The first thing I wanted to know when I sat down to check out Zipper Interactive's work on the PlayStation Vita launch window title Unit 13 was: why isn't this called SOCOM. The answer quickly became clear to me as I learned more about the package the developer put together for its launch window Vita title. It's partially about building a new brand, of course, but it also quickly becomes clear that SOCOM wouldn't be the right fit for the type of game that Unit 13 delivers.
Remember Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII, the PlayStation Portable title that capably distilled the various elements that make the FF series great into a highly portable experience? Well, Unit 13 is like the Crisis Core of military shooters. You're setting out on bite-sized missions and reaching for ever-higher positioning on the game's leaderboards while also managing a class-based assortment of characters, all of which can be improved as you explore the game further.
There's no story at all in Unit 13 beyond the basic objectives that each discrete mission lays out for you. There are 36 of these missions in all, spread across a rectangular grid. You don't unlock them sequentially. Instead, completing one unlocks two more: the one below it and the one to the right of it.
All of the missions are objective-based, but they'll demand different things. Some are assault-oriented. Others call for stealth. Still others have you racing against the clock, which can be extended by reaching certain checkpoints. In the mission I played, there were a pair of hostage journalists that needed to be rescued. Each mission also has both a standard layout, featuring fixed enemy/objective positions, and a dynamic layout, which mixes things up with each new playthrough.
The overarching goal in Unit 13 is to constantly be pushing for higher scores. You earn points in a mission for just about every action you perform, meaning that there's just as much value in sending out a covert ops soldier as there is in sending a direct assault soldier. You also build up combos in a variety of ways. For example, land a headshot and a timer will pop up on the screen; get another headshot before the timer runs out for a point bonus and a new timer, allowing you to keep the chain going.
The 36 core missions can be played either solo or with a friend in co-op (only over wi-fi), but there's more to Unit 13 than that. There are also High-Value Targets missions, which are basically the game's boss missions. You need to unlock these by collecting stars from completed missions, with the first HVT unlocking at 20 stars. In a cool twist, you'll also have a short amount of time to play through an otherwise locked HVT mission when someone on your friends list (or someone close by using the Vita's Near feature) unlocks it. Zipper hasn't set the time limit for these yet, but it sounds like it'll be at least a handful of hours.
In addition, Zipper will also be putting together Daily Challenges for players to participate in. You can expect to see a new one each day, and you'll be competing for a high score. There's a catch though; each Daily Challenge can only be played through once. Whatever your first score is, that's the one you're competing with.
The play feels as smooth as you'd hope a third-person shooter would. The controls are simple and should feel immediately familiar to fans of this sort of game. It's a mix of analog stick+face button controls and touchscreen commands. Reloading a weapon or aiming through a weapon scope requires you to hit context-sensitive touch commands on the screen. Grenades work similarly; you can toss one at whatever you're aiming at by simply tapping the icon or you can drag the grenade icon to wherever your desired target is on the screen.
I definitely want to see more of what Unit 13 has to offer, with features like the class-based character progression still to be explored. The basic parts seem perfectly suited to the Vita as a platform, however. Zipper could have gone for the easy cash-in with another portable SOCOM game, but Unit 13 feels like a much more compelling Vita release for striking out in a different direction. There's no confirmed release date yet, but it shouldn't be too long after the Vita's February 22 launch.