Zipper Interactive’s swansong, Unit 13, presents itself as being a pretty average shooter. This is the reason, I assume, that Zipper Interactive is no more. We live in a world with a million shooters, so what’s the point of the unremarkable ones? Zipper used to answer this by carving out their own niche, something they lost their way with when COD-ifying Socom 4, but it’s something they reclaimed in their final project. Unit 13 may look average, but it’s also unlike anything else on the market.
The first move Unit 13 makes to create this separation is to eschew a story entirely in favor of a series of separate missions with no narrative overlap. The effect of this isn’t particularly large though – but one can hardly blame Unit 13 for that. What Unit 13’s lack of story actually does is shine a light on how little story matters in these modern military shooters. Other than the sublimely bizarre Black Ops, the stories in modern shooters tend to be worthless and you likely aren’t paying attention to them anyway.
Unit 13 does use a cast of characters that is as generic as it is offensive. The Arab Boogeyman™ has been a mainstay of these games for over a decade now and it’s as tired as Russians were in the 80s. Yes, there are Arabs in the world that want to kill us. There are also white people in Oklahoma who have wanted to do the same thing, but somehow making a videogame about them would be massively offensive. On the other hand we are allowed to completely besmirch an entire region by turning its people into cartoon character villains like Unit 13 does.
The main reason why this bugs me isn’t just for politically correct reasons however – it’s because it’s a gigantic missed opportunity on Zipper’s part. The main crux of Unit 13 is a really fun scoring system and it would have fit thematically to have really fun villains. If they went a more stylized route like No One Lives Forever it would have gone a long, long way towards creating something that felt new and exciting. The Arab Boogeyman™ is a missed opportunity, but asking Zipper to not do US/NATO/UN vs Arabs/Russians would be like asking Infinity Ward to not do US/NATO/UN vs Arabs/Russians. The only difference is that Infinity Ward is rolling around in money and Zipper is no more. If a time existed to take a risk it was with Unit 13.
The gameplay in Unit 13 is also pretty familiar, which all in all isn’t a bad thing. With shooters turning into the AAA titles of this generation, an average one is still pretty darn proficient. Zipper has always had a nice touch for how guns should look, feel and sound, how enemies should drop, and how to mix a bit of speed with a bit of stealth, and Unit 13 does all of it pretty well. The simple act of popping a guy with a few bullets and watching him fall is oddly satisfying considering how many times we’ve done it before. In a lot of ways Unit 13 is actually better than their final PS3 game – Socom 4. The cover system is much smoother and more intuitive, the shooting mechanics are tighter and less random, and the mission structure is much more dynamic.
The scoring is really what sets Unit 13 apart from other shooters. My first thoughts upon seeing the game was ‘it looks like Socom mixed with The Club’ and that turns out to be pretty much on the mark. It’s a device that works extremely well once you get a better understanding of how it all works (and you level up your operatives enough that the timers slow down a bit). The scoreboard chasing aspect of the game will keep me coming back when other games would have been long forgotten. Those who dislike the time-pressure of the scoring system is that can completely ignore it and just play the game how they want, and beat each mission without worry. It’s there if you are excited by it and it’s easy to ignore if you aren’t. The game has a pretty massive amount of content as well with new daily missions and a ‘dynamic mission mode’ with randomized enemy locations, objectives and traps (cameras, tripwires, etc).
The game is at its absolute best in online co-op. Working in tandem with a friend you can execute some fun strategies and I found I played far more recklessly because I had a friend that could resurrect me (reckless = fun, in my world). I’ve had some issues connecting to friends but once you are in a game lag isn’t an issue. The game has plenty to offer in single player, but taking this game online brings it to another level and, in fact, added a star to my final score. The co-op really is that fun and this is likely where you will come back to again and again in the aforementioned Dynamic Missions. The Daily Missions can’t be done in co-op, but that’s what will keep the solo player coming back. Zipper did an admirable job of keeping everyone happy with stuff to do.
I really liked Zipper Interactive as a developer and I’m going to miss them. I am not surprised, however, by their demise. They made some truly awesome and unique games with the early Socom games and MAG, but they also completely lost their way with Socom 3 and created a mixed bag with Socom 4. Unit 13 finds them the furthest away from their comfort zone and the game is a lot of fun. But when you break it down on just about every level it is average. Same old guns, same old brown bad guys, same old generic middle east location, same old endless respawns (only on a few levels, thankfully)… but with a brand new scoring system. Zipper leaves my life the same way they arrived, by making a game that is much more fun than I can make any logical argument for it being. No one has ever done a better version of average than Zipper Interactive.