Just because a remake falls short doesn’t mean we should forget what made the original so good. It’s very strange to be a fan of an old game that’s been most ignored in years gone by. Ubisoft’s XIII did receive some good reviews though – the first one I remembered reading way back in 2003 was in a copy of Games Master, which gave it 94% if memory’s serving me correctly.
Let me state the obvious up front: the 2020 remake of XIII is not a 94% game. Just to refresh your memory (no pun intended), the story is loosely based on an old Belgian comic. You’re an amnesiac washed up on a beach with the roman numerals XIII tattooed on your shoulder and quickly learn you’re accused of assassinating the American president. So, quite simple and easy to deal with.
XIII is an approachable and friendly thing compared to today’s shooters, avoiding the annoying RPG-style upgrade systems that seem to be the norm now. Another benefit is not having to sit through episodic-length cut scenes. The story moves swiftly between different scenes and the comic-style panel presentation offers up multiple angles as if you’re watching a movie without the pain of… well, watching a movie.
The remake is at least faithful to all that, but it adds in so many problems besides. Understandably, PlayMagic wanted to leave its own mark on XIII with its remake by not doing a simple, high-resolution boost to the cel-shaded visuals. I can understand the predicament to some extent, especially as the original looks flat compared to other forms of comic-style designs found in games today. However, I feel they’ve left themselves in a malaise, as the bolder character and object outlines aren’t enough to compensate for a better overall style, the way something like Thief of Thieves is able to, for example.
And this isn’t taking into account the complete visual transformation of Jones’ character (voiced by Eve, who is indeed still present, along with David Duchovny). I…don’t know why this happened. Some of the animations do look cool though, such as the floating health symbols when you’re using a medkit by opening it up and tossing it away.
One thing that we should all be careful about when wishing for remakes of old games is appreciating just how much games have evolved over the years. The most notable thing for shooters is just how damn fast everything is now. Traversing a map and switching weapons in Apex Legends is something I’m all too familiar with. Unfortunately, changing weapons in XIII is clunky and frustrating, as the animations just slow you down. In fact, I thought my Xbox controller had broken down in later, complex missions when I tried using my pistol and kept absorbing enemy fire. I just can’t imagine myself playing any of the higher difficulties. If the developers are fine with changing the complete look of a character, they shouldn’t be immune to updating aspects of gameplay to modern standards.
Yet for the time, the original game worked so well because it was so traditional in its no-frills gameplay like other shooters in its class, despite its cartoonish appearance. Most enemies would drop ammo as they dropped dead. You could boost your body armour by walking on and collecting random vests. Heck, there’s a whole GoldenEye 007-inspired level, starting out in snowy mountains before entering green and grey-coloured concrete dungeons. You want a shotgun? A frantic assault rifle? It’s all still here. And there are enough differentiators to make both versions of XIII stand out against today’s Halo and Call of Duty titles. The silent crossbow remains satisfying to guide into the forehead of an unsuspecting enemy, stealth that seems to be reserved only for Wolfenstein games.
However, the remake has many, many bugs. Character models sometimes shake and stutter, whether they’re leading you ahead or enemies you’ve just killed. Your own character is unable to move over raised ground when crouching sometimes. Textures pop in and out of the environments around you. I couldn’t change a couple of my controller settings and had to restart. Oh, and even though there’s a manual save system (which, frankly, every modern game should have), loading one up pushed me back either to a checkpoint or the start of that particular level. Weird. And I noticed something a short while into the aforementioned GoldenEye-inspired winter wonderland stage: I was playing in almost total silence. There was no music, no ambient sound, nothing. I last played the original game around a year ago and checked a gameplay video to make sure that yes, stuff was meant to be coming out of my speakers.
Now, publisher Microids has heard some of this loud and clear (again no pun intended!), and the developers are working to resolve these issues. They blame this primarily on working from home during the pandemic. This excuse is understandable, but I have no idea why they didn’t simply delay things – and until then it’s obviously best to steer well clear. While we wait for those fixes to come, though, there’s nothing wrong with firing up the original. The chiseled blockiness of 2003 seems charming now, almost abstract in appearance. It gives such a light atmosphere, desperately needed in 2020, that playing it felt like using an app-based brain exercise. It’s just refreshing.