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Game review: Unit 13 on PS Vita

22 Mar 12

With eight well-received shooter titles for the Sony PlayStation 2, PlayStation Portable, and PlayStation 3, developer Zipper Interactive was a logical choice to develop a Vita launch title. Thus we have Unit 13, Zipper’s latest entry in the third-person shooter market.

Unit 13 wholeheartedly embraces the mobile gameplay mindset promoted by the Vita. Rather than the traditional story-based campaign the tutorial seems to build towards, the main game is broken up into a series of 35 stand-alone missions. Each mission takes between five and ten minutes to play, and is divided into one of several distinct categories. From covert operations to all-out firefights, there’s a decent amount of choice in how you approach the game.

As for the game itself, it’s a fairly competent third-person shooter in a modern-day setting, with core mechanics that are fairly standard and offer few surprises outside the neat use of touchscreen icons as an indicator for things you can interact with, and the button to do so. Zipper has pushed for a competitive, almost arcade feel with Unit 13. This works brilliantly in the first couple hours of play, the game wasting no time in placing you square in the action, and keeping up a strong pace with arcade-like scoring, leaderboards, and a healthy supply of unlockable items. 

Unfortunately, by the time you finish the first round of missions, Unit 13 starts to lose steam.  The missions are drawn from a small pool of maps, with different configurations of soldiers, booby traps, and objectives accounting for the variety. The story is vestigial at best, and boils down to a nondescript woman giving orders that are some variation of ‘shoot the terrorists’ at every other juncture. There’s nothing to link missions together beyond seeing the same gunmen in uniform headscarfs.

The ‘mad libs’ approach to mission design isn’t bad – the challenge and fun comes from adapting to new sets of enemies and traps, which each mission delivers differently. It’s just not fun to repeat them. The maps and missions are full of chokepoints that restrict your possible approaches to your objective, so you’ll inevitably wind up in the same firefights. This is probably to help mask the fact that the AI is a barrier to replaying the exact same missions, performing poorly and predictably outside of direct confrontations. 

Zipper has laid some good foundations with the AI – enemies make reasonable use of cover and grenades, and remember where you were last visible. However, it’s also prone to ignoring cover in favour of staring at your last position, and outright charges instead of manoeuvring. Given a few minutes, enemies will return to patrolling after watching their squad be gunned down. It works well as a roadblock between objectives, but isn’t smart enough to be worth fighting in the same way more than once.

To compensate for these deficiencies, higher difficulty levels simply spawn masses of almost supernaturally-alert soldiers the moment you are detected. This turns the game into an exercise in patience for balancing regenerating health and enemy numbers, rather than the tactical shooter it is meant to be.

It’s not all doom and gloom though. While missions are rarely fun to play a second time, Unit 13 has an answer in the form of Dynamic mode. Dynamic scatters a new set of enemies, explosives, and challenges to overcome in the map and mode you want. This helps dramatically with the problem of AI staleness, and even moving different objectives in another order has a huge impact in keeping the game fresh. Fortunately – or unfortunately depending on how you look at it – the missions Dynamic produces are also essentially indistinguishable from the static, leaderboard-enabled ones. If the loss of worldwide rankings is something you’re worried about, the game also has a featured daily dynamic challenge. I cannot help but think that this is the way Unit 13 was meant to be played. Co-op mode breathes even more life into the game, and using the proper matchmaking browser makes this reasonably painless.

Overall, Unit 13 is a decent launch title. The AI and limited number of maps are problems, but not ones that stop it from being a competent shooter with plenty of hidden replay value. If you like the idea of a bite-sized shooter on the go, Unit 13 is definitely worth a look. 

Graphics: 7

Gameplay: 7.5

Sound: 5

Lasting Appeal: 7.5

We’ve got three copies of Unit 13 to give away, courtesy of Sony - check out the Game Console Facebook page for entry details. 

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