From Zipper Interactive, the developers of SOCOM, you would expect big things from Unit 13. Especially considering that this marks the debut of the tactical shooter genre on the Vita, a genre that is finally accessible thanks to the handheld’s dual analogue sticks of greatness. Many would agree that SOCOM had lost its way since U.S. Navy SEALS back on the PS2, but Zipper Interactive are back on track with their latest effort for the PS Vita.
Unit 13 is a third-person, over the shoulder shooter along the lines of Rainbow Six, Ghost Recon or, as you would imagine, any of the past SOCOM titles. However, instead of bogging players down with excessive anti-terrorist plot devices that these titles tend to favour, Unit 13 leans towards the ‘pick-up and play’ trait that Vita users should appreciate. In fact, it doesn’t even have a campaign mode or a single-player story. It simply offers up 35 action-packed missions for players to jump into and start fragging up a storm.
These missions are divided into four categories: Direct Action, Covert, Deadline, and Elite. The first, Direct Action, is your standard objective-based affair, requiring you to reach a point on the map or simply eliminate all enemies with whatever trigger-happy measures you might decide. The Covert mission type requires more tact to avoid being detected, forcing players to use patience and stealth to evade or silently take down enemies. Deadline is based around timed objectives, requiring you to navigate the map efficiently while keeping an eye on the clock; and finally Elite mode, as the name implies, is for those who have mastered Unit 13 and are keen to try it with no save checkpoints or even regenerating health. Overall there’s enough varied and entertaining gameplay here to keep head-shot fanatics happy for hours.
Unit 13 also expands the replayability with a roster of six different characters to chose from, each with their own skill set that require you to adapt when playing through a mission. It’s just a shame that every single one of these characters are so cliched and one-dimensional you wouldn’t mind if they stood on a land-mine. There’s Animal, a commando on steroids who thinks that interior decorating is adding bullet-holes to things; Chuckles the technician, who watched too many episodes of MacGyver; Ringo the wannabe ninja; and Alabama Man who goes bowling and drinks a lot. This last one is stretching the truth a little, but you get the idea. Ignoring the cheesoid nature of the cast, this extra depth of selectable characters is appreciated — especially on the Vita, where portable games often get watered-down and neglected in the longevity department.
However, it’s in Unit 13’s controls that Zipper Interactive really deserve praise. Instead of cramming in every single touch-screen gesture into the game, they have instead opted for clean and conventional controls that any shoot’em-up fan will appreciate. Moving around is performed via the left stick while the right lets you control the camera angle. The left shoulder button lets you look down the sights while the right is fire. The D-Pad is put to full use, allowing players to reload (down), switch the ‘over-the-shoulder’ camera (left and right) and toggle the scope’s view (up). Meanwhile, the traditional face buttons take care of melee (square), switch between primary and secondary weapons (triangle), stick to cover (circle) and run (tapping X).
When the touch-screen does come into play in Unit 13, it’s intuitive and non-obtrusive, even when in the middle of a frenzy of gun-fire. The bottom left corner features your tactical menu, allowing players to cycle through and deploy items like grenades, smoke bombs and C4 explosives. Over on the other right-hand side of the screen, players can opt to tap on the gun icon to reload and switch their aiming sight instead of using the conventional buttons. Finally, tapping on the radar / map on the top of the screen brings up a full map that lists objectives and enemies. In the end, Unit 13 moulds the traditional shooter with the Vita’s touch-screen extras beautifully.
It’s not all praise and glory for Zipper Interactive, though. While the shooting engine and the controls are highly polished, the AI seems to stutter all over the place in Unit 13. Sometimes enemies will be completely oblivious to your crashing around the map — and other times, they’ll possess a supernatural sense of awareness that lets them spot you from 50m away. This happens even within the same map with the same enemy. Enemy patrols also appear to be ‘on rails’ at times, only springing to life when you enter an area on the map, rather than intuitively wandering the map like normal guards should. It’s also easy to see behind the illusion when enemies endlessly spawn from behind doors like magic.
Despite this, Unit 13 is still an explosive claymore in your trouser pocket. After years of disappointment playing shooters on the original PSP, it was hard not to be impressed by what this game has on offer. On top of global highscores and a highly detailed online ranking system, Unit 13 also includes a solid two-player co-operative mode across all the game modes to let you team up with a friend online. Sadly though, this co-op feature does highlight the game’s blatant lack of any competitive online play. I can’t help but feel that Zipper Interactive will either release some Unit 13 DLC to fix this, or at least remedy this in future PS Vita titles. Playing this game also highlights the potential on the Vita for uber-blockbuster titles like Call of Duty.
While some gamers may disapprove of the lack of a story-driven campaign, I believe that Unit 13 is exactly what Vita owners want while on the go. It delivers instant action, without the time consuming clutter of cut-scenes. Furthermore, the game features plenty of customisation and is challenging enough to be replayed over and over in an effort to best a highscore or simply try a different character. Don’t be put off by the game’s amazingly dull looking cover-art: Unit 13 is a well polished shooter that delivers plenty of action and longevity.