Review: Call of Duty: Black Ops Declassified (Sony Playstation Vita)

Call of Duty: Black Ops Declassified
Genre: First-person Shooter
Developer: Nihilistic
Publisher: Activision
Release Date: 11/13/12

You wouldn’t think it would be that complicated to develop and release a first person shooter on a handheld that can be conventionally be considered as “good”. It’s not like the developer has to make use of the missing second analog stick; one of the best first person shooters ever created, DOOM, doesn’t use this thing, so it’s not like you couldn’t just do without. But no, we have to have the ability to look up and down, so developers have been attempting to find a way to implement this thing onto handhelds that lack the option, and the results have generally been “mixed,” to be polite about it. Well, with the Vita, all that goes out the window, as we now have that mythical missing right analog stick, and can appropriately look up and down as the mood strikes us, so developers have to be able to make a good FPS for the console eventually, right? Well, Call of Duty: Black Ops Declassified certainly seemed like it’d be that game; the franchise is basically considered among the best when it comes to FPS action in a wide-scale sense, and Sony bundled the damn game with the Vita in a package, so you’d think it’d have to be good, right? Well, as it turns out, Activision handed the game to developer Nihilistic Software, a developer who has limited exposure to developing handheld games, first person shooters, or anything that can be described as “good” with a straight face. Their track record includes Vampire: The Masquerade – Redemption, an isometric RPG which is arguably their best game to date, Marvel Nemesis: Rise of the Imperfects, a fighting game which was inarguably their worst, and Conan, an adequate, if unexciting, God of War knock-off. It turns out that Nihilistic has received something of a trial by fire on both Vita and FPS development, however, as this is their second Vita-based FPS this year, the first being Resistance: Burning Skies, a game which is charitably described as “okay” for the most part. You’d think the lessons learned from that game would inform the development of this game, seeing as how it’s a far larger release for the company, and that it would represent a marked improvement over the tepidly received Resistance Vita release.

You would be very wrong in this assessment, however.

So, let us get the good of the game out of the way up front. The plot, such as it is presented, makes adequate use of Black Ops mainstays Alex Mason and Frank Woods, for those who appreciate those characters. The game generally looks good on the Vita, featuring solid texture and special effect usage, and the between-stage cutscenes are mostly well assembled and artistically interesting. The voice work, music and sound effects are all well assembled as well and match up to what players have come to expect from the franchise at this point, leaving the presentation department as the single best thing about the game overall. For a handheld title, Declassified offers plenty of gameplay modes, both solo and multiplayer, to have fun with, including a “Campaign” of sorts, Time Attack missions, and even a solid online component that’s similar to that of its “big brothers” on the consoles and PC. There’s also a Hostiles mode that works similar to the Survival modes in Modern Warfare 3, where you fight against waves of enemies and attempt to survive, and Ad-Hoc multiplayer has been patched into the game, allowing you to play with a local friend should you wish. Finally, the game makes use of the Vita’s special control configurations, both by using the right analog stick and the dual touch screens, to give the game a feel that is unique from its console counterparts.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is exactly everything good that can be said about this game.

So, first off, the “plot,” such as it is, is a series of disconnected missions that feature Mason and Woods as playable characters across various missions that take place between 1975 and 1982, and seems to focus primarily on Cold War operations the two men participated in leading up to the events of Black Ops 2. This would be fine, in theory, if the plot seemed like it had any bearing on anything, but the missions amount to “Here’s some stuff that’s going on, here’s some snappy dialogue, here’s the objective, mission over,” and it’s just a lot of sound and fury. This would be fine if the missions in the “Operations” campaign mode were fun, but they’re literally five to ten minute long mini-missions that are over before they begin in most cases. You’d think that this would mean that the missions don’t take long to complete, but you’d be wrong there, as you’ll often spend upward of half an hour on some missions, because you die a whole lot playing them and there are no checkpoints in any of them. None. Now, there are a colossal amount of reasons why you die a lot, for the record, so it’s hard to pin that on any one fault, for better or worse. The AI is basically staffed with expert marksman on any difficulty level so you’ll be a lead pincushion if you don’t stay behind cover constantly, and the levels are mostly “rooms full of dudes” so you’ll be shot at by a lot of targets at any one time. Timed missions in particular are offensive because you can’t even use any kind of intelligent strategies lest you run out of time and fail, so you’ll quickly discover how many profane words you know in these missions. The game also does this “wonderful” thing where the screen jerks violently every time you get shot, so when you look into an area with a lot of dudes (and you will) you’ll suddenly feel like you’re being shaken by Brock Lesnar by how violently and regularly your view will spaz out. These elements, by themselves, make the Operations mode unpleasant to play at the best of times.

