Sales figures don’t lie. They show that, as gamers, we love to shoot digital terrorists. Many of our favourite first and third-person bullet fests include a plethora of these grunts, who end up being nothing more than digital target practice for seasoned pros. It’s tough to fault developers for this trend; people pay for they what they want with their wallets. With this mentality that folks either love or hate, comes Unit 13 from Zipper Interactive and Sony Computer Entertainment. This first-party Vita shooter doesn’t hide from the fact that it’s based on the very core of the ambiguous terrorist plot formula. Nor has its promotional or pre-release marketing made any exceptional promises that aren’t kept. The result is a solid title that doesn’t necessarily stand out in any way, delivering a pretty good but somewhat frustrating mobile gaming experience.
For the uninitiated, Unit 13 is a short burst shooter that plays like a mixture of some of its peers. Those familiar with Zipper‘s popular SOCOM series will quickly notice that the core design featured here is very similar to what’s found in those team-based releases. Though, this isn’t a direct clone under a different name; it just happens to be a familiar experience with regards to its created design, control and premise. Other inspirations are notably in play, in a game where mobile gamers take control of one of several lone operatives who work for a mysterious organization that has ties to NATO. In a game where story isn’t focused upon, all you really need to know is that the goal is to take out terrorists, while attempting to steal their plans, sabotage their equipment and/or save their hostages. It certainly helps that those aforementioned terrorists are occasionally as dumb as a doorknob, as well as incredibly forgetful. One even shot at thin air as I crouched below him.
Going in, it’s evident that the development team’s plan was to modify the console shooter experience for the mobile crowd. Common knowledge states that those folks usually prefer short gameplay scenarios due to time constraints. After all, it’s tough to play a lengthy stage while taking a short bus or train ride to work. Accommodating those principles led to the creation of 36 individual missions, each with its own difficulty level and length designation. Keep in mind, however, that you’re only looking at 10-15 minutes on average.
At its core, Unit 13 is a cover-based third-person shooter, where hiding behind a concrete column can mean the difference between life and a forced retry. Every mission requires intelligent use of protective barriers, even though their objectives vary. Squatting while moving behind something can be effective to block the view of hostile forces during stealth missions where alarms mean your attempt it over. Conversely, popping in and out to land well-aimed shots is the key to survival during other types. Players must adapt at times, in order to complete timed runs. This emphasis on cover is something that has become well-used within the industry in recent years, but it makes sense. Despite that statement, this explained mechanic is not perfect. There were times where I couldn’t aim because the game didn’t register my avatar as being at the edge of a piece of cover, as well as a few scenarios where he would pop off of his assignment if the aiming reticule was moved around to check for backstabbing enemies.
Picking the right soldier for the job is key. There are several individually-leveled good guys to choose from, each having his own varied skill set. There’s your well-rounded type, the health-heavy tank and the stealth-loving sniper, among others. The game will recommend one to you, but it’s not mandatory to employ his services. While it’s nice to have this choice, Unit 13 doesn’t do a great job of emphasizing each of its heroes’ traits. If a sequel is developed, it would be great to see more distinguished and creative traits, which would greatly change the way a stage is played. Granted, the difference between a machine gun toting soldier and a weak sniper was easy to note.
Certain challenges will feature a limited supply of health, which certainly changes things up but can also to frustration. This is not an easy game to begin with, and it accentuates that fact by moving from easy to hard quickly. A large part of the mission board is made up of hard and specialist missions as a result, using enemies who shoot to kill. Add in limited health and a lack of checkpoints and you have a recipe for repeated retries. The pro here is that this design forces you to get better with practice. If this only occurred near the end of the game, it would be less noticeable and much more understandable. However, there’s a rather steep difficulty incline to adjust to, and it kicks in far too early on. Partnering up with one other human player over PSN helps out, because allies can revive each other. Though, keep in mind that an online pass is required in order to do so.
