At first glance, XIII looks like a video game. It has graphics, sounds come out of the speakers, and a character moves when you touch the pad. But sit down to play it, and you’ll realise that it’s held together with sticky tape and paper clips, collapsing into scraps when you play for more than five minutes.
XIII is a remake of the 2003 game – XIII – which didn’t exactly rock the world, and sold next to no copies. It’s combat was serviceable and the story, based on a graphic novel of the same name, was a hokey conspiracy thriller that Jack Bauer might have dismissed as being too unbelievable. Your character, XIII, has woken up on a beach with amnesia, and the president has been shot. Near immediately, men with guns drop in to arrest you. You can probably piece together why.
What made XIII stand out was the comic book trimmings. Everything had a cel-shaded sheen, well before Borderlands made it mainstream, and scenes played out in panels. Characters chatted in speech bubbles, and sound effects played out in text, like the “tap, tap, tap” of nearby footprints or an “aaaaargh” as an enemy falls off a cliff.
It all makes XIII ripe for a remake, then. It’s got a unique hook, but there’s plenty of room for improvement. It’s got a fanbase, but the mainstream audience have never played it. In our opinion, it makes more sense to remaster something imperfect and hasn’t been played by everyone. And hey, a gap’s opened up in the launch titles for Series X|S, and XIII looks like it could fill it.
Jotting all this down, it’s fascinating that XIII fails to the degree it does. It doesn’t just trip up on the way; it falls off a cliff, hits every branch on the way down, and then lands head-first into a shark’s mouth.
Let’s start with the graphics. Microids have clearly decided that a new generation of consoles needs more than just cel-shading. They’ve tried to push it further into photo-realistic Call of Duty territory (emphasis on ‘tried’), and then remembered at the last minute to add in the cel-shading. What we get from this bewildering set of decisions are some Xbox 360-era 3D models, drawn round with a black felt-tip pen. While it’s not quite on a par with how Sonic the Hedgehog’s teeth or Rise of Skywalker missed the expectations of their fandoms, it’s in the same ballpark. The comic-book uniqueness of XIII circles the drain and disappears.
Oh boy is there more. The animations are awful: lips barely move as people talk, and characters run from A to B with movement only in their legs (which is hilarious when characters are on fire). We’re a particular fan of XIII’s ability to climb ladders with objects visible in his hands, as you can carry an RPG up them like a boss. Actions won’t match up with the environment, either, so you can lockpick a door from several metres away. We suppose you are a super spy, after all.
The original voice track has been kept for the cutscenes, so you get to enjoy David Duchovny and Adam West in their original glory, but the visuals don’t always match up with the audio, making the story occasionally nonsensical. Even more bizarrely, the game kicks off with a random character, seated in a briefing room, watching the original game’s opening cutscene preserved in the PS2 engine. You can almost visualise Microid’s producers checking the calendar, wiping a brow and saying “we’re going to have to stick to the old one, boys”.
The bugs are stupendous, worth twenty “you won’t believe the bug in this game” YouTube videos. I would come across a handful, then restart the level to see if it was because I’d done something weird and, nope – you guessed it – these are clear and persistent bugs for everyone to enjoy. A prison level has policemen walking around with spirit-truncheons following just behind them. An enemy was going to push an alarm button, but luckily he grew a mast from his forehead, which stopped his arms from being able to reach the button. Dead bodies catapulted into the sky, wiggled through walls and mumbled at me while half-submerged in the ground.
This is one of the buggiest games I’ve had the misfortune to play, and is probably the buggiest one that’s full-priced. We’re entering dangerous ‘this game doesn’t actually work’ territory. Twice I had to reload a level: a chateau sequence required a bad-guy to send a rocket through the back door, blasting a way out for me. Except he didn’t, instead choosing to vibrate at me with a leery look on his face (unfortunately he was also invincible, so I couldn’t get revenge). Another time, an air vent stubbornly refused to give me access, as if it had decided that I was no Bruce Willis.
Audio, too, gets the bug treatment. More often than not, you’ll get zero audio feedback on an explosion; chuck a grenade and you’ll have to actually watch to see if it went off. Guns occasionally stop making noises, which is fine because they have no real heft or volume to them anyway. In one section I wielded a chain-gun, but had to keep on checking that I hadn’t accidentally switched to an assault rifle; it was so lightweight and lacking in cool factor. Ye gods, even the subtitles are bugged, as they don’t appear in cutscene sections.
It should be noted that Microids have gone on record to apologise and say that the bugs are getting fixed. There’s hope, then, that things could improve. If they do, we may well revisit XIII, but right now there are thousands of thirsty Series X|S early-adopters looking for a game to showcase their system, and we’d be remiss not to review it.
Gameplay-wise, things are a little better, but not much. This is a below-average shooter where the movement is slow and the enemies slower. The AI in particular is bottom-shelf, as enemies line up single-file to take you down, and spray around you like stormtroopers. Get too close and they will run away, desperate to make it more difficult for themselves. On the flipside, some of the bosses are bullet sponges, and won’t leave you alone. I’m still wrapping my head around a civilian physician who suddenly becomes twenty times tougher than any of the agents I’d already killed.
Stealth sections litter the game, and they’d have been challenging if the enemies weren’t blind and mute. The only thing that’ll get their attention is you appearing in front of them (surprise!), or actually nobbling them with a bullet. Kill someone a few steps to the side of an enemy and they’re fine and dandy with it. Lob a grenade into an adjoining room and most will be oblivious (presumably because of those dreaded silent grenades). There’s nothing worse than an unfair stealth level, so at least XIII sidesteps that issue.
Okay, okay, we don’t want to be all fire and brimstone. You might get two levels in a row in XIII where nothing infuriates and something close to enjoyment creeps in. Commendations go to the level design in particular, which is compact but occasionally deft, and will most likely be your source of fun. You’ll find alternative paths to your target and it will reward you for doing so, like a pocket Deus Ex. It’s a commendation that goes more to the original XIII, but still…
The story, too, has its moments. It’s in love with rug pulls, as double agents and triple agents emerge from the cutscene all quagmire. It’s all very sub-Bond of course, and the choppy editing will do whatever it can to make it unintelligible, but generally there’s stuff to enjoy here. Again, let’s chalk that up as a victory for the old XIII.
But please don’t assume that these positives redeem XIII. They don’t – not by a long shot. It’s flabbergastingly bad, and it’s all the more astonishing when you consider it’s a remake, with solid foundations to build a good game on. It keeps me up at night thinking that someone would pay full price for XIII, perhaps for a shot of nostalgia when, in reality, 2020 has just snuck in a contender for worst game of the year.
XIII on Xbox is a ‘Four Seasons Total Landscaping’ of a game. Someone, somewhere committed themselves to a mistake and deadline, and refused to back down from it. XIII needed an intervention on its art style, another six months of bug fixing and fine-tuning, and it absolutely, definitely needed to skip the launch of the Series X|S. A miracle may happen, and game-changing improvements might come along, but there’s way more than XIII wishes to untangle. In the end, we were the ones who wished we had amnesia.