the overall feel quite well once you get used to it.
Still, despite XIII‘s shortcomings, the plot was good enough to keep me hooked to the end – and even made me buy another copy of the game. Frustratingly, a scratch developed on my first copy which meant it crashed about two-thirds of the way through, and I ended up scouring eBay for a working version just so I could find out what happened in the end. In fact, I enjoyed the story so much I’ve even got the original graphic novel on order…
But in the end, whenever I think about XIII, it’s not the intricate plot that pops into my head – it’s that ‘jazzaphonic’ seventies action film soundtrack. Have a listen for yourself:
(Screenshots from http://www.armchairempire.com/)