In order to further the aforementioned mobile-friendly design principles, a five star rating system was introduced as the driving force behind Unit 13‘s progression system. Not only is it important to complete your objectives under their strict guidelines; one must also try to employ a stylish approach to terrorist execution and evasion. This is where elements from The Club and 50 Cent: Blood in the Sand come into play, as each stealth infiltration, kill and destroyed security camera will lead to a certain amount of points earned. Risky stealth assassinations earn more than a standard burst fire kill, which is to be expected. An individual’s final rating is a combination of their overall score, accuracy percentage and time spent. In these mobile confines, this system works pretty well, but it could have used more variety and polish. There aren’t enough varied kill types, and variety isn’t promoted as much as it could have been, with point totals that don’t lessen over time.
Stars are partially used as a currency system, although not for upgrades. Each soldier levels up using earned score points, while the gaseous indicators unlock high-priority target missions. These nine, uniquely named foes, have their own stages made up of some of the well-used campaign environments; a list that includes a high-tech factory, a Middle-Eastern village and a darkened warehouse district. Coming out victorious in one of these battles requires the use of a high level of combat smarts, where the Metal Gear Solid style radar and guard patterns become key study material. The difficulty setting for this secondary mission list is specialist, with a checkpoint eliminating mod.
As with just about every game that places heavy emphasis on a points system, detailed leaderboards are available for your viewing pleasure. Their designations include friends, worldwide, regional and Near, but most only only allow for 1000 players to make their listed cut. Gamers who don’t achieve a high enough score will see the term pending beside their unique numerical figure, with a standardized position listing of 1001. It would have been nice if there was full leaderboard support for all, but that cut-off does make things more competitive. That’s especially true when it comes to the daily challenge missions, which users can only contribute a score to once for some reason. This tertiary gameplay option has its own leaderboard.
Zipper Interactive‘s first crack at developing for Sony’s brand new handheld ends up being a relatively fun, but very basic game. It doesn’t push its genre’s proverbial envelope much at all, delivering an experience that lacks a standout feature. However, Unit 13 does take good advantage of the Vita’s touchscreen, making players touch icons to complete important tasks like picking up new weapons, reloading, going into sights mode, and interacting with objectives. Overall, those implemented control features work pretty well, but the aiming mechanics could have been just a hair more precise. You can use the rear touchpad to switch shoulders while aiming, but it’s more comfortable to make that change with the press of a face button.
When it comes to overall visual design, Unit 13 is somewhat lacking in the variety category. More interesting environment types could have made the experience a bit better, but the ones that are included work pretty well. They’re rather well-designed and look pretty good, although some textures could have been improved upon. Enemy types tend to repeat quite often as well, which is why yellow triangle icons are placed above targets’ heads. Not surprisingly, earth tones are consistently used, but that comes with the genre’s territory and is expected. A great SOCOM influence is also hard to miss, as Unit 13 lacks a distinguishable visual style. Then again, there aren’t any major deficiencies. I noticed a few camera glitches, as well as very rare and incredibly brief framerate slowdown, which was hardly a hindrance.
Voice over work is utilized instead of cutscenes, in order to provide hints of storyline regarding an ongoing battle against terrorism. It’s limited, but does a decent job of setting up each mission, being played over the top of every briefing screen. A young woman acts as the guiding force for Unit 13 and its soldiers, providing these objective descriptions, as well as brief bits of feedback during actual gameplay sequences. On top of that, the soldiers themselves will utter basic one-liners, and the enemies will admit surprise or question their surroundings in their native tongue. Subtitles are used to help get the message across, acting as a helpful indicator. These audible elements add onto a soundtrack that is heavy on weapon related sounds and explosions, using some decent original music throughout.
As a launch window release, Unit 13 is a solid effort. Fans of military shooters will enjoy being able to take stalk and blow away terrorists while on the go, but the overall experience isn’t as great as I had originally hoped for. There’s a noticeable wow factor missing, though what’s present is still quite entertaining. Perhaps some of that is due to the deja-vu that sets in early on, when it becomes apparent that this isn’t far removed from the SOCOM franchise. While it’s tough to completely endorse this game as a magnificent must play, it’s a competent and enjoyable, yet slightly frustrating mobile release.
This review is based on a copy of the game that was provided to us for review purposes.
As a launch window release, Unit 13 is a solid effort. Fans of military shooters will enjoy being able to take stalk and blow away terrorists while on the go, but the overall experience isn't as great as I had originally hoped.