Game: Call of Duty: Black Ops: Declassified
Available on: PlayStation Vita only
If there is one thing the Vita is crying out for, it’s a decent first person shooter. Resistance: Burning Skies is fairly decent, but compared to its home console cousins it falls flat in almost every way. Hoping to trump their previous efforts, developers Nihilistic have taken the reins of Call of Duty: Black Ops: Declassified, attempting to bring the bombast and spectacle of the bestselling franchise to Sony’s handheld. But have they created a shooter worthy enough to carry the illustrious Call of Duty name? In a word, no.
STORY: To begin with, Declassified’s “story” is barely that. Instead it’s a series of disjointed, largely unconnected missions featuring Alex Mason and Frank Woods that makes for a patchwork narrative which neither gathers pace nor even pretends towards real coherence. Short cutscenes between these missions offer up feeble connections to Treyarch’s games, but not in any way that matters.
The characterisations of Mason and Woods are pretty spot on, but the brief, sparse dialogue they have (which boils down to occasional observations during missions) simply serves to remind us that they’re both sweary, unlikable douchebags who we don’t care about in the slightest. With Black Ops II, Treyarch did something no one thought was possible and delivered a compelling, affecting and, above all, spectacular campaign narrative. With Declassified, Nihilistic strip away all that hard-fought credibility in a matter of moments by essentially cramming a bunch of nondescript shooting galleries together and making the only common denominators lacklustre writing and creative bankruptcy. Even calling it a “story mode” is an insult to story modes everywhere, and even if the intention was to bypass narrative and deliver bite-sized blasts of Black Ops-flavoured excitement, Nihilistic have failed, not only because the whole sorry affair is over in an hour but also because it’s one of the most hollow and soulless shooter experiences ever devised.
GRAPHICS: Despite reports that Nihilistic went back to work on Declassified’s visuals following a poor response at Gamescom 2012, the game remains incredibly drab throughout. Poor character models, ugly textures and the patina of dull brown that coats everything conspire to make Black Ops: Declassified one of the least visually stimulating games available for the Vita. When you consider that Bend’s Uncharted: Golden Abyss and Ubisoft’s Rayman Origins were launch titles and managed to look excellent on the smaller screen, the piss-poor aesthetics in Nihilistic’s shooter smack of rushed work.
The situation isn’t helped by collision glitches on every second piece of scenery or visual bugs that, on more than one occasion, combine with the overpowering brown-ness to render the identikit enemies almost completely invisible. It’s frustrating enough to die on a regular setting when you can see your enemy, let alone when you’re blindsided by muddy graphics and technical incompetence.
SOUND: There isn’t much to say about Declassified’s sound direction. It sounds like every other Call of Duty game: explosions sound explodey, expletives shouted in random foreign tongues are present and correct, and Mason and Woods are just as foul-mouthed, gung-ho and macho as they ever were. The difference between Black Ops: Declassified and Black Ops II is that the former suffers from a total lack of soul and character in every department, and this bleeds over into the sound direction in the form of phoned-in voice work and a poor script. No amount of rat-tat-tatting and big booms can make up for the total lack of atmosphere elsewhere.
GAMEPLAY: A less-than-stellar story, uninspired sound and questionable visuals might have been excused to a certain extent if the gameplay itself was top-notch, but unfortunately for Nihilistic, Declassified is such an inconsistent mess that balance can’t even be found there.
For a start, the A.I… Oh my. Enemies will either stand in place and unload entire clips at you or sit behind cover and unload entire clips at you. Occasionally they’ll throw a grenade or pretend to flank you, but more often than not they’re not reacting to your presence or actions at all. I lost count of the amount of times I turned around to see an enemy soldier standing blank faced because my actions had failed to trigger any kind of subroutine. I saw enemies throw grenades at their own cover and then not move as they were rag-dolled by their own stupidity, or shoot so blindly that I was able to flank them in the open as they concentrated fire exclusively and excessively on my last known position.
