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Hands-on with the Vita launch-title from the makers of SOCOM, Unit 13

If you ask anyone that purchased a Nintendo 3DS on launch day or thereabouts, one of the most common complaints was (and still is) the lack of software. It was a legitimate problem too, as many of the early 3DS releases were smaller franchises and ports of existing games. There weren’t any games that made you want to rush out and buy the hardware. Even now there are only a few games that really define the system, a problem which Nintendo has been slow to address. But judging by the titles announced for the Vita—both during the launch window and later this year—the lack of big name releases won’t be an issue for Sony’s handheld device.

One such launch window title that should appeal to longtime PlayStation fans is Unit 13, an original game from Zipper Interactive, the makers of the SOCOM series. It probably won’t get anyone to buy a Vita just for it, but it may be one of the hotter titles for owners looking for good games. Unit 13 is being considered as part of the “launch window” for the Vita, meaning that it won’t be available when the system is launched in North America on February 15, but it will be available within a reasonable time frame afterwards (it will release on March 6).

Unit 13 has a few things going for it that make it stand out. For one thing, it has the pedigree of Zipper Interactive, a longtime Sony collaborator. Based on that relationship, odds are that Zipper has had the specs for the Vita for as long as anyone. The game is being developed specifically for the Vita, so you can expect the experience to get the most out of the hardware as any upcoming release.

At CES last week Sony was showing off the Vita, along with a handful of title–including Unit 13—which gave me my first chance to go hands on with the game. To be honest, I wasn’t sure what to think. I have been a longtime supporter of Zipper and specifically the SOCOM series which this game is heavily influenced by, but I’ve always had issues with its single player campaigns. Zipper makes some fierce multiplayer games, but its single player campaigns have often been firmly implanted in meh. So a Zipper game with a heavy slant on the single player, plus one made for a new piece of hardware, had me a little wary.

From what I saw, Unit 13 does everything right in terms of gameplay. The story still seems a bit generic–as are the missions which will all probably boil down to “go there, kill everyone, pick up enemy intel, kill more people” etc., etc.—but the game is fun to play. The controls are about what you would expect, and the touchscreen is used mostly as a secondary set of commands for things like reloading, which you can do with a button anyway. That doesn’t mean that Zipper isn’t taking full advantage of the hardware though–it uses the controls well without turning them into a gimmick. Sometimes less is more. The game looks great, and the graphics are at least late PS2 quality, and in some cases better. The sound was dead on, and while the environments were a little unremarkable, they were well rendered.

Unit 13 isn’t SOCOM for the Vita, but it has more than a few similarities in the gameplay, and I mean that in a good way. The movements looked good and felt responsive, and the combat was fun and easy to pick up. The cover system was easy to use, and aiming felt natural. The enemy AI seemed a bit too eager to die though, and would range from running at you screaming to being unaware a massive battle went on 20 feet away from them, but there was more than enough enemy variety on display to keep things interesting.

When it comes out in March, Unit 13 will feature co-op play, but the single player campaign will likely be the draw for most early adopters. We’ll have to wait until the release to see how it all comes together, but as far as the mechanics go, Zipper Interactive seems to have embraced the Vita and refined its third-person shooter experience for the handheld. The combat was fun to play, so the game has a ton of potential.

Unit 13 won’t be released on the day of the Vita’s launch, but will instead hit on March 6 during the “launch window” along with several other launch window titles including: Little Big Planet (March 31), Street Fighter X Tekken (March 6, timed to coincide with the console releases of the version), and Ninja Gaiden Sigma (Spring 2012).

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