Unit 13 is an answer to critics who claim Sony’s handheld endeavours don't match their platform. Zipper Interactive’s third-person shooter seamlessly combines the depth of a fully functioning action title with the accessibility of a smartphone game, and it serves as an example of what developers can achieve when they design content with the PlayStation Vita’s capabilities in mind.
Having cut its teeth on the popular SOCOM franchise, Zipper knows what it takes to create a good third-person shooter, and it shows in Unit 13: smart weapons, a fluid cover mechanic and enjoyable level design provide the game with a solid basis, but it’s in the title’s appreciation of its target platform that it truly shines.
Unlike most modern shooters, Unit 13 is completely uninterested in narrative and set pieces. The game is designed around a slew of bite-sized missions (36 in total) in addition to a handful of High Value Targets (or “harder missions” if you’d prefer). Each of these objectives is accompanied by a short piece of dialogue designed to add context to the scenario, but it’s not essential that you pay attention to these snippets. Instead the game’s intent is to get you into the action as quickly as possible.
Missions are accompanied by length guidelines, allowing you to decipher whether they're suitable for a short bus ride or not. Furthermore, none of the game’s scenarios will last you longer than 10-15 minutes at a time, so it’s a game that brilliantly aware of the requirements of its audience.
And yet for all of Unit 13’s accessibility, it also manages to showcase the beauty of Vita as a dedicated games platform. The shooter makes very few concessions when it comes to control, using the unit as a makeshift DualShock 3 and serving up the kind of control fluidity you’d expect from a console game. Where the Vita lacks inputs, Zipper Interactive improvises, cleverly placing touch screen buttons to the extremities of the system’s screen. You never need to adjust your playing position to reload or release a grenade, because the touch screen is always within reach.
Unit 13’s marriage of accessibility and depth is so effortless that it encourages thought about Vita's wider potential as a whole. The game makes very few compromises, and it proves that console type experiences can work on a handheld when the games are designed with the platform in mind. It’s a combination we’d like to see more of as the Vita matures.
With no real set pieces or narrative on which to hinge its gameplay, Zipper instead opts to emphasise the core gameplay. A scoring system gives the title an arcade flavour, and encourages you to experiment with the way you play; each mission is ranked depending on your achievements, with skilful play allowing you to increase your points tally. A headshot, for example, will reward you with more points than a standard kill, while chaining headshots together will multiply your combo. Other points scoring opportunities include double kills, stealth attacks and avoiding conflict altogether – while completion rewards depend upon the mission type.
In an attempt to keep things varied, Unit 13 boasts a variety of mission objectives. Covert missions demand you stay in the shadows, lavishing you with bonus points for reaching the end of a stage without being spotted. Meanwhile, Deadline missions see you taking on waves of enemies as you race against the clock, Direct Action stages mix together many objectives and Elite missions strip away your regenerating health in order to up the challenge and tension.
Unit 13’s final mission type, High Value Targets, is unlocked once you achieve specific quotas in the main game. These are extremely challenging stages that require you to work through heavy resistance to seize a wanted military leader. The problem with these stages is that they are long, difficult and lack checkpoints, breaking the accessible format that the rest of the game strives so hard to achieve. We can appreciate the tension derived from your character’s mortality in these scenarios, but the levels are packed with constantly respawning enemies designed to artificially inflate the difficulty and it all ends up feeling frustrating as a result.
Thankfully the shooting is rock solid, and good enough to make you want to progress through these stages regardless. Weapons feel heavy and punchy, and while the game’s slightly finicky targeting system is aided by a hefty helping of auto aim, the title never fails to make you feel deadly. There are a total of six operatives to choose from, and as you play with each character you’ll earn experience points which can be used to unlock new weapons and gear, encouraging you to return to previous stages and increase your score.
The entire game can be played in co-op over PlayStation Network too. While the functionality is basic (the game only supports two players), it works well and takes great advantage of the Vita’s built-in microphone. Before long you’ll be synchronising stealth head shots with strangers over the internet and making an assault on the leaderboards with friends.
And that, unfortunately, is Unit 13’s biggest problem. Despite its arcade gameplay and points heavy design, Zipper’s forgotten to properly implement the leaderboard component of the game. At the time of writing, the title only tracks the top 1,000 scores meaning, unless you’re really good, neither you nor your friends are likely to get ranked. The problem’s accentuated by the fact that the game even includes leaderboards on each stage to show the position of your friends, but unless you’re buddies with some amazing players you’re never going to see a username there. For a game that's so well polished elsewhere, it’s staggering that the developer made such a crucial oversight in one of the key areas of the game.
The flaw extends to the title’s otherwise genius Daily Mission mode too. As the name suggests, this component delivers a brand new, custom mission every day and encourages you to play against the leaderboards in order to set the best time. But seeing as the leaderboards don’t track anyone outside of the top 1,000, it’s essentially pointless.
Visually the game’s unlikely to set the world on fire, but the environments are varied and appealing. There’s a night club level, an oil refinery and a Middle Eastern market place. It’s bog-standard stuff, but Zipper Interactive shows good use of its resources, bringing the environments to life on the Vita’s screen despite the game’s evidently low budget.
Unit 13 showcases the strengths of the PlayStation Vita fairly well, with the quality of its core gameplay complemented by the accessibility of its mission design. Some of the objectives let the format down, but for the most part the game is perfectly suited to its parent platform. Great shooting makes up for the adequate presentation, but leaderboard hiccups restrict the game from reaching its full potential. Still, if you’re eager for a dedicated shooter to play on your new handheld then Unit 13 is a great option – and it’s got us dizzy about the potential of Call of Duty Vita when it eventually arrives.