A varied and decent FPS, graced by a unique art style and soundtrack, but littered with annoying gameplay mechanics and unfortunately poor PC scaling performance.
The first impressions
XIII’s been on my radar for a while after seeing a Gggmanlives video on it ages ago. It seemed like an interesting game to play, especially given that it was some obscure early 2000s shooter by Ubisoft Paris of all studios. It had one sequel in 2011, and a remake in 2020, but it never really got mentioned in any way otherwise to me. So to me, it’d be an interesting ride at least.
The first thing I experienced when starting the game is that you cannot change the screen resolution beyond a 4:3 aspect ratio without going into the config, and then you had to manually adjust the FOV in the config again to make it feel comfortable. It’s not unheard of, but it’s an extra step, and a little odd given that this game runs on the Unreal Engine 2; an engine that certainly has games that support non-4:3 aspect ratios fairly decently. Fortunately there was an unofficial patch 22.214.171.124 linked on PCGW that set up the 16:9 ratio okay (although I still had to tweak the config to get to 2560x1440). Afterwards, it was apparent that the menus were not scaling, taking up a smaller square region in the centre of my screen. While not an issue at first, later on I felt that I was struggling to read the health counters in the bottom left of the screen while playing, resulting in a couple of unfortunate deaths.
But the biggest issue of running at this custom resolution is unfortunately how various visual effects do not properly handle any resolution above 640x480. There’s a sequence immediately as the game starts where you have to walk down a beach following a woman while being very dazed from waking up. The game tries to do a blur effect by layering the rendered scene onto the screen multiple times with different transparency levels. But these post-processing layers were obviously written to work under a fixed resolution which means you as a player see a very low resolution view with incredibly jagged (but filtered) pixels, which then gets blurred even further as part of the effect. Then as the game tries to bring your character back into consciousness, the game suddenly snaps the effect off and looks perfectly fine at the monitor’s target resolution. This blurry effect happens also with the various flashback sequences in the game, as well as for any overlayed comic book panel that frequently shows up for added effect.
But I’m probably overstating the severity of that effect, because you’ll quickly put it aside to focus on the story. The game starts with a full motion video cutscene of the fictional president being assassinated, an evil guy saying “Number XIII will no longer be a problem”, a military guy talking about leading his own investigation, and then you waking up on a beach. You quickly pick up a throwing knife and a pistol, and get started taking out the people ambushing you. The game’s cel-shaded art style takes full centre stage immediately with its hard shadows providing strong contrast on the player’s hands. This is complemented by the sunset on the beach dock, resulting in a slightly dimmed and orange colour palette, lit mildly by lamps highlighting the way. Enemies pop up on ledges, and the game highlights them with a red rectangle and a sound to help indicate that they’re up there, and shooting them down results in a comic book panel overlay showing them falling down to the ground with floating letters spelling AAAAAHHHH as they go. It all comes at you fast, and it’s a great way to get the game going immediately.
The level ends with you reaching a car, and you begin another level at the bank, where you follow some people into your vault. You get a flashback sequence once your inside showing that you had set up a bomb, only to spring upon it now in the present time. These flashback sequences provide some level of intrigue early on in the game, but it feels clear not too long into the game that there’s not as much mystery as I had hoped. The main character having amnesia does allow the story to go in some more interesting routes early on, but he figures things out fairly quickly, and unfortunately the villains are very obviously villains and have no secret there.
The rest of the bank level introduces the other component to the game: stealth. You have to not kill the guards by slamming them with chairs and brooms, and, while you can run up and slap them, you ideally want to crouch and get closer to them first. The game tries to indicate unaware guards by showing a TAP every step they make, but I did find it easier to just learn the patterns the hard way in more cases than not. You also get to take a person hostage, which allows you to walk through an area with the guards eyeing you but not shooting. Unless you turn 90 degrees to the side, which then they immediately open fire, probably hitting whoever you’ve held hostage.
Afterwards, you’re arrested by the FBI for supposedly murdering the president, and you escape out, again, by stealthing past all the FBI guards. It’s complicated a bit by having guys you actually need to shoot in the mix, but the section is fairly short, so I never found it an issue to try and spot which people my crosshair told me not to shoot, and which people I had to. You then get a grappling hook (which controls fairly well since you get to control your momentum fairly easily), and you get to use a sniper rifle and a rocket launcher on your escape down to the ground. You then get taken to a Siberian military complex to rescue a General, and escape on a cable car, with a part at the end where you man a mounted turret while a helicopter gets fixed.
