Mobile Menu

XIII (2003) – A Conspiracy Still Worth Unravelling

Last month, the cautiously anticipated remake of Ubisoft and Southend Interactive’s cult classic FPS XIII was released to a chorus of angry booing and many thrown vegetables. It currently holds an “OVERWHELMINGLY NEGATIVE” user rating on Steam. Clearly, something went wrong. But rather than paying up to find out just how wrong, why not spend a fraction of the price on the readily available 2003 original? Seriously, it’s right there.


Who? What? Why?

Based on a series of Belgian graphic novels, XIII opens with the amnesia-stricken protagonist washed up on a beach. The only clues to his identity are hazy flashbacks of getting shot off a boat, and a tattoo of the eponymous Roman numeral. The sudden appearance of heavily armed mercenaries doesn’t give him much time to ruminate, and to muddle things further he’s apparently assassinated the President. There’s a lot going on, and it only gets more convoluted.

XIII is fondly remembered for its cel-shaded graphics, which allowed the developers to remain artistically faithful to the source material while also ensuring their baby would age like tightly-sealed jam. Indeed, except for some stiff character animations and the 4:3 aspect ratio, it’s not immediately apparent that you’re playing a 17-year-old game.

The graphic novel theme also leads to some memorable, context-sensitive flourishes. For example, a well-placed throwing knife will trigger comic book panel pop-ups depicting the blade’s journey into your enemy’s eye socket. These little moments can be difficult to appreciate in the heat of combat, but certainly add character.


The visuals are backed by an aggressively funky 70s-style score that walks a fine line between Dirty Harry and Austin Powers, but compliments the action nicely. Less successful is the broad range of hammy voice acting. The mysterious XIII himself is sparingly voiced by none other than David Duchovny. He delivers his handful of lines with all the gravitas of a celebrated TV actor reclining on a sofa while having grapes delicately lowered into his mouth by Gillian Anderson (I can only assume). Thank goodness for the late, great Adam West, who gives a much livelier performance as a cigar-loving General.

Golden Days

Contemporary reviews often compared XIII to the Nintendo 64’s defining FPS GoldenEye. When you’re infiltrating a snow-capped military base and loitering by the toilet cubicles, it’s not hard to see why. That Bondian influence results in a varied selection of missions that mix stealthy espionage with run-and-gun action set-pieces. But don’t expect many gadgets besides a lock pick and the inevitable grappling hook.


XIII is at its absolute best when it gives you a crossbow and lets you sneak towards your objective. First-person stealth is hard to pull off, but XIII once again draws on its origins to let you quite literally see the “TAP TAP TAP” of a foe’s approaching footsteps, saving you from awkwardly stumbling into failure. You can also pick up and hide bodies, although this only became strictly necessary during later missions; and even grab the odd human shield along the way.

Cracks only really start showing when XIII is just trying to be a straight-up FPS. Weapons are functional, but little more than that, and enemies barely react to any damage taken. You can fire a shotgun point-blank at their centre mass and they’ll shrug it off like a bad smell. This goes double (or quintuple) for the occasional boss fights that force you into a dance of death with obnoxious bullet sponges.


There’s also a gradually steepening difficulty curve that leads to a gruelling last batch of levels. That’s fine in theory, but the penalty for failure in XIII is being kicked back to one of its frugally placed checkpoints. Oh, that doesn’t sound too bad? How about some unskippable dialogue to go along with that restart? Due to some design quirk these aren’t even permanent checkpoints, meaning you’ll have to manually save to lock them in, or else you risk losing hours of progress! Look, it was 2003, but this is going to be a frustrating sticking point for any new players in 2020 and beyond.


The plot ends on the biggest, fattest cliffhanger possible, so you’ll need to read the comics if you want to know what happens next. No proper sequels were made besides a couple of forgotten mobile game spin-offs, and if the remake’s brutal reception is anything to go by, don’t expect to see any more nails driven into this particular coffin.

As it stands, the original XIII has undoubtedly aged in certain gameplay departments – particularly its merciless checkpoint system – but there’s enough variety and sheer style on display throughout its seven hour story to make it a warm recommendation. It also acts as a bittersweet reminder of the days when Ubisoft published unique and creative games that hadn’t all congealed into an open world porridge of map icons and skill trees.


Fingers crossed for Beyond Good and Evil 2, right?


Article By


Follow on:
Twitter: @