Review: Unit 13

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Shooters, first- and third-person, are a genre of games that seemingly defy all logic.  Once you’ve played one, an argument could be made that you’ve played them all.  Of course, that would be a pointless argument because obviously millions of gamers each year fork over loads of money to play the next installment of a certain military shooter that does very little to change an incredibly familiar formula.  Why change when millions of people flock to the same thing time and again with little more than a new coat of paint and a slight change in set dressing?  Fortunately, there are plenty of developers focusing their own slant on an old but familiar idea.  Zipper Interactive is–or was–no stranger to producing more than just ordinary cookie-cutter FPS experiences, as has been shown in tactical squad-based shooters like SOCOM and MAG. While those titles work well on a console with an always-online connection, gaming on the PlayStation Vita doesn’t always have an online connection, and thus in what has sadly turned out to be the studio’s final game, Zipper switched gears away from competitive play to focus on a deep single-player game with online co-op maximized for portability.

Unit 13 plays to the strength of the Vita by dividing the game up into 36 smaller missions.  Each mission comes in one of four types: Direct Action, Covert, Deadline and Elite. Direct Action is similar to any other shooter in that the only requirement is to shoot anything and everything that moves or fires back at you in addition to completing specific objectives in each mission.  Covert missions require stealth and can be failed if an enemy is alerted and sounds the alarm.  Deadline missions are timed affairs that can be failed if objectives aren’t completed within a quickly diminishing countdown timer.  Elite missions ramp up the level of difficulty by removing automatic health regeneration and checkpoints to re-spawn from if death occurs.

At the outset the game starts with only one mission unlocked.  Completing that mission unlocks several additional missions, and that process repeats until all 36 missions are available.  Along with the four mission styles, Zipper mixes things up by rating each completed mission with up to five stars.  Stars are achieved based on completed objectives and the number of points earned during a mission, which can be increased by performing the same type of kill (i.e. headshot, grenade, etc.) repeatedly while a multiplier is active. Points can also be earned by stealth infiltration, or sneak melee attacks.  If three or more stars are earned at the end of a mission, the mission can be replayed with a dynamic variable enabled. Dynamic missions use the same map layout, but camera placement, enemy placement, and various environmental triggers (i.e. trip mines or other explosives) are spawned in random locations from the original playthrough.

As more and more missions are unlocked, the difficulty increases.  To counter the increase in difficulty, Zipper also has an unlock system in place for each of the six soldiers that can be selected for each mission.  The soldiers all have their own unique set of attributes, such as faster health regeneration, higher armor, or better proficiency with specific weapons.  At the beginning of each mission, players are given the choice of selecting the suggested soldier, or choosing a different one as well as selecting different weapons and equipment to take onto the battlefield.

Because the game offers so much customization, there is plenty of replay value.  Each mission ranges from a quick three or four minutes, to longer 15-20 minute sessions, depending on how you prefer to play.  Personally, I found that enemies would quickly overwhelm without first planning a specific tactical approach.  More times than not, I would get part of the way through an encounter and end up dying or restarting a mission after realizing too late that my tactical choice was not sound. Fortunately, the missions reload quickly and learning enemy patterns becomes the way to master any given mission.

One of the main complaints I have with the game is just how quickly the difficulty ramps up.  While there are 36 different missions, there are only 9 playable maps.  Each map is multifaceted so that missions start from different zones within a map and certain environmental obstacles can change, but often times I got a sense of déjà vu, and not in a good way.  While playing through a map, I would momentarily get confused with the same area of a map from a different mission and expect a different sequence of events to unfold, or expect either an ammo crate to be available even though on my current mission it isn’t there.  To confound my complaint and add to the confusion a bit, as I progressed further into the unlocked missions, it felt as if every mission in the later part of the game is set on a Hard difficulty with an Elite mission classification.  By that I mean all enemies are smarter, harder to kill, and yet my soldier has no way of gaining health without taking out every enemy in a specific area before being able to reach a health pack.

