Unit 13 Review

By Adam Rosenberg - Posted Mar 06, 2012

There are flaws to be sure, but Unit 13 isn't just a niche-filler in the Vita's launch software lineup. It's a fun experience that's been uniquely tailored to play to the strengths of the Vita.

The Pros
  • Fills an empty genre space in the Vita's launch lineup
  • Well-designed for the portable platform
  • Responsive controls are fun to play with and make good use of touch interface
  • Wide variety of mission and customization options creates a lot of replay value
The Cons
  • Dim-witted AI is easy to game
  • Small assortment of maps means you're visiting the same locations repeatedly
  • Occasional spikes in difficulty are more the result of overwhelming odds than smart design

Unit 13 Review:

Zipper Interactive's Unit 13 fills an important hole in the PlayStation Vita's launch lineup: virtual war-loving vets get to sling bullets around a variety of maps at turban-wearing bad guys in a military shooter. What's surprising -- or maybe not so much, given Zipper's background with SOCOM -- is that this shooter is more than just a seat-filler until heavies like Resistance: Burning Skies can get here. Unit 13 is put together with an eye specifically turned toward bite-sized play sessions, and it manages to really nail that spirit in spite of a few in-your-face flaws.



Mission-Based Mayhem

There is no story in Unit 13 to drive the action. The central threat that you'll face in any given mission is the fictional Awlaad Al-Qowah terrorist organization, but there's no world-saving MacGuffin to keep you invested. Surprisingly, this very much works to the game's advantage.

The central portion of the game is a collection of 36 missions laid out on a 9x4 grid. There are several different types you can choose from, denoted by an icon in each mission's window. You'll have changing sets of rules to adhere to depending on which mission type you choose for a given play session.

Covert is, naturally, all about keeping a low profile; if an enemy spots you and isn't downed before an alarm is raised, it's back to the last checkpoint. Deadline missions put time at a premium; complete objectives and get to each checkpoint before a timer zeroes out to keep going. Direct Action is the most straightforward, in that you simply need to complete whatever set of objectives you're presented with. Lastly there's Elite, which works a lot like Direct Action except you have a depleting health bar and no mid-mission checkpoint saves.

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Each mission is rated in two categories: Difficulty (Easy, Normal, Hard, and Specialist) and Length (Short, Medium, Long). Once you've completed a given mission once, you can also choose to play it again in "Dynamic" mode. This randomizes the difficulty as well as the enemy and objective placement locations.

In addition to those core 36 missions, you've also got the option of co-op play over wi-fi for each, though we weren't able to test that feature for this review. There is also a set of nine High Value Target operations. These are all on the longer side, and all involve tracking down and neutralizing boss-type characters in the terrorist group. HVT missions unlock as you hit scoring milestones.

Yes, scoring. The big focus in Unit 13 is on improving your rating for each mission, which is graded on a five-star scale. You are constantly earning points as you play, for pretty much everything. As you perform repetitive actions, like stringing together a series of headshots or disarming mines, you'll build up a combo meter which adds a multiplier to your score. All of this is tallied up at the end of each mission, both to determine your star rating and to dole out XP awards.

Unit 13

Small Screen Warfare

That's a lot of description, but Unit 13 takes an unusual approach for a military shooter with its non-story and focus on earning high scores and leaderboard placement. Zipper clearly sat down and puzzled over how to take the great third-person shooter framework that's been established in the SOCOM series and apply it to a more portable platform.

The bite-sized missions are well-designed, though the higher difficulty ones aren't kidding around. It will take most players multiple tries, and probably more than a little loud swearing, to learn the troop positions and safe routes around each objective. Fortunately, there's so much content to choose from -- completing any mission on the grid unlocks the one to the right of it and the one below it -- that it's easy to step away from more frustrating exercises and try again later.

Unit 13

You've also got options. There are six soldier classes to choose from, and each has a set of stats and specific specialties. As you play and earn experience for this crew, they'll level up. In addition to improving the combo bonuses and gear you have access to, leveling up also unlocks various weapons, attachments and tools for all classes. So if you use the stealthy soldier a lot, it won't be long before you unlock the suppressor for everyone to use, making Covert missions a viable option for other classes.

Unfortunately, this sense of variety does not extend to the maps. You'll only visit a handful of locations in Unit 13, and pretty bog-standard ones for a modern military shooter. There's "Middle Eastern open-air market," "dark, dingy prison," "colorful, music-filled nightclub," "abandoned subway station" and the like. To the game's credit, all of these maps are quite large and most missions only use small sections of them. So even though you're visiting the same locations over and over, it frequently feels like a fresh experience.

Unit 13

Building A Portable Shooter

Visually, Unit 13 looks... fine. There are stronger titles in the Vita launch library from a technical perspective, but your eyes won't start bleeding as they try to distinguish distant Bad Guys from the rest of the environments. The sound design is solid, and wearing headphones is actually pretty necessary for being able to pick out positional noises like talking soldiers and beeping, motion-sensing cameras and mines.

Unit 13 also makes very good use of the Vita's touch interfaces. The front-facing screen is filled with contextual commands, things like tapping your weapon icon to reload. All of the contextual stuff appears at the left and right fringes as well, making it easy to, say, reach over with your right thumb to tap the reload icon while maintaining your grip on the device. The rear touchpad is of minimal use; swiping left and right on it while you're aiming down a weapon's sight switching which shoulder you've got it propped against.

The controls in general are very responsive, if a bit limited. For example, you'll often wish during Covert missions for some way to draw an enemy's attention. The game's AI is on the dim side; your foes generally stick to a static set of patrol routes and cover locations. It can also be unpredictable. Sometimes you'll sneak along right next to a patrolling enemy without him ever noticing you and other times you'll be spotted from across the map by a lookout who isn't even looking straight in your direction.

Unit 13

All of this amounts to mostly fun times and plenty of replay value. Some might quickly grow bored of visiting the same locations, but there's a lot to be said for the quality of Unit 13's moment-to-moment action. It's fun to play through these missions and push for higher scores, in turn leveling up your soldiers and clearing the way for even higher scores. The always-updating Daily Challenge mode nods to this idea; all players have one chance each day to run through a particular set of objectives for leaderboard placement.

There are flaws to be sure, but Unit 13 isn't just a niche-filler in the Vita's launch software lineup. It may be the only third-person shooter out there (no people, Uncharted does not count) right now, but it's also a fun experience that's been uniquely tailored to play to the strengths of the Vita.

It may not be a full showcase of what your new handheld can do, but Zipper did a commendable job of creating a bite-sized modern warfare scenario for you to play with. Not must-own material for everyone, but definitely worth the time if you've been waiting for a Vita game with a strong focus on virtual military combat.

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