French comics are popular. Sure, in the US we think of Asterix as the beginning and end of the French comic, but all over the rest of the world les bandes desinees are regarded as some of the best work being done. Artists such as Moebius have gotten some US airtime in Heavy Metal, which itself began as a French comics magazine, but that exposure has been marginal at best. And imports that made it over in animated form, such as the Smurfs and Mon Chi Chi, don't really do justice to the creative culture. Since we in the US have been deprived of this unique tradition, what better way to get a little more attention for French comics than to turn one of the most popular into a videogame?
XIII is a cel-shaded FPS built on the next-gen Unreal engine and based on the comic series of the same name written by Jean van Hamme and drawn by William Vance. Cel-shading has been used to good effect in games like Jet Set Radio, but this year we saw a lot of games at E3 using cel-shading to create a wide variety of graphic aesthetics. XIII illustrates one of the more unique takes on the technique. Although the graphics are cel-shaded, they don't look like cartoons ? they look much more like modern French comics art. As such, although the aesthetics are unique, they feel right for the story and they do help elicit a comic book "vibe". XIII doesn't just rely on feeling like a comic book to attract gamers ? after all, if gamers wanted to read comics they would ? but it uses the visual style to remain true to the mood and feeling of the original narrative.
The story sums up something like this: As the lead character, you awake on a beach. You remember nothing about your life previous to this point, and the only clues you have are a key to a safe deposit box and a mysterious tatoo that reads, "XIII" on your shoulder. As you play, you begin to unravel both the mystery of your past and your present. You quickly realize that you are a highly trained operative involved in a plot against the US government. However, as you reconstruct your past (through playable flashbacks) it becomes apparent that there is a larger conspiracy going on and you must determine exactly which side you're actually on. The plot returns to one of the most popular conspiracies of the 20th Century: Who killed JFK? XIII leans toward the multinational corporate concerns working with mafia and renegade US Army personnel explanation. The twisting plotline has entertained French audiences for a long time, and it's sure to build a dynamic videogame narrative.
XIII is termed an FPS stealth shooter. This is not a run-and-gun kind of game; rather it asks you to proceed deliberately and seek out solutions for problems that don't necessarily involve emptying a clip of ammo. Your character is such a highly trained operative that you have a sixth sense to help you in detecting enemies. The comic motif is carried through in the form of onomatopoetic flourishes. For example, hit an enemy and a "boff" or "pow" might appear above his head. Were these effects done the wrong way they could make XIII seem like an episode of the Batman television series starring Adam West. However, the onomatopoetic effects are also used to aid your stealth. If an enemy is walking down a hall towards you, you may be able to detect a "tap" faintly on the wall. As the enemy approaches, the "tap" gets more opaque and you can guage when he will round the corner, thereby setting up your stealthy maneuver to get rid of him.
Providing a fluid narrative structure is crucial to XIII, and that means the game strives to make narrative scenes as unobtrusive as possible. You will encounter flashbacks that flesh out your personal history, and these will be playable. In fact, according to statements made by Julien Bares, the producer of XIII, players will be able to breeze through the flashbacks fairly quickly or linger in them to really get the full backstory. The protagonist's amnesia is also useful for making encounters with non-player characters more believable, thereby making the story flow smoothly.
Also involved in producing a flowing narrative structure is interactivity. If we are to surrender ourselves to a story environment, it must be one we can inhabit as fully as possible. XIII allows you to use most inanimate objects as weapons and manipulate them. That means if you run out of ammo in a fight you can always pick up a bottle and break it or throw a chair at your opponent. You can even grab enemies and use them as human shields to make it through tough battles.
And don't think the makers of XIII have forgotten that we like to shoot things and blow stuff up. The basic lineup of munitions will be available, from pistols to machine guns and sniper rifles. Silent weapons such as a crossbow and harpoon gun are also essential, since stealth is an important part of the game. Combined with the possibility of turning environmental objects into weapons, there should be more than a dozen ways to skin these cats.
Gameplay on all systems will be pretty similar. The PC version will support up to 32 player online play and include a map editor with the game. Currently, XIII is listed as a game supporting the Xbox Live network, and, reportedly, online multiplayer is also a possibility for the other console systems. However, all consoles should get a full complement of multiplayer options including bots, lots of maps, and other customizations.
XIII looks like a trend-setting narrative-oriented FPS, and we should all get to play it in early 2003.
Screens shown in preview are from PC version.