When gamers everywhere saw the second analog nub featured on the design of the PlayStation Vita, there was only one thing that came to mind: portable shooters! The shooter genre, arguably the most popular genre in all video games, has also been the one genre that has been noticeably absent from the portable market. Sure, there have been some semi-impressive attempts to bring the experience on the go, but a genre that relies so heavily on two analog sticks will only be emulated, or properly recreated, with two analog sticks. Thanks to Sony’s new portable hardware, that is exactly what we have.
Unit 13 is the first shooter to hit Sony’s new handheld it gives hope that the genre can succeed on a portable platform. Don’t let the misleading facade fool you; this may look like SOCOM but it is actually more akin to Sega’s The Club. This is all about fast-paced, guns blazing action nearly 90% of the time.
If you are looking for an intriguing story, you should go ahead and start looking elsewhere. There is no driving allegory behind the game, simply a listing of missions which you can tackle at your own discretion. Unit 13 allows you to take control of one of 6 characters who are members of an elite group known as (shockingly) Unit 13. Each member of the team has their own area of specialty and is equipped with weapons and tools catered to a particular type of mission.
For example Ringo is better skilled at stealth operations and completing objectives without being detected. Python on the other hand is a walking armory who is built to be a mobile one-man army. As you play through the missions, using which ever characters you like, you will earn experience points which will level them up and unlock better skills and weapons for your entire team.
After a brief tutorial which will introduce you to the gameplay mechanics used throughout the game, Unit 13 opens itself up to the player like a book. There isn't a campaign, there isn’t a trail of consecutive levels; you are simply given a list of 36 missions and allowed to pick and choose as you like. Granted, not all of them are opened up at first, but you will start off with 5 or so missions available to you and as you complete them, more will open up. It feels almost like a bulletin board of mercenary jobs; you can browse from the jobs / stages available to you and take or pass them as you please.
While the goals of each level are masked with “objectives”, your sole priority is to set as high of a score as possible on each individual stage. It is this area where a lot of the comparisons to The Club come into play. Everything that you do will earn you points: taking down enemies, landing headshots, completing objectives, and finishing rounds within a certain amount of time. The missions will include a variety of tasks such as eliminating specific targets on a map, disarming or planting explosives, and rescuing hostages. There are occasional constraints placed upon you such as completing a task without being detected by an enemy, but ultimately the end goal is the same: finish with the best score possible.
Depending on the class of your chosen characters, you will earn additional score multipliers and perks that will help you improve your score. By the time that you level everyone up to the 10-level max though, they will mostly be on even ground. You will need to use these to your advantage to improve your scores on each board. Your level performances are graded on a scale of 1 to 5 stars and earning stars is the key to opening up more missions in the game. Earning stars will also open up a special section of 9 bonus levels which are called High Value Targets. These levels will task you with taking out a high-level terrorist in intense situations.
While the entire game can be played solo, where is the fun in that? Zipper has thankfully included a couple of different multiplayer options in order to extend the gameplay experience immensely. First off, the game supports a variety of detailed leaderboards, which will allow you to compare your score to your friends and the rest of the world at any given time. Each and every level of the game has its own scoreboard and they are updated constantly.
All of the levels can also be played cooperatively with a friend online. You can either join up directly with a specific friend or be paired with someone using the game’s online matchmaking. Players can also chat with one another using the system’s built in microphone. The other online option offered is the game’s “Daily Challenges” which are run by Sony / Zipper. Every 24 hours, a new mission is posted which players are given one shot to run through and set the highest score on. This mode keeps things fresh for players but it will only work as long as Sony is willing to keep updating it.
The game plays very just like every cover-based, third person shooter you have played. You have the ability to stick to walls and other environmental objects to use them for cover by simply pressing the X button and can carry both a pistol and a primary weapon (rifle). As you take down enemies in the missions, you will be able to pick up additional ammunition that they may drop or even alternate weapons. The left trigger shifts to an aiming / firing mode and the right trigger pulls the trigger on your weapon... we have all seen this setup before. If you have played a third-person shooter in the past 5 years, you should feel right at home here.
Zipper played it very safe in terms of not forcing the Vita’s capabilities into the game. There is some touch screen integration, but it is very miniscule. The front touch panel is used to throw grenades, reload your weapons at will, and to activate objectives such as untying a hostage or disarming a bomb. In a sense, its usage does feel a bit shoe-horned into the experience because all of these things could have easily been assigned to one of the system’s existing buttons. However, this integration works well and it doesn’t hamper the experience in any way.
One of the things that Zipper definitely nailed with the game is crafting the missions to accommodate your different gameplay needs. Let me explain. This is a portable game, so a lot of the times that you will be playing it will be in short spurts while you are on the go; then again, you may find yourself in a position where you can sink a ton of time into the game in a single sitting. In order to accommodate both of these situations, and everything in between, Zipper has crafted missions in a variety of lengths. Some of them can be completed in just a few short minutes; others may take 15-20.
While the variation in the mission length is nice, unfortunately the overall variety in the mission lineup leaves a bit to be desired. Being a game that is more about specific situations rather than a story, Unit 13 reuses a lot of its concepts and environments repeatedly throughout the 45 total missions. You will see the same levels quite a few times, but run through them with varying objectives depending on the mission chosen. This all adds up to a pseudo-repetitive experience in the end but one that is enjoyable nonetheless.
As much as I enjoy Unit 13, the game is a bit misleading by its style and presentation. On the surface, it appears to be a tactical shooter which aims to mimic special forces missions and strategic gameplay. It simply boils down to taking as many enemies as possible in as little as you can. Honestly, I am not sure that I would have it any other way. The “arcadey”, fast action feel lends to the portability of the title and charm of the game, keeping things simple yet exciting all at the same time. That game could use a bit more variety in the overall mission content but will still keep you entertained for quite some time. As long as Sony and Zipper continue to support the game with the Daily Challenge concept, there is freshness to be found every time you pick up the game, just not as much as I would have liked to see. On the other hand, considering that this is a first generation title for the Vita, there is a lot of hope for the shooter genre on this platform.