People love Nathan Drake. And it's safe to say that Uncharted: Golden Abyss will be the premiere adventure title for the Vita. However, it's looking like Unit 13 — from Zipper Interactive, the developer behind SOCOM and MAG — will the one you'll want to sate that thirst for Rainbow Six-style antics.
Stephen Totilo's already had one look at Unit 13 and came away impressed with how networked the third-person shooter is. My time with Unit 13 goes even further to show that it's as far as you can get from a game like Golden Abyss.
For example, it doesn't have a story. Instead, it gives mobile gamers an experience more similar to smartphones games: small bites instead of the whole cow. Zipper manages this by exchanging a full-fledged plot for 36 standalone missions.
Those missions all vary in difficulty, length (how long they take to complete), and the type of gameplay. Unit 13 offers six playable characters, each with a different specialty: Marksman, Commando, Technician, Pointman, Gunner and Infiltrator. They all are exactly as they sound. Stealth missions will be more difficult for the Gunner, and timed missions will be hell for the Technician. Every mission comes with a recommended character, but it's up to players who to use, and ultimately which characters to level up.
With experience, characters gain more abilities that fit with their specialty. For example, the Gunner will receive more powerful weapons with more ammo capacity. Bonus points are awarded with specialty moves, such as headshots or stealth attacks, plus mission-specific bonuses. Stealth missions where no enemies are killed, for instance, will earn a massive bonus.
Missions can last anywhere from 5-25 minutes, which is critical for mobile gaming. It's not necessarily enjoyable to have what we'd consider a full console game on a handheld, so Unit 13 takes a more Wario Ware approach. The levels can be very quick, but it's up to players how deeply they involve themselves in any mission and how long they take to finish. One mission I played had a 3-minute timer while another was listed as short, but I spent 10 minutes avoiding all enemy contact. It's very possible, depending on the mission, to spend an hour on a single one.
Unit 13 supports cooperative play over a Wi-Fi network for all 36 missions. However, cooperative play only works over a Wi-Fi network; there'll be no 3G or ad-hoc play.
All missions are scored with 1-5 stars, which are added up to unlock boss battles, or High Value Targets (HVT). Making up a total of nine additional levels, HVT missions are harder, have no checkpoints, and can't be played with a friend. Interestingly, players who complete HVT missions can share access to those missions (each new mission is accessible after earning 20 stars) with anyone on their friends list or Vita owners in close enough proximity (using Near). The unlocked boss battle is only available for three hours, but it's an interesting feature that lets friends try out the tougher mission you may have unlocked, if only for a short while.
The gameplay feels what you'd expect from the makers of SOCOM. It's a 3rd person over-the-shoulder shooter that looks great on the 5" display. From my time with the game it ran smoothly and proved to be challenging but not overwhelming. I played two missions, one stealth and one timed, using the recommended characters. The stealth mission required me to steal two documents and return without sounding the alarm. The timed mission used the Gunner class, but it took several tries before I could balance running and gunning with cover gunplay to meet the short 3-minute window.
What I found most appealing about the game is that it felt like a real shooter experience on a handheld device, thanks both to the physical controls and the excellent graphics. PSP shooters haven't been significantly successful, which many attribute to a lack of a second analogue stick, but with touch-screen functions, plenty of buttons and even the rear touch panel, the Vita has more than enough controls to calm any uncertainty you may have about hardcore shooters. From my experience with Zipper's latest, Unit 13 fits the bill as a true portable shooter.
Unit 13 is expected to release shortly after the PS Vita's launch on February 22 in the US.