Friday, 17 February 2006

Cel-shaded Conspiracy

XIII Preview
With the imminent release of the Macintosh port, it’s IMG’s “raison d’ĂȘtre” to tackle the daunting task of another hands on preview courtesy of those fine folks at Feral Interactive. And a rare chance for this comic book fan (and former fine art student), with a predilection for the darkness of an American McGee's Alice, to experience an interactive 3D graphic novel (graphic novel was a term coined by Will Eisner; comic book with high quality storyline and artwork)!

If 'Retro Chic' found favour in the quirky No One Lives Forever (a veritable pastiche on UK television's The Avengers) and its first sequel, XIII takes the First Person Shooter (FPS) into the labyrinth of 1920s to 1950s inspired Dark Deco!

Bourne Again
Acclaimed French/Canadian developer UbiSoft serves up a self-referential cocktail in which film director Doug Liman’s The Bourne Identity stars X-Files superstar David Duchovny (as the titular character). And Adam West (General Carrington), television’s 1960's Batman, returns to a setting that acknowledges the source medium that made him an international cult star - comics.

XIII is a complex story of betrayal and intrigue based on the original French comics by Belgian's William Vance and Jean Van Hamme (who took part in the production of the game). The XIII comic series is replete with Byzantine plots that would delight even the most demanding fan of ABC’s award-winning Alias television show.

JFK
The President of the United States has been assassinated, and everyone (most notably large guys with guns) possesses a compelling argument that you did it - even you're not sure! As the story unfolds, you'll learn more about your mysterious past, discovering that you are number XIII (shades of Patrick McGoohan's seminal TV series The Prisoner) of The Twenty, a mysterious shadow organization, the group that perpetually want to see you dead - there's no chance to discuss 'issues' over cappuccino in a virtual Starbucks. Your eventual goal will be to clear your name of all charges (if only you could remember your name…), and get to the bottom of the conspiracy.

So it's clear that the story is a little more involved than, say, the riveting backstory behind Doom! To do the job, you'll have the usual array of weapons and gadgets. There are 13 standard weapons, including crossbows, assault rifles, and rocket launchers, each with an alternative-fire mode. You'll need to choose your weapons and tactics carefully, though, because you can only hang onto four weapons at a time.

Sans Solo
XIII is not entirely flying solo as he is accompanied, at key stages, by Major Jones, a sassy female operative voiced by multimedia diva Eve. During these stages XIII will have to battle enemies while receiving covering fire from Jones and vice versa. So be prepared for some bombastic fire fights with other characters as you progress through the game.

As a counterpoint to the adventures with Major Jones. Adam West’s General Carrington is bereft of any armoury, so it’s your duty to act as human shield during the rescue mission!

On top of the world
From the Baywatch opening (not the O.C?) to rooftops and snowy mountains, the Mac gaming tourists amongst you will be well served as you unearth that most post-modern of questions – Who am I?

Enter the Manga Dimension
Sometimes referred to as Manga Dimension or non-photorealistic rendering (NPR), cel-shading arguably entered the video game lexicon in the seminal Jet Set Radio Future (JSRF) (From Sega development team Smilebit) and, perhaps most famously, changed the look of Link in Nintendo's The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. XIII (Thirteen) witnesses cel-shading's maturation in the over populated FPS genre!

Cel-shading is much more than a superficial stylistic treatment in XIII; it underscores the game’s comic book roots and (excuse the terrible pun) is a marvel to behold! For example when an enemy appears, he'll get a close-up panel (a comic book convention sometimes referred to as a box or frame) of where he is, so you can home in on his exact location. A direct kill will witness his timely demise in delicious close-up and includes the obligatory "AARRGH!" (literally known as a sound effect by comic book artists)!

Gore
While not on a par with the visceral thrills of a Resident Evil, XIII splatters stylised blood in a manor akin to Grand Theft Auto (GTA). This title is not recommended for the faint hearted or younger players - an audience it adroitly askews.

Battling the Dark Side
The single player (SP) mode serves a solid storyline encompassing 13 missions (which cover 34 levels) that should take around 25 hours to complete (depending on the player's prowess). However, the multiplayer (MP) option secures greater repeat play value since it combines all the modes present in the PS2, GameCube, and PC and XBOX iterations. And the crowning achievement is that all too elusive Holy Grail - Mac vs. PC conflict!

It must be noted that Bot AI in SP mode isn't showcased in a glowing manner here, but MP Bot engagements can get intense!

God is in the detail
Although my preview hardware was within the minimum system requirements (Mac OS X 10.3.3, 800 MHz iMac G4, 512 MB RAM and GeForce 2MX), sound was choppy and poorly synced. The sound effects are all in a real time. Therefore evincing the need for more powerful hardware such as nVIDIA's GeForce FX 5200 Ultra and ATi Radeon 9800 Pro cards.

Adorned in the stylistic trappings of the graphic novel tradition and powered by Epic games’ UnrealEngine2 (a.k.a. Unreal Warfare Engine); Ubi Soft invested 2 years of R&D! XIII promises to deliver a unique, if not signature, FPS experience for those gamers whose hardware can smoothly run Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell and the Unreal Tournament franchise.

Feral Interactive sent IMG a preview based on a very robust beta build (1.0 RC5), which is the current version being tested by Ubi Soft. Last minute tweaks and installation changes (my preview copy was sent on 3 CDs) notwithstanding, it gave this reviewer an excellent insight into what to expect. The retail edition of XIII will bow on a single DVD. Feral Interactive's Edwin Smith kindly shed light on the decision to adopt the DVD medium:

• To preclude the need for a multi CD ROM release
• Only one installer needed
• Nice and clean look and feel with 1 disk, which is more "Mac like"
• Add enhanced video files with higher file sizes, desktops and even other demos to a game DVD
• Anti-Piracy