However, things deteriorate even further when one gets into the controls, as they are absolutely abysmal in almost all respects. First, the right stick aiming is basically oversensitive by default and touchy when adjusted, so you’ll spend entirely too long finding a sensitivity that actually works for you and either end up turning at a turtle’s pace or overshooting everything you aim at. The controls are otherwise standard, but the game can’t incorporate the same mechanics the console game does, on account of their being missing buttons, so some elements are remapped. In some cases, like when crouching is remapped to the Circle button or running can be toggled with the Down direction on the D-Pad, this makes perfect sense and works just fine. The touch screen controls, on the other hand, don’t work out so well. Now, you’ll use the front touch screen for three things: two types of explosives you’ll generally have at all times, and melee attacks. Tapping one of the icons on the right of the screen will toss that type of explosive (or throw back one that’s been used against you) while tapping anywhere else on the screen uses melee attacks. This is fine, by itself, but the positioning of the grenade icons makes it hard to melee without hitting a grenade button, so expect to blow yourself up while trying to stab someone more than once.

Assuming you can work with all of that, you’ll also find that some of the objectives are poorly spelled out, that the enemies will occasionally get stuck in the game world or simply not respond in a way that makes any sort of sense, throwing grenades when this will kill them as well or firing into the cover they’re hiding behind for example. Beyond that, if you’re dedicated to the Operations mode, you’ll still manage to clear it out in a few hours in total, as most of the missions are all of ten minutes long, if that, and you can count the total amount of missions without taking off your shoes. You could then go to the Time Trial mode if you wish, which is a series of timed modes that essentially act as a quasi-tutorial on the game, allowing you to fight stationary targets in an attempt to improve your time. Why you would want to shoot at things that do not fight back is wholly beyond me, but if this is a thing that pleases you, you’ll be happy to know it’s here. Both modes also offer the standard multiple difficulties, though in Time Trial it’s more about “get through faster” than anything, and either way, there’s very little joy to be had in attempting the missions on the lowest difficulty, let alone the higher ones.

You can also jump into Hostiles mode, which is, as noted, basically the Survival mode from Modern Warfare 3: you spawn with a gun, lots of dudes spawn with guns, and they try to end you as you try to end them. The mode is a lot less robust here, though; you’ll kill however many guys are thrown at you and claim their guns, if applicable, and once they’re all dead you can claim a Care Package that might contain weapons, mortars, sentry guns and more fun toys to play with. This is, one presumes, meant to be the main mode players will fool around with when playing single player, to improve their rank and try to survive as long as possible, and as ideas go, it’s not a bad one. In practice, however, the aforementioned control issues that plague the single player campaign are here in full force as well, and further, the mode is simply not very well designed. The rotations of enemies are largely the same dudes with new weapons as you go, the weapon selection is unexciting, and there’s no real progression like there is in the Modern Warfare 3 iteration, as your rewards are given to you rather than chosen by the player’s needs. Also, the game has a lovely tendency to drop your Care Package as far away from you as possible so as to make you run like a crazy person for it or miss it entirely, which is just frustrating on top of everything else, and since this mode is single player only.

