Aaaaaaaagh! A henchmen's screams are plastered across the screen in vibrant lettering, as he recoils in a shower of blood while three graphic novel frames zoom in on the metal bolt that has just been shot into his head. If you think that all cartoon cel-shaded games are a bit childish, then rewire your brain immediately - Ubi Soft's XIII (Thirteen) is quite brutal.
Based on an apparently popular Belgian comic book (we'll have to take their word on that because for all we know it's as well-liked as Fred Bassett), XIII is a conspiracy-fuelled first-person thriller that not only uses its unusual graphic novel setting for visual panache, but also for some pretty nifty gameplay twists.
XIII begins with your character waking up on a beach with amnesia, not knowing who he is or why he's suddenly set upon by aggressive persons armed with heavy weapons - the only clue is a key to a safety deposit box and an ominous XIII tattoo etched into his chest. And no it's not the result of a healthy stag night prank. The American president has been assassinated and it soon becomes apparent that you (Mr XIII) has been blamed for it.
We must admit that here at ZONE we were somewhat apprehensive about the game's cartoon-y appearance. After all, who would prefer Xlll's garish textures compared with, say, the gritty WWII settings of Medal Of Honor or the gleaming, hi-tech sci-fi settings of Unreal II? However, within a few minutes of play, you start to realise that this cel-shaded blaster has a sinister undercurrent, with plenty of bloody ultraviolence, slick comic book frames that highlight stealth kills in gory close-up (see You've Been Framed box) and meaty weapons.
Yep, you heard right - the weapons really have a nasty kick, with gutsy sound effects and realistic recoil. Unleash a few rounds of M16 machine gun fire into an area crawling with French-speaking goons (the game has yet to be localised in English) and they fall backwards in pain, collapse in contortions, or fall off high bridges with an Aaaaaaaa following behind them vertically to the ground.
As well as traditional weapons such as your grenades, guns and bazookas, XIII can also pick up and swing certain objects, including chairs and bricks. On one level we used a shard of glass from a broken window, which when thrown, lodged into the temple of a particularly unfortunate guard. After the kill, we picked up the body - one of the many stealth themed devices in the game - and dumped him in an empty room. All good.
As we touched upon earlier, any action in the game is accompanied by visual representations of the sound, such as the Baboom! of an explosion. But the onomatopoeic effect is also used for stealthy gameplay, with XIII able to use a sixth sense that flashes the giveaway tap, tap, tap of any approaching enemy's feet dynamically on-screen.
Xlll's levels are linear with a smattering of none-too-taxing puzzle-solving in between the shooting, including collecting key cards from guards, opening doors, collecting fuses for ski lift mechanisms and rescuing prisoners. One of the best sections we played involved the grappling hook, which can be used to swing between bridges using momentum - beware those with motion-sickness - and lower yourself down dangerous, electricity-spiked lift shafts.
Another cool moment is set on a cliff-top, with cel-shaded waves crashing spectacularly against the rocks below. After mowing down guards by the half-dozen for a while, you encounter one of Xlll's end-of-level bosses - a heavily-armed helicopter gunship, which has to be taken down with a few carefully-aimed rockets.
From the early code we played of XIII, Ubi Soft's cartoon shooter certainly has plenty of va-va-vooom, possessing many neat graphical touches, such as breath from character's mouths in cold levels and dream-like flashback sequences revealing clues about your shadowy past. Some weapons, like the skull-splitting laser-sighted sniper crossbow, is immensely satisfying - as are the numerous improvised weapons you can pick up and twat enemies with. Multiplayer games are planned with deathmatch and Capture The Flag maps, but the French development team is also planning to include a Bar Brawl, where players recreate a Glaswegian bar at closing time by hurling broken bottles, chairs and bricks at each other in Begbie-from-Trainspotting stylee.
Whether PC gamers will accept the deceivingly-kiddie comic book graphics that sit alongside blood-splattering violence, remains to be seen. XIII is already enjoyable and may be a breath of fresh air in the first-person shooter genre, but the planned launch date is September when a small game called Half-Life 2 is due to send mouse/keyboard assassins into spasms of ecstasy...
You've Been Framed
Xiii Gives You A Comic Book Close-Up Of Your Lethal Handiwork
The best bit in XIII is undoubtedly the stealth kills. Tool up with the game's superb crossbow, zoom in on an enemy's head and fire away - the moment a bolt hits them you're presented with a unique three-frame mini-comic of the moment of death. The first frame shows the bolt entering their head; the second zooms in to display their head snapping back; the third sees a full close-up of them screaming in pain with your projectile lodged in their head. Because the panels are rendered in real-time, you'll always get a different sequence depending on how you've seen off your opponent. Apart from being executed with oodles of style, the frames encourage you to use stealth, rather than just steaming through the game with guns blazing.
Processor: PC compatible,
OS: Windows 9x, Windows 2000 Windows XP, Vista, Win 7, Win 8, Win 10.
Game Features:Single game mode