Version tested PlayStation Vita
Where does the character of a game reside? If it's in the art and the scene-setting, then Unit 13's a bit of a non-starter. Its levels offer pretty variations on some standard shooter environments, its mission objectives are pure empty-headed Clancy, and its titular squad of elite heroes (with the exception of the elderly Zeus, who looks a little like a chummy bird-watcher who's stumbled into the combat zone by accident) are all khakis, shades and gun belts. You'll often forget who you're meant to be playing as - even while you're watching them sneak into enemy territory.
If character's found in the feel of a game, though - in the tone of an encounter, the weight of a weapon and the thrill of a downed foe - then Sony's latest isn't doing too badly at all. Look past the visuals, ignore all of the scrolling text, block out the voice that's chattering in your ear-piece, and you've suddenly got a tense and tactical asymmetrical combat treat that delivers a smart range of commute-friendly thrills.
In fact, yank out absolutely all of the fiction and you're looking at a promising template for a third-person Die Hard game. Stepping away from the cluttered battlefields of MAG, Zipper's new blaster revels in a sense of thrifty loneliness. It's one of you (or two, in co-op) against an awful lot of them. And while there's levelling to be done, multipliers to be maximised and unlocks to be earned long-term, for the most part this is all about sneaking around, adapting to whatever the designers throw at you and surviving from one headshot to the next.
Years spent working on SOCOM mean that Zipper knows a thing or two about headshots. Gun a man down carelessly in Unit 13 and you'll be told that it's "Just a Kill". Too bad, buddy: you missed the chance to do something special there. Snipe them elegantly from afar, however, and you'll get a score boost and the rakish buzz that comes from a game where the weapons feel lethal, precise and carefully differentiated.
Some of the more arcade-y elements of Unit 13 might seem incongruous at first - you'll get points for chaining certain kinds of attacks, for example, and on advanced levels it's fun to play the game as if it was a slightly more measured version of The Club. But they all harness that violent sense of connection: the blast of a shotgun, the spray of an assault rifle, the hot swipe of a combat knife up-close. Ouch! Sure, the aiming lock's fairly generous and the cover system is not quite as refined as Gears, but you've got grenades and a decent blind fire option to mess around with, while the AI behaves in a sensible manner for the most part and rarely spams you with respawns.
All of this is married to a range of mission types that urge you to experiment with different approaches to the battlefield, whether you're going in all guns blazing, racing against the clock or stealthing through puzzle-y levels in which a single spot by a foe means game over. The best of Unit 13's challenges limit your health regeneration to specific save points, ramping the McClane Factor through the roof. Even the least inspired has the good grace to drop you deep behind enemy lines and into a set-up that feels wonderfully unfair. Now I know what a TV dinner feels like.
Your handful of available operatives are essentially different classes, and while I wouldn't want to be stuck next to any of them on a bus ride, they all level well, offering up a range of distinct perks, score bonuses, weapons and attachments - some of which can be shared with team-mates in co-op. Although Unit 13 only has a limited number of objectives and environments - there are warehouses, dusty marketplaces and the conference suite of what looks like a mid-level Sheraton - they're clipped together skilfully by a developer that knows how to work economically.
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Play the game with flair and you'll steadily unlock a series of High Value Targets: these pit you against some hilariously broad stereotypes and are also extremely tough to complete. All missions, meanwhile, offer smart concessions to your average handheld special forces operative, telling you how long they're likely to take as well as how hard they're going to be. You'll almost always make it to the extraction point before you have to change tubes at Embankment or get off the bus for the supermarket.
Daily challenges offer the same mission to players all around the world, allowing you to fight it out in the leaderboards, while dynamic challenges, once you've earned them, scramble your objectives each time you play, stopping you from memorising your way to victory. Finally, online co-op - two players only - works brilliantly thanks to some non-linear map design and the Vita's no-fuss voice chat. This is the kind of game where you'll find yourself whispering to each other nervously as you prioritise targets, while rushing across a battlefield to revive a partner can be genuinely thrilling stuff.
It's a shame, then, that Zipper's got carried away with all the standard army camouflage and created a package that's going to blend in a little too effortlessly when it hits the shelves. Look once at Unit 13 and you'll probably write it off as a non-entity. Look twice, and you'll see a game where some really smart ideas are lurking just beneath the surface.
8 / 10