The Netbook Gamer: XIII (2003, FPS)

Wait – wasn’t XIII called out specifically in this article a couple of months ago? Yep – but through perseverance I managed to get it uninstalled and re-installed and properly running … so naturally I played it again and am here – well, quite frankly I’m here to stop you from bothering!

XIII is one of those milestone games that tells a good and bad tale from my gaming life. I was very interested in this game based on what it offered – a quality FPS presented in a stylistic graphic novel presentation with a compelling story of mystery and intrigue that would require gamers to use their brains as well as their trigger fingers.

Of course, anyone who has played the game knows it is really not all that great. Sure, it has style. Certainly, it has an interesting way of laying out the story. But after you get past those, you are left with a pretty average shooter which makes use of entirely too many gaming clich├ęs.

Once I got the game re-installed and made it through the exciting opening sequence and through the first level, I was really pumped up. The game looks great on the netbook and performs wonderfully. As I mentioned, it uses a cel-shaded graphic novel style, including pop-out frames for head-shots and falling deaths and other notable events.

When I bought the game originally it came with a soundtrack CD, and the music is sort of techno-house-jazz-funk loop-based stuff from ‘Future Primitive Sound’. The music stayed around longer on my iPod than the game did on my hard drive, and the CD is still in my car for occasional listening.

The first few levels are really well done – decent design, good use of tension, nice set pieces, and an overall sense of intrigue and immersion. Some great voice work by Adam West helps the overall feel … while dreadfully flat voice acting by David Duchovny did NOT. As I listened to his voice in-game, I recalled that many folks were excited because of his work from the recently concluded TV series The X-Files. Sadly what we saw in that series didn’t translate into particularly good voice acting – which was all too common back then, but has improved with more and more actors doing animated pieces and working with CGI sets and other non-action settings.

The save system – checkpoints without a ‘save anywhere’ or even quick save ability – was widely criticized when the game was released. And for good reason – for a game that was targeted primarily as a PC release, this was a decidedly console-centric save system. Of course, now such things are commonplace – though still idiotic – but back then it was a major gripe for many. I found it annoying but nothing more – heck, it was less of a flaw in my eyes than the lackluster weapons, overly simplistic combat, or boring level design that plagued the majority of the game!

At some point, and I really can’t pinpoint it because it felt very gradual, XIII became a very cut-and-dried shooter with a very generic feel, and all of the cool styling in the world couldn’t have helped it. It got refreshing for a little while as you got the crossbow and during a few different battle and stealth sequences, but never did the game live up to the promise of that first hour or so …

So why do I consider it a milestone? Three reasons: style, timing and cross-platform compatibility. Let me explain.

The style part is obvious – this game had an innovative look and feel that hadn’t really been done before. Since then the cel-shaded approach has found great success including 2009’s Borderlands, and the pop-out frames have been done in a variety of ways.

In terms of timing, during the summer of 2003 I really hit my stride in terms of ‘game anticipation’. Prior to that there was the rare game that I really looked forward to before release, but they all made sense – I anticipated ‘Return to Castle Wolfenstein’ as I had been playing ‘Castle Wolfenstein’ on my Apple ][+ many years before; I looked forward to ‘Jedi Knight II’ as a Star Wars fan and lover of the previous games in the series.

But after my kids got old enough that I had some more free gaming time I started to keep track of what was coming, and prior to the release of ‘Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic’ I was also getting into RPG’s as well as FPS. I was regularly ‘talking’ with like-minded groups of gamers all over the world, and many of us were looking forward to XIII as what seemed to be an interesting variation on the shooter theme. But the demo put questions in my head … it just didn’t seem all that compelling. So I put the game on my Christmas list, and when I got it I played straight through. It was a pretty decent game, and occasionally loads of fun.

What about cross-platform compatibility? Ever since the Apple ][+, I’ve maintained some sort of Apple link … especially for music stuff, as the best MIDI options have always been Mac programs. But for a number of years my gaming had been PC-centric. Once Apple launched the ‘TiBook’ – the high performance Titanium Powerbook G4 series – I grabbed one and was able to do hard disk recording as well as ‘modern’ gaming. So I started collecting up games … and then, beginning in late 2002 with the release of Jedi Knight II for the Mac, I started my habit of ‘dual purchasing’ games. This meant that if I liked a game I would have it for both Mac and PC. So games like Deus Ex (the *real* one), Baldur’s Gate 1 & 2, Fallout 1 & 2, NWN, KotOR, Soldier of Fortune II, Elite Force I & II, Jedi Academy, etc … I got for both platforms, and was in many cases able to transfer files. The bottom line was that I preferred using the Mac because of the tremendous design and quality of the hardware and OS, but ‘needed’ the games way before they came to the Mac.

