Developer: Zipper Interactive
Medium: Vita Card/Digital Download
Players: 1 – 2 (co-op)
I have maybe, to this day, spent more time playing games from the SOCOM: U.S. Navy Seals series than any other military-themed shooter, third person or first person. There is (or was) just something about Zipper Interactive's slower-paced, more realistic take on the genre that I have always appreciated. I've even enjoyed the PSP iterations to spite the control limitations due to the lack of buttons and a second analog stick. With the availability of portable hardware better suited to such a game, Zipper has returned with Unit 13, an impressive new IP that takes a chunk of what they've learned from SOCOM and modernizes it with an interesting set of social and community features. It’s too bad that it’s Zipper Interactive very last game.
Sony and Zipper labeled Unit 13 as a "social shooter", and that's a pretty fitting description of the game. By social, they don't mean posting to Facebook or Twitter, they mean being always connected to the rest of the Unit 13 community. The game is very leaderboard driven, meaning nearly all of your activities are tracked and either attached to a leaderboard of some type or sent out as alerts to friends and other players. If you play a mission and rank higher than a set of friends, those friends will receive notifications of your accomplishments. All of the milestones you reach while playing the game, offline or online, are kept track of and made available to the community (and geographically local players using NEAR) in a way that tries to hook you and them into spending more time with the game. For the most part, it works.
Unit 13, unlike SOCOM or most other similar shooters, doesn't even make the slightest attempt at telling a story. There is no single player campaign, and there are no cut-scenes or anything of the sort to fill in any details about either the game or the characters. Basically, you have access to several members of a Special Forces squad and there are a large set of missions "ripped from the headlines" to take on, and that's essentially as deep as it goes. Each mission is categorized and described, briefly, and the game gives you the ability to select a character (or choose the one that is suggested), and the goal is to complete the stated objective(s) as efficiently as possible.
Now this is where things in Unit 13 get more interesting. Each mission is ranked by difficulty and length and falls into one of several categories including those that require stealth, speed, firepower or all of the above. If you fail an objective, for example being detected during a Covert mission type or taking too much time to complete a Deadline mission, the mission ends and you must restart. Beyond the standard mission types there are also specialized and especially difficult High Value Target missions that are unlocked throughout the game that task you with taking down a boss of sorts. Additionally, there is a special Mission of the Day assigned to the whole community on a daily basis, which gives you a chance to top the leaderboards, if only for a short time.
Everything you accomplish during each mission in the game, from pulling off headshots to maintaining stealth, is tied to experience points, which in turn determines your 1 – 5 star ranking for each respective mission upon completion. These points also feed into the character rankings, the relatively simple upgrade system and the online global and friends leaderboards.
Unit 13 was clearly inspired by the SOCOM series, though the gameplay is a little more streamlined and faster paced. You can't hit the dirt and crawl for example and there's no jumping either other than in context sensitive situations. There's no proper breach command either and the cover options are fairly limited. Zipper made good use of the front and rear touch screen capabilities of the Vita for performing actions such as vaulting over objects, reloading weapons, deactivating sensors or mines, manipulating the map, and even switching shoulders while aiming. Even though it doesn't take many hits to take you down (one well placed shot will do it), Unit 13 is definitely geared more towards action than most of Zipper's previous games.
With the good, comes the not-so-good. The mission and challenge-centric formula works really well at the beginning, but as you work your way across the grid of missions, things begin to feel a little repetitive. There are more than 40 or so missions in Unit 13 across all categories, which sounds like a lot especially considering that they can all be played through with an online or local co-op partner. You can also revisit each mission in an effort to achieve a better rank and score, and there is the option to play them as a "dynamic mission" that randomizes certain elements. Besides the somewhat recycled feeling, the missions get decidedly more difficult and less bite-sized rather quickly, requiring a greater and greater time commitment for each game session. For a portable game, that isn't necessarily something I'd prefer.
The online co-op in Unit 13 is definitely worth focusing on a bit more since it's done so well. You can jump into the online mode, select any unlocked mission and character, and pair up with a buddy or random player online. While you'll both get credit for completing a mission in the form of character experience and rankings, new single player missions are not unlocked while playing in co-op. Thanks to the Vita's built-in microphone, you don't even need to pair up your Bluetooth headset to voice chat and coordinate with the other player, which is definitely a great feature.
Visually, Unit 13 is a nice looking PS Vita title that at times looks like a PS3-quality game. Other than some odd textures here and there, the characters and environments look great, and there are more than a few advanced special effects being tossed around by the hardware. It feels a little framey at first, though players that are familiar with the SOCOM series will probably feel right at home. The audio is filled with the trademark SOCOM headset chatter and dramatic waves of music, not to mention the distinctive "pew-pew-pew" of silenced weapons.
Being a fan of the Zipper Interactive and their games, I obviously need to mention the closure of the studio which was confirmed by SCEA recently. Unit 13 is a solid final game for the company and is a unique experience as compared to the rest of the existing PS Vita library. It should more than satisfy most long-time fans of the SOCOM series as well as those who are fans of tactical military shooters. [a 21 gun salute goes out to Zipper Interactive]