On-the-go, portable shooters have almost always been historically bad. A couple of reasons explain this, but the most notable fact is that for most of their existence, handheld consoles have lacked a second analog stick. Attempting to play a shooter without a second analog stick dedicated to the camera is a lot like trying to play soccer without a soccer ball or rhythmic gymnastics without the shame and embarrassment of your family members. It just doesn't feel right, and without a second analog stick most shooters play about as smoothly as drunken piggy back ride given on an unpaved road. Thus enters the new, sexy handheld on the market, the PS Vita, which boasts double analog sticks and the apparent promise that shooters will now control better than absolute feet. Unit 13 was the first true shooter to come out for the Vita, and the good news is it controls nearly as well as you would expect from a home console. As for the bad news, well, this is all the game aspires to do, and it largely feels more like "Handheld Shooter: The Tech Demo" than a real, truly fleshed out experience.
Let's plunge first into the story. Terrorists are antagonistic and need to be shot. Sadly, that's as far as the 'complexity' of the plot goes. Each mission is preceded by a short briefing outlining the point of the mission, but every single one of them could have been replaced with the words "stop bad guys doing bad things for they are bad" and literally nothing at all would be lost. There is some terrorist organisation you need to systematically eradicate, but you could swap the final mission with the first one and the plot would retain its sense. Even cereal commercials have more sophisticated plots than this game, and while not every game needs to be telling an epic story to keep my interest, it would've been nice if the game gave you some reason for doing all these things other than "because we said so".
The lack of the story could at least partially be explained by the fact that Unit 13 is deliberately developed with a handheld market in mind. Everything occurs in bite sized pieces, and things like story and character development are ignored mostly or even entirely so you can get straight into the action. Most missions generally require a mere handful of minutes to accomplish, and the game seems entirely designed around the idea that some people might only have five or ten minutes to play at a time. Jump in, play a quick mission, jump out. This was meant to be a true handheld shooter, and in the most basic of sense it certainly succeeds there. The controls work well, and the inclusion of the second analog stick makes this probably the most faithful handheld adaption of what has traditionally been a genre made for consoles. Combined with the quick missions, you seem to have a recipe for success if, for example, you're on a bus or a train, etc.
The bad news is that portability is the only scenario where I would find Unit 13 particularly worth playing. The basic mechanics here are workable, but this is about as basic a shooter as you can find on the market. There is cover to duck behind or peer around and enemies are usually polite enough to patrol around areas where there is plenty available to use. If a firefight breaks out, it usually plays out like a protracted version of shoot-a-mole, with enemies ducking down and then popping up to spray and prey wildly in your general direction until you quickly emerge from cover to double-tap their brains and duck back down, or until you yourself succumb to their hail of bullets. Although everything works, and the controls are certainly responsive enough, the game just never gets around to actually doing anything interesting with any of them. It involves a similar firefight repeating itself, with later levels only made harder by throwing more and more enemies of varying archetypes (snipers, gunners, shotgun-men or carbine-armed thugs, etc) who sometimes toss a grenade or two.
The enemy AI is sort of all over the place, and can at best be described as erratic. There were numerous times in the game where I would shoot someone and a nearby ally would be alerted. He would run over, hide in cover for a while, and then, as if suffering from severe short term amnesia, would rise again and begin resuming his patrol. The line between "Oh jeez is my friend a corpse?" and "Well, I guess he died of natural causes, time to go walk in a straight line with my back turned to the body," is about thirty seconds, and the enemies feel like dumbed down versions of competent opposition you'd find in real shooters.
Then sometimes the opposition goes absolutely berserk, resulting in some of the most bizarre and eerie things I've seen in a game. A couple of different times in the game, I would get to a location and the enemies would suddenly remember they were in a game. They would run in a full-blooded sprint to the location I just got to, move to their spots in a blind panic, and then began slowly patrolling as if they had been doing it the entire time. It was like I caught the game in the middle of a smoke break, and the enemies realised ten seconds too late they were supposed to be in a game. It felt like the video game equivalent of a middle school play, where actors will occasionally miss their cue leaving the curtains opening up to an empty stage while the bumbling students do their best to conceal their embarrassment (and acne).
Even when they aren't putting on comedic plays for purposes of hilarity, the AI never reaches the point you want in your shooters. They are entirely competent most of the time, but it really doesn't extend much beyond that. Enemies duck behind cover, peek out to shoot at you, and, like sitting ducks, leave their big melon heads out in the open for bullet insertion. Every now and then some guy might rush you with a shotgun or lob a couple of grenades your direction, but things get predictable quickly and all the encounters blend together in one big bowl of generic mush after only a couple of missions into the game. Even when functioning at its very best, there is just no complexity to the AI and these just feel like the guys that just barely passed "Generic Shooter Villain" Community College and were engaged in the first employment contract they could find right afterwards.
There is a nagging sense of Deja-vu that permeates the entire game, and not just because they use the exact same four enemy types for almost every mission in the game. There are thirty-six main missions and nine high value targets, but everything occurs on the same handful of maps you keep going back to periodically. You think after you cleared a map out of enemies and saved a town once, everything would be good but apparently we keep forgetting to install that home security system or something because you can guarantee you'll be going back to the same place another three or four times. Then we have the missions themselves, where you are doing the same exact thing in every single mission. I mean they might dress it up in a funny mustache to hope we won't notice, but going to a location to get intel is exactly the same thing of going somewhere to bug something which is exactly the same thing as going somewhere to sabotage equipment. Go somewhere and interact with thing, that's it, that's the entire game. Sometimes you need to shoot a specific person, but usually you're doing that anyway. So you end up going through the same map and fighting the same enemies to accomplish the same goals you've already done a dozen times before. There are hamster wheels that repeat themselves less than Unit 13. Everything just feels copy and pasted, like the game was made less by a team of developers and more by a guy at Kinko's with a bunch of quarters and access to a copy machine.
