Game review: Unit 13 for PS Vita

Readers, I come to you a broken and defeated reviewer. In the last two weeks, I have tried and bounced from five games. Some, like Pillars of Eternity and Kao the Kangaroo, I knew were going to be iffy at the start. But then there was Party Hard 2, a game I wanted to love, until they kept tossing in new ingredients I never asked for. (Why was “Kill everyone” dubiously upgraded to “Follow a boring checklist” anyway?)

Running out of options, I decided to go back and play something I started ages ago, but never reviewed, Unit 13. Back when I first got my PS Vita, I bought the digital version of the game, only to discover that any attempt to play it in English caused it to revert to French. At the time, my Italian wasn’t strong enough for me to play that version, so I ended up getting a refund.

But it always stuck with me for reasons I couldn’t put into words. The simple premise for a third person shooter, a mercenary team taking out terrorists, had just enough meat on it to carry forward a set of missions of increasing difficulty within a limited number of locations. It’s kind of like if Counter-Strike had a single player version.

Coming back into it, and now having a good enough grasp of Italian to understand each mission, I’d say the story still works, mostly. It’s definitely in the popcorn movie range of ideas, meaning don’t think too hard about who is funding the group or who is hiring them. Just go in and kill bad guys because they are bad, and you are good. Each mission is graded by stars, but even a two-star run can feel rewarding after I just barely survived a four-on-one firefight inside a cramped building.

I do have to lament the dialogue of the terrorists. When I first played and they were chatting in their native languages, the subtitles being in French or Italian made everything they said sound so mysterious. But now I can understand the subtitles, and their conversations are mostly banal stuff like “I’m hungry,” “I need a new rifle,” or “I’m so bored.” There’s a conversation among patrolling terrorists about getting a stomach ache from bad food, and looking forward to going home so their mommy can cook for them. I am completely, one hundred percent dead serious.

Now every once in a while two guards will be talking about something in the mission, and that’s enough to convince me to sneak around and eavesdrop instead of going in with guns blazing. I just wish more of the dialogue had that quality instead of “What are we having for lunch?”

When the game is working right, missions feel tight and challenging. Enemies don’t just run at you in a straight line. They seek cover, and many times will work to flank or pinch your position if you try camping in one spot for two long. They’ll toss grenades in an effort to smoke out a mercenary’s position and have pretty damned good accuracy no matter what weapons they use. The game wants you to strike, move, and strike again, and it hands out extra points if you can do this fast enough to keep a bonus meter filled.

However, the cover system is all kinds of wonky. Sometimes a mercenary slides up to a corner after pressing the circle button, but the mercenary turns away from the corner instead of toward it. So I try to turn them, and they back out of cover and get shot. Other times, they might go into cover in the right direction, but because they aren’t right on the corner, they won’t take aim with their rifles. Lastly, there are times when mercenaries will enter cover, and any attempt to move, even just to turn around, results in them standing up, which is not ideal when one is trying to avoid being seen and/or shot.

Also, if there’s any way of aiming explosives that makes sense, the game never did a good job of explaining it. Each mercenary only has two or three explosives per mission, and for me the first always bounces off a doorway and comes back at me, or it flies so far past the target that it does no damage.

But even with its warts, I came back to Unit 13 because of its rinse and repeat cycle. Sure, I cleared a mission once with the recommended mercenary, but then I can try again with one of the others, or try a different strategy to get a better score. Each mercenary has levels, so finishing a mission and scoring well enough to level up means going to the next battle with upgraded stats.

There’s a lot of freedom in how to tackle each mission. I might sneak around and use a knife to thin out the enemy patrols, or use a sniper rifle to take targets out from a distance. That one is actually pretty difficult because the sniper has the lowest health out of all mercenaries. It often only takes one or two bullets to put him down. Using him on a hard mission is like taking a handicap, just to see if I can still make the objectives and escape. And then some missions want you to sneak in and “do the thing” without killing anyone or getting spotted by patrols. That one is really hard for me because it goes against my hyper-violent tendencies. But no matter who I play as or what the objective is, it all feels fun and challenging.

Perhaps the best part for me is, I don’t feel the need to binge it. It’s fine in bite-sized bits. I play a mission or two before dinner, put it away mid-mission, and come back to it in a day or two. That was one of the best selling points of the Vita for me, which a shame that none of the third party publishers embraced it. Hitting power instantly suspended a game and left it right where I stopped last time. So I can play when I’m waiting in line at the post office, turn it off when my number is called, and turn it back on when I get home. It’s that freedom from worrying about needing to restart that made Unit 13 so appealing on the Vita.

Sadly, there is one problem in all of this. My eyesight isn’t what it used to be, so I can only play for around half an hour before things get blurry. I’d love to play this on my TV or monitor, but that’s a whole other hardware purchase with the PS Vita TV, and I’d much rather save up to get a PS5 at this point.

But I am glad that I gave Unit 13 another chance, even if I can’t play it in English. Between this and Borderlands 2, the Vita made a great case for first and third person shooters in a portable form. If any of the other shooters that came out had been half as good, maybe Sony wouldn’t have abandoned the platform as quickly as they did.

Not that I’m bitter about it or anything.

That’s a lie. I’m totally bitter about it.

In conclusion, I’d give Unit 13 4 stars. If you still have a PS Vita and you want some hard core third person combat, this could be your jam.