Unit 13 review: Fired up, feels okay

Developer Zipper Interactive cut its teeth on the PlayStation 2 with the SOCOM series, becoming legend to military shooter fans with a trio of outstanding titles. In the following generation, however, Zipper hasn't been as consistent. Initially, my time with Unit 13, the dev's new military shooter for Vita, was nothing short of a love affair, but after only a few hours the game quickly lost steam.

Rather than offer a story, Unit 13 presents itself as a set of over 35 missions, which offer a variety of objectives. Some require covert infiltration and some, for instance, must be accomplished within a specific timeframe.

In the beginning, Unit 13 does a great job of pushing its leaderboard mentality, where score is king and it's your runs versus the world, but the entire framework feels meaningless. Orders are barked at you, and you execute them, with little in the way of reasoning other than, "These dudes are bad, so kill them before they do their bad dude things."%Gallery-140087% Things also start to lose steam when you visit the same locales again and again. The gameplay breaks when you realize how dysfunctional Unit 13's AI is. Once an enemy has been downed, the remaining enemies will scatter and point weapons toward your last known position -- a good strategy. Not such a good strategy? Waiting there for the next five minutes for you to show your face. Sometimes, however, the AI will forget about the friend you've just shot in the head and continue walking around in patrol. I grew tired of that kind of AI in the last generation of consoles. If real terrorists were this idiotic, wars would be won within minutes.

The "easy" and "normal" levels assigned feature a set number of enemies, making it a fun game of cat and mouse. You are a hunter, and you know exactly how many targets are on the field. In higher difficulty settings, enemy alerts are extrodinarily sensitive and being spotted opens up endless enemy wells (i.e. "monster closets"). On more than one occasion, I was killed by enemies that spawned out of dead ends or previously cleared rooms. Difficulty levels in Unit 13 have little to do with how hard each level can be and are more a question of how much patience you have.

What's more disturbing is Unit 13's tendency to keep enemy movement frozen until the player enters an area. Using an overview map, you can spot enemy locations in distant areas ... where they will remain static until you enter. And every time you replay a mission, enemies will be in the same locations. They're just waiting for you to show up before they begin their patrol, removing the element of suspense from subsequent runs.

Placement issues aside, it's the spirit of Unit 13 that I really take exception to. I felt that my leaderboard scores were better when I rushed through missions and got into massive firefights, as opposed to being strategic about my engagements. The score seems much more weighted toward being fast and lethal than it does toward being patient and methodical. As you progress, you unlock new levels and gear for each of Unit 13's six playable soldiers, each with their own specialty (stealth, sniping, demolitions). Completing missions nets you a star ranking. As you collect stars, you gain access to High Value Target missions in a separate mode, where it's up to you to take out an important enemy asset. With difficulty ramped up for these missions, they only serve to highlight some of the game's major A.I. issues.

One fantastic feature, however, is the ability to play Dynamic versions of the game's mission environments. When selected, this mode will randomly select both the difficulty level and objectives. It's the one mode that really keeps the action fresh. Two-player online co-op is also available for these missions (as well as standard missions) and, if you can find a match (it was hard for me), they work well on a technical level. But your enjoyment will vary based on how team-oriented your online ally is: one person, with whom I was repeatedly paired, evidently thought he was playing Track & Field and ninja'ed over to the objectives as quickly as possible, with little regard for strategically dissecting enemy lines. Padding some of the features, Zipper has included a daily mission challenge and leaderboard.

Unit 13 has its shining moments, but there's an odd inconsistency to Zipper's execution. There are A.I. issues and, thanks to the lack of story, an air of meaninglessness to the proceedings, though the actual shooting is well-executed and fun. Unit 13 is far from Tier 1 in quality, but it's still something I'll keep coming back to until Zipper's next big thing.

This review is based on a retail copy of Unit 13 for the PlayStation Vita, provided by Sony.

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