While this may be fun for some diehard tactical shooter fans, I found this approach a bit limiting.  Sure, the gunplay feels pretty good on the Vita, but I found that after longer play sessions (meaning attempting four or five missions and multiple attempts at each mission) my hands would cramp up.   Having the right analog stick on the Vita makes all the difference with a shooter, but there’s very little to actually hold onto when compared to a DualShock 3 form factor. Unit 13 is a better experience in shorter bursts. Playing two missions, switching out for another game or just putting the Vita down for a while, and then coming back, I wasn’t as frustrated or exhausted from playing or re-playing later missions.

As I mentioned earlier, the game awards stars at the end of each mission based on objectives met as well as overall points earned.  The stars can be used to unlock  another set of missions that are entitled High Value Targets.  The HVTs are missions set within the previously mentioned levels, but with an increased enemy count as well as leaders of a fictionalized Al Qaeda-like terrorist organization.  While I found the HVT missions to be a bit more compelling than the the shorter standard missions, the difficulty increase also made for less enjoyable gaming.

What I did find enjoyable within Unit 13 were the online co-op missions.  Basically, any of the unlocked missions can either be hosted or joined with either folks on your friend list or random strangers currently playing over the PSN.  Online play works as any online shooter would be expected, but there is still something neat to me that I was able to play a full combat scenario with someone else somewhere else, all in the palm of my hand.  While all of the missions are geared at two-player co-op, Unit 13 certainly proves that online shooters can work well on the Vita.  I never had a time where I went to host a mission and didn’t have someone joining my game within a minute.  Online matchmaking works really well.  The one drawback I would point out is the lack of in-game voice communication between co-op players.  Actually, the game is supposed to support voice chat but I couldn’t figure out how to get it to work and there doesn’t seem to be any clear documentation explaining the feature. Party chat works pretty damn well on the Vita, so in my mind there isn’t a reason why the functionality should be so confusing.

The last component in Unit 13 I want to talk about is the Daily Challenge.  Before Zipper was shuttered by Sony, the developer had promoted that in addition to the 36 main missions and the HVT missions, Unit 13 would be releasing daily challenges based around the levels from the rest of the game. While these Daily Challenges are similar to the dynamic versions of standard missions, what makes them interesting is the fact that gamers aren’t in control of which maps or which types of missions are being presented in each daily mission.  In addition to the daily random mission, each player is ranked against all other players around the globe based on points earned within the mission similar to how stars are achieved in the single-player levels.

Unit 13 is a well designed game that, due to the Vita’s portability, adapts Zipper’s tactical military shooter know-how into a mobile gaming package. The shooting mechanic is solid. Soldier leveling is a nice touch to help promote replay. Dynamic missions also offer a lot of incentive to continue playing. However, my biggest criticism is based on the fact that as the difficulty spikes about halfway through, some players may find the game to be almost unfairly balanced against a their abilities.  While the demo gives one impression of the game, after several hours of playing a full retail copy I can’t help but wonder how much better the game would be with even two more unique levels.  Too often, I found myself playing a level thinking I was in one environment, only to realize that in fact I was playing the same level I had just finished, but now I was starting from the opposite side of the map.  While that may seem economical to keep the size of the game smaller, it also gives the game a feeling of repetition.  

Action fans looking for a console-quality third-person shooter for the Vita will find a solid, mostly competent game in Unit 13. Sadly, with Zipper being shuttered, we will likely never get to see a sequel improve upon some of the minor issues and turn this new IP into an absolute must have for Vita owners.  Give it a try, but keep in mind that the demo is only one slice of an increasingly (and sometimes unfairly) challenging game.

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Pros:
+ Short missions allow for easy on the go gaming
+ Great use of the Vita’s various input options (touch screen, face buttons, analog sticks)
+ Quick to load online co-op
+ Tons of replay options

Cons:
- Levels are re-used a lot
- Challenging levels in the second half of the game
- Some missions feel unbalanced

Game Info:
Platform: PlayStation Vita
Publisher: SCEA
Developer: Zipper Interactive
Release Date: 3/6/2012
Genre: Third-Person Shooter
ESRB Rating: Teen
Players: 1-2 (online co-op)
Source: Review copy provided by publisher

About the Author

Tim has been playing video games for more than 20 years. He manages to find time to game in between raising three kids and working as a network administrator. Follow Tim on Twitter @freemantim.