Shortly after this section, you get captured and taken to a mental asylum, where one of the boss villains shows up at the end. It was an interesting fight as he takes a disturbing amount of bullets, while trying to run up to you and stab you with needles. It’s not hard, but it begins to highlight a major issue with this game: the checkpoints. You cannot manually save; pressing the quicksave key just writes to a file where you were at the last checkpoint, and most levels consist of a few checkpoints. I think the furthest a checkpoint was for me was maybe 4 minutes of solid gameplay, so they’re fairly frequent. But annoyingly, in this scenario and a few others, you have to do a boss fight, only to then have a precarious sequence afterwards that’s easy to fail. In this case it’s moving a hostage out of some hallways while lots of people come at you from many angles. In other cases it’s a stealth section that’s a bit too easy to fail. Ironically, I found the easiest way to do the hostage scenario was to ditch the hostage and just start shooting people one at a time again, against the game’s desires. But then the cutscene at the end had the hostage driving the ambulance out of the place so I’m not sure what the game intended.
The rest of the game now involves taking out various significant members of the 20, a secret society of people who were probably behind the assassination; I wasn’t really too sure how this organisation came to be, they’re just presented like they’re the villains and that’s that. You head off down a canyon, to a military base, onto a submarine, off into a docking bay, into a hotel where you conduct an FBI sting, into an old chateau where you come across a KKK meeting (I dunno, probably to indicate that the villains are still evil), and finally into a secret government base to protect the next president for one last showdown with the big villains. There’s a surprising number of stealth sections throughout this game, for example, you can’t be seen in the military base, or the Siberian base, or the submarine, or the hotel, or the KKK meeting, or the government base. I think out of the 32 maps in the game, about 12 of them have a stealth section of some kind. Sometimes you’re able to kill the enemies with a crossbow or silenced pistol, but sometimes you have to resort to the chair and broom method again. But you fortunately get a bit of leeway as getting detected only counts if an enemy runs over and hits a button. This is a problem in the submarine level though, where enemies are on walkways above you all over the place, allowing them to see you through the ground, and hit the button where they are, while you’re unable to shoot through the walkways to stop them.
The other uncomfortable part of the game is the actual gunplay itself. Since every enemy fires a weapon of some kind at you, you’re not really encouraged to go up too close to enemies unless you’re in a very tight interior location. Early on that’s okay for the shotgun, but I found it was so inadequate at taking down enemies before they could hit me in more scenarios than not. The pistol and the revolver were surprisingly good at doing long range kills, and coupled with the crossbow and sniper rifle, they seemed alright. Strangely, you get an M4 rifle with an underslug grenade launcher at various points in the game, but the accuracy was so abysmal on it. I’d burst fire carefully, and I’d struggle to get one kill before having to reload. I preferred the quicker kills of the pistol, even though I had to reload more often with that. On the flip side, you get an M50 LMG, which seems to immediately kill enemies after a few taps, work at a long range, and not need to reload too often, and that ended up being my goto weapon in many cases.
You’re provided with a decent number of health kits throughout the game, some small ones that only recover 25 health, and some larger ones that recover 75 health. You don’t have to eat these up right away; you’re allowed to carry 5 of each as you go, and they often carry over between levels too, so I never felt too outclassed to heal until the final two bosses of the game. Unfortunately, there were times I did just suddenly die because enemies decided to get a bit too lucky with their blind fire, taking down half of my health in a few frames just by spraying down a long dockside or some similar scenario. This sudden and inconsistent difficulty got rather annoying throughout the game, especially when your weapons are taken away from you arbitrarily between levels. For example, before the canyon levels, I had a pistol, an M4, and a shotgun. Then the canyon level presented me with only my M4, forcing me to struggle in defeating enemies.
I explicitly mentioned the last two bosses because they get to use some incredibly powerful weapons against you, and since you can’t hit them without them being able to hit you, you have to just trial and error get lucky with your poor accuracy weapons until you just so happen to defeat them. And the bosses end up becoming more bullet spongey as the game goes on unfortunately. I like the idea of having these bosses as milestones in the story but they seem to never feel like proper challenges; either being incredibly weak or too dumb strong.
Lastly, the level design is a little top heavy. I think it’s very strong at the beginning with levels like the bank, and the military base, which gracefully guide you throughout the levels with enemies and open doors without holding your hand a lot. But later on, they sometimes get a bit too cryptic for my liking. There’s a part late in the game where you can see a panel where you have to find a Tetris block shaped key to activate it, and there’s only two rooms so not much to look for, but I kept going back and forth so many times until I discovered that there’s a false wall panel which reveals the key. It’s the only time in the game there even is a false panel, but it happens. There was another time earlier on where you had to identify that there was a bush that you could walk through to continue the level as well.
Overall though, I think the highs in this game are a bit infrequent, and the more frustrating parts seem to stay a bit too long afterwards. But, there’s a decent 7 hour campaign in there, and it’s certainly an interesting game nonetheless. The visuals have aged a bit but they style can still easily be felt, and the gameplay’s weakest parts are more to do with the more ambitious parts of the game, and not the things that it followed with other contemporary games of its time. The soundtrack is pretty good, giving that dramatic spy sensation, and there’s a bunch of variety in the settings of the game. It’s not perfect, and it’s not absolutely amazing either, but it’s got some charm, and, with a bit of perseverance, can be enjoyed a bit today. But only a bit; you will experience those frustrations and it unfortunately does last throughout the game, offsetting some of the better aspects a bit too much.