One of the few interesting things the game does is implement a point system to allow for leaderboard competition on levels both amongst friends and against a worldwide audience. You get points for shooting enemies, multipliers for killing enemies or completing tasks quickly, and extra points depending on how exactly you killed someone. The total score for a level is given and you are ranked on a scale of one to five stars and then shown your place on the global leaderboard. It creates this nice, arcade-y sort of feel to the game and really helps add a little bit of meat to the otherwise brief and unremarkable missions. The lone downside is that it frequently forces you to play a specific way regardless of how you wish to tackle the mission. There are certain ways to make sure you maximise your score and improve the total number of stars you get on a mission, and while you can go through them however you like if you do it the "wrong" way you can be sure the game is going to sit there at the end, clicking its tongue at you and grounding you for the weekend because of how irresponsible you were.
Missions come in one of five different flavours. There are your standard ops that come with no special frills attached that are the generic game mode in an already generic game. Elite missions are the buffed up bigger brother of the standard mission, and while the basic concept is the same your health will not regenerate except at specific checkpoints and failure in the mission will force you to start the whole thing over from the beginning. These were actually the missions I enjoyed the most, as they gave the game a real sense of challenge that most missions were sorely missing. High value targets are unlocked by earning enough stars in the main game, and generally play out like elite missions except there is one specific person you are aiming to kill at the very end. While a new big bad is briefly teased at the beginning of each of these missions, they are entirely interchangeable and you won't remember anything about them by the time the mission completes.
The only two that really force you to play any differently are the stealth and the timed missions. The timed missions are particularly annoying, forcing you to basically run from location to location to interact with whatever object you need to interact with (or kill the required person) before the time runs out. More points are given depending on how quickly you finish, and the missions tend to play with all the subtlety of a bull in a china shop if that bull particularly hated china shops. The stealth missions are slightly better, and you are rewarded for actually allowing enemies to live and sneaking by unnoticed. Raise an alarm or alert and enemy and the mission is instantly failed (unless you can remedy the situation as quickly and murderously as possible). Despite the various mission types, the repeating locations, enemies, and goals make almost every mission in a particular class feel exactly the same. Everything just blends together, and one stealth mission will play out essentially the same way all the others do.
Some sort of variety is meant to be added by giving you six different players to choose from, each with their own strengths and advantages. They come with different starting outputs and can be leveled up to unlock new weapons and special score multipliers. While this does add some additional variety to the missions, it does so in the same way that wearing a fake mustache technically makes you a different person at the "free samples" tray at your local grocery market. "Shoot bad guys" is still the underlying maxim of the entire game, and it doesn't matter which of the six guys you send out to go do the job. Typically, you will just find one you like, level him up all the way to ten, and then forget about the rest. The game offers a particular recommendation you should use for each specific mission, but it really doesn't matter and most the changes are truly cosmetic unless, maybe, you were talking about stealth missions. Some have better score multipliers that are suited for certain ops, but other than that you won't be seeing much difference unless you are able to differentiate every fork in your silverware drawer.
The online component to the game works fairly well, although the stuff here is pretty basic. You can jump in with another player for any mission of your choice, which will either make things about twice as easy or nearly impossible depending on the skill of whichever random slob happens to join your game. I once was trying to grind stealth missions for extra XP, and the guy who joined me was either trolling me or recently suffered a lobotomy, as he kept running up and alerting the first guard before promptly dying, which was doubly frustrating because by the end I was hoping to kill him myself. The truth is the missions just don't have the complexity to require a second player, and even in the best case scenario you are just playing the game on easy mode because the challenge never ramps up to adapt to the presence of a second player.
The daily challenges are an interesting idea and add a bit more longevity to the game. Essentially, the game will throw some new unique challenge to you every day and you compete with everyone else in the world to get the highest score possible in one go. It is admittedly a nice way to capitalise on the arcade-y feel of the game, and one of the few unique good ideas the game has. They are really only superficially different from the actual missions in the game, but at the very least it gives you a new challenge every day. All of the missions additionally have remixed versions after you complete them with three stars. This theoretically gives you double the missions, but as you are completing the same general goal on the same map it ends up feeling like the exact same mission just played over again.
Unit 13 does succeed from a technical standpoint, and the game looks great on the Vita. The visuals are crisp and are about on par with the things you could find on the PS3. The impressiveness of the visuals is considerably undermined by the generic feel the game has. As for the maps and backgrounds, they lack their own personality. There is one segment in one of the levels that takes place in a dance club, which is pretty excellent, but feels out of place because everything else has the look of something out of dozens of other generic shooters that came out in the past years. You are in the Middle East fighting terrorists. Just by telling you that, you can already imagine 95% of the game's levels, and you'd be absolutely right. The audio is fine, and while there is nothing particularly remarkable about it, there is also nothing so distressingly bad as to take away from the experience.
In conclusion, there is very limited appeal to Unit 13 and only someone desperately desiring a shooter on the go should give this game a look. This feels less like a real game, and more like a tech demo Sony put together to show that their new, sexy system could theoretically run a shooter the way a big boy console does. Everything here works, and the second analog stick serves to prove that the Vita could see some excellent shooters coming its way in the future. But Unit 13 itself is more of a proof-of-concept for this than an actual worthwhile experience. This is a game trying to get by on as little content as possible. Boring combat, poor AI, and repetition in enemies, environment, and missions puts Unit 13 less in the shooter genre and more in the animal sedative genre. Entirely functional but thoroughly unimpressive, Unit 13 will have the honour of being the Vita's first shooter and first game to find its way to the bargain bin.