Occasionally the A.I. switches to actual precognition and you’ll enter a room to find them already suppressing the doorway. They mill about like idiotic, olive-garbed rats with zero survival instincts and zero cunning, turning every single level into a pointless shooting gallery only made difficult by the fact that their shooting is so relentless. Get hit and returning fire is impossible because your own gun suddenly wants to shoot the ceiling as you flinch like a hummingbird peeing on an electric fence, and you’ll hit the deck in seconds. Even on easy, you’ll die with alarming frequency. It wouldn’t be so bad if there was any kind of checkpoint system, but there isn’t. If you die, you’ll go back to mission start and have to watch the same charmless opening scenes which always involve either copious swearing or an inexplicable explosion/crash. Because the levels only last 2 – 5 minutes, Nihilistic obviously thought that omitting checkpoints would be fine. Unnoticed, even. It is not. Such is the ridiculously undulating difficulty that death will happen often, and repeating the same mission over and over is horribly mind-numbing.
Poor controls exacerbate the lopsided challenge. Throwing grenades and activating a melee attack both involving tapping the screen, which might not be so bad if it wasn’t so easy to hit one of the grenade buttons as you try to line up an enemy for a solid clubbing. Floaty, weightless movement makes aiming difficult at the best of times (if not for the left trigger’s snap-to-aim function you’d never hit anything), but when trying to melee I found myself dancing around more than one scowling, stationary moron.
Alongside the hollow campaign are five Time Trial missions and five “Hostiles” maps. The former are self-explanatory, charging you to make it through specific missions in a certain time, while the latter is essentially a single-player Horde mode wherein you fend off waves of enemies for little reward. Again, non-existent A.I. and shoddy controls conspire to reduce the fun, and ‘Hostiles’ mode just feels like campaign mode but with more idiots to shoot.
MULTIPLAYER: What initially seemed like a saving grace soon exposes itself as just another disappointment. Despite the multiplayer mode wearing similar threads to the console versions in terms of menu aesthetics and a slightly dumbed-down level-up-to-unlock-gear mechanic, the gameplay still lets Declassified down.
Just finding a full game of 4v4 Team Deathmatch is hard, but then you’re dropped into maps so small that all elements of tactics or strategy are rendered void as you constantly respawn 11 inches from an enemy’s smoking barrel. That said, naff controls and bland level design aside, the multiplayer isn’t entirely awful. Once you get a decent group and get into the flow, it feels almost as competitive and satisfying as a game of Black Ops II, but such thrills are invariably short-lived. Ultimately the multiplayer just isn’t comprehensive enough to counterbalance the poor solo experience, meaning many gamers will be left feeling deflated and disappointed; especially if they were expecting anything as deep as the usual CoD offering.
LONGEVITY: With ten story missions topping off at about 5 minutes each and only extended by repeated death, the solo campaign can be completed in under 90 minutes, or half that if you bother to get the levels down pat – but why would you? Additionally, ‘Hostiles’ and ‘Time Trials’ offer nothing but more of the same and are therefore no incentive to keep going. Which only leaves the multiplayer, the selling point of every entry in the Call of Duty franchise for the last 5 years, which here serves to be the only really playable contingent while still managing to disappoint in its own way.
VERDICT: It’s incredibly depressing that the Call of Duty name has led this unimaginative, shallow and rushed heap of arse to sell over 100,000 units, meaning that it will likely stand as one of the biggest selling Vita titles to date.
Uncharted: Golden Abyss proved that the Vita can handle so much more than Nihilistic have produced here. Frankly, Black Ops: Declassified doesn’t deserve to be bought, played or even talked about. It’s an awful, half-arsed, buggy mess with absolutely no soul and the personality of a tube sock, that can’t be saved by a potentially-great multiplayer scuppered by all the same issues as the solo campaign. As someone who never really loved CoD until Black Ops II, I almost feel cheated by the massive creative step back that is Declassified. Don’t be fooled by the hype or the name; avoid this one like a live grenade.