But by the time XIII came out for the Mac things had started to change – the Mac hardware hadn’t kept up, but mainly it was that with my greater interest in RPG and handheld games I simply couldn’t justify the purchases … especially when a game like KotOR had pretty marginal performance on the Mac compared to the PC. So I decided to skip XIII for the Mac. But yet I kept an eye on eBay for bargains … why?!?! I really don’t know … but it ended up becoming one of the reasons I started up my ‘Gaming Resolutions‘ – to remind myself to keep away from junk. As I said there, if you don’t like enough to replay it on one platform, don’t buy it on another!

Since then Mac gaming has seen a resurgence thanks to the switch to Intel processors, Cider-compatibility (mixed blessing) and the recent release of Steam for Mac. Sadly, XIII is one of those games which were designed for OS X but only on Power PC processors, so while it will ‘run’ on an Intel system, reports of folks who have tried are that it works poorly under the Rosetta emulation system.

Today I uninstalled XIII from my netbook as I prepared to say goodbye to the last system I own running Windows XP, which means this will likely be the last time I ever play XIII. I even replayed a couple of levels ‘for old times sake’, and it is interesting, but quickly tiresome – it has good music, really cool visuals, a nice style, and not much else.

But yet it stays with me more than many other games – even games that are much better. It holds some specific good memories from a group of gamers who rarely keep in touch any more, and also a cautionary tale I come back to frequently … and even if the game isn’t so good, at least I can be proud remembering it for those other things.

RetroGamer Perspective: The visual style alone makes it a game that comes up pretty often in gaming discussions about graphics and innovative style. However, it also quickly comes up in ‘games that failed to live up to expectations’ chats. Nobody cares about ever playing this game again.

Netbook Gamer Perspective:

– Digital Download / CD version? – The CD version is long since out of stock for PC, but can be found for cheap on game trading sites (as can the GameCube and PS2 versions). GamersGate has the PC digital download version available.

– Installation Notes: The game installs quickly from the GamersGate file, with no serial number or activation required. The 3-CD version originally came with a bug that caused it to call for the wrong CD to complete installation and start the game, a real hassle at the time!

– Disk Space Requirements: full-install takes ~2.4GB.

– CD Required to Play? Yes – the CD version requires the disk in the drive to play, though as mentioned the original release made a guessing game out of exactly which disk was needed (hint: it was NOT the one labeled ‘Play Disk’). Fortunately the GamersGate version has no special requirements.

– Control Considerations? XIII is a very standard shooter, with a typical set of WASD-centric controls.

– Will it run on a VIA C7? Yes!

– Will it run with 1GB RAM? Yes!

– Special Considerations for running in Windows XP / Vista / Win 7? On the GamersGate site it explicitly states that XIII is only compatible with Windows ME/2000/XP and NOT Windows 7. I can confirm that … and while it doesn’t say anything about Vista, it is unlikely to work on that sorry excuse for an operating system either.

– Compatible versions for other OS such as Linux or Mac OS? XIII was released for the Mac in mid-2004, but works best on PowerPC based Mac systems as the Rosetta compatibility on Intel systems is poor.

– Notes on the Digital Version: The GamersGate digital version is the most up-to-date release, and works well on the non-standard netbook screen orientation.

Conclusion: XIII got more praise for graphics than gameplay, with some reviewers saying that were it not for unique style it would have been boring. Let me correct that – the game IS boring in spite of the unique graphic style! And that style remains unique and impressive to this day, but the overall experience wasn’t impressive in 2003 and is even less so now. It is a real shame, since the methods used making it feel like a graphic novel full of interesting characters and political intrigue SHOULD have produced an amazing game, but what we got was more like ‘blah, blah, blah, too little time with interesting character, blah, blah, boss battle … rinse & repeat to the final fight’.

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