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The military-minded folks at zipper interactive, the developers of MAG and more famously, SOCOM have set their scopes on Sony’s newest hardware, the portable PlayStation Vita.

Their intention, it seems, was to take their particular, tactical brand of shooter and shrink it to fit in your pocket.

Mission accomplished.

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As the first true twin-sticked handheld (forgetting for a moment that Nintendo’s released an add-on giving their 3DS a second analogue) the PlayStation Vita’s the perfect platform for a condensed shooter, and Zipper makes it fit beautifully.They’ve managed to compress a tactical, third-person shooter and deliver it up in easily manageable bite sized chunks – perfect for portable gaming, even though storytelling takes a hit as a result.

Centered around a group of generic, tough as nails spec ops types, bringing generic middle eastern Terrorist types to justice, whatever story there’s supposed to be is paper thin. There’s little as far as narrative goes to compel you to play through the game’s 36 missions, but because they’re so fun to blast through, it hardly matters.

The game’s single player campaign is delivered through three dozen missions of varying difficulty, length and type. They the sort of activities you’d expect of a tactical shooter; assassinations, intel-gathering, and clearing areas of assorted of evil bastard – y’know…Chuck Norrisy stuff.

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Interspersed with the time sensitive activities, where you have limited temporal resources and have to get in and out, there are run-and-gun scenarios, requiring little more than stockpiles of ammo and a healthy dose of bravado. These are countered by the stealth missions, reminiscent of Metal Gear Solid (but without the film-length cutscenes) where discretion is key. The last mission type – and as their name implies, most difficult – are the Elite missions. They ditch regenerating health and checkpoints, giving you a rewarding experience where advanced heuristics are necessary for success, and where a single faux pas can necessitate starting again. They range in length from two minutes to ten, making them perfect for quick, bathroom bound sessions or a daily commute.

Though you’ll play each mission as a lone operative, you’re given a handful to choose from, each with specific abilities tailored for certain types of situations. You’ll earn experience points for completing assignments, unlocking new abilities and an increasing arsenal of suitably punch weaponry.

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You’ll be timed and ranked for each mission, getting higher scores from chaining attacks, scoring headsets or being exceptionally stealthy. AI behaviour is predictable, allowing you to learn what they’ll be doing based on trial and error, giving it an arcade sensibility. With the Vita keeping track of your scores, and offering up easy comparisons to your friends’ rankings for the sake of healthy competition, the score-attack ethos expands the arcade feel. That’s not the only way to interact with your friend; you can play through each of the missions with a co-op partner through the Internet, which works rather flawlessly, and is probably the highlight of the game.

Couple that with the High Value Target mode – which sees you scouring levels for specific terrorists , and a daily mission provided by the game’s servers where you’ve got one shot to make your mark on the leaderboards and you’ve got a full-featured and competent tactical 3rd person shooter with an impressive amount of content. It’s made all the meatier by the ability to play dynamically remixed versions missions where targets, enemies and intel are randomly placed on each map.

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It controls as you’d expect; the twin sticks make moving and the sort of aiming precision you’ve come to expect from console shooters a reality on handhelds.The left trigger is used for aiming, with he right, rather obviously, for firing. The lack of secondary triggers is made up for by the touch-screen interface, with a touchable icon for reloading and another for throwing grenades. Pressing the screen also allows you to interact with objects. There’s little use of the Vita’s expanded input methods, and I would have liked to see something like Uncharted’s gyro aiming, or use of the rear touch pad for more than just changing the side you aim from.

It also doesn’t quite make full use of the vita’s graphical prowess. It looks good enough; characters are detailed and there are some surprising uses of particle effects and lighting, but the art direction is woefully bland – so the handful of different environments really all start to look the same towards the end. Hardly a showcase for the vita – but a fantastic look at a promising future for a genre that’s been overlooked and underbaked on handhelds.

Scoring:

Gameplay: 7/10.

If you’re a fan of SOCOM, you;’ll be right at home with Unit 13 – which plays exactly as you’d want and expect from a shooter. The AI is predictable, but the arcade layer and the compulsion to do perfect runs makes it incredibly fun. Pity about the complete lack of narrative though.

Design and presentation: 6.5/10.

Unit 13 blends in to the background a little too well, and doesn’t artistically differentiate itself from the cut-and-paste shooters that clutter store shelves. It’s designed to take advantage of the Vita’s new social features – and it does so with aplomb. it’s a pity it’s so bland, and overladen with cheesy, gung-ho bravado.

Value: 7/10.

There are more modes and mission types than you can shake a stick at; solo and co-op play, dynamic missions, server-assigned daily missions and more. you’ll be playing Unit 13 for ages.

Overall: 7.0/10.

It’s hardly a showcase title, but it does give us a glimpse of what the future of shooters on the vita holds – and that future is bright. Unit 13 is a surprisingly fun, surprisingly addictive shooter and well worth picking up, especially for fans of shooters who’re patiently waiting for a portable Call of Duty.

[Unit 13 is available exclusively on the PlayStation Vita]

Last Updated: March 12, 2012

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Geoffrey Tim

Editor. I’m old, grumpy and more than just a little cynical. One day, I found myself in possession of a NES, and a copy of Super Mario Bros 3. It was that game that made me realise that games were more than just toys to idly while away time – they were capable of being masterpieces. I’m here now, looking for more of those masterpieces.

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