The main draw of the game would presumably be the multiplayer, as you can play both online and locally with ad-hoc play in a fashion not unlike that of the console versions. The options available are limited in comparison to the console games, obviously, as you can only get to about Level 40 before topping out and there are only a handful of customization options, Perks, weapons and Killstreaks to work with, but it’s surprisingly robust, allowing for weapon leveling and such as in the console games, which would be fantastic if any of the actual mechanics worked properly. As you’d expect, however, they do not; in addition to the spotty controls, the online also features notable lag and glitching issues now and again, and the maps are rather small and easy to get bunched up on in comparison to the console versions. Further, the ad-hoc multiplayer is patched into the game and does not come included in the release, which would be fine if the patch itself wasn’t a multiple hundred megabyte patch, and honestly, if you’re at the point where you have two people together for ad-hoc play, you might as well just play the console version, assuming you have it (and that’s probably a safe assumption).

So this, then, is Call of Duty: Black Ops Declassified in summation: a first person shooter, designed with the fabled second analog stick in mind, which succeeds in the majority of its aesthetic aspects and fails in all the ways a first person shooter needs to be successful. The plot tries to be interesting and uses the franchise characters we expect, the game looks and sounds fine on the Vita, and there are a variety of modes for online and offline play, including an online multiplayer option that apes the console and PC games acceptably in concept. However, the single player modes amount to a short campaign, a limited Survival mode and a Time Attack mode against cardboard cutouts, the AI alternates between broken and expert marksman, there are no checkpoints at all in the campaign, and you can clear out all the stages, total, inside of two hours if you’re good. Further, the game is mechanically broken on a base level, as the hit registry makes it almost impossible to even see anything, the aiming is too touchy to be worthwhile, and the touch screen controls are wonky and poorly implemented. Finally, the multiplayer seems like a novel concept, but playing online introduces odd gameplay bugs that make for frustrations more often than one would like, the ad-hoc is patched in and takes up a good amount of space, and if you’re going to play ad-hoc you’re better off just playing locally on a console anyway. If you absolutely must have a first person shooter on the Vita, Resistance: Burning Skies is at least somewhat more functional, but you’re honestly just better off waiting for someone to do something that works on the console instead, as either way, this is just not the game for anyone but the gamer who must have Call of Duty on the go.

The Scores:
Story/Game Modes: MEDIOCRE
Graphics: GOOD
Sound: GREAT
Control/Gameplay: BAD
Replayability: BAD
Balance: BAD
Originality: WORTHLESS
Addictiveness: DREADFUL
Appeal: POOR
Miscellaneous: WORTHLESS


Short Attention Span Summary:
Call of Duty: Black Ops Declassified, given all the tools and pedigree associated, should have been the game to show everyone how a first person should be done on the Vita, but instead stands as an example of the exact opposite. The plot makes use of the concept elements available to it acceptably, the game looks and sounds pleasant on the Vita overall, and there are a solid amount of modes for a handheld shooter, including a semi-developed online mode for fans of the console and PC versions. That said, the single player modes boil down to a meager campaign, a dumbed down and limited Survival mode and a Time Attack Hogan’s Alley… thing, the AI vacillates between “Storm Trooper” and “Hunter Killer,” the campaign offers no checkpoints and kills you constantly, and you can essentially blow through the entire single player experience in two hours if you’re good. Additionally, the game is mechanically deficient, between the spastic hit registry of your character, the touchy aiming, and the poorly designed and executed touch screen controls. Oh, and the multiplayer, novel as it seems, is buggy and frustrating, the ad-hoc play is a massive patched-in download that’s hardly even worth it, and the game actively removes basic console functionality for absolutely no obvious reason whatsoever. Make no mistake: Declassified is a game that is ONLY for the most diehard of Call of Duty fans, and probably not even them, as it’s a mechanical mess and its only redeeming value is that it’s a portable first person shooter that looks and sounds decent. Save your money for anything else.



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