Note: the content of this review represents the game after installing a post-release patch.
Back in May, the hopes of many an FPS fan were roundly deflated by Resistance: Burning Skies' debut on the PS Vita. It functioned and provided a glimpse of what shooters could be like on Sony’s potent handheld, but it wasn’t ambitious or engaging in the least. A month later, at E3, we learned that the Vita’s impending version of Call of Duty was in development from the same house that made Resistance: Nihilistic Software.
Needless to say, red flags went up, and they only flew higher throughout the coming months. Their ascension came to an unceremonious crest when Nihilistic announced in October that it was reducing its staff size, changing its name to “Nstigate,” and focusing its efforts exclusively on mobile development. With weeks left to go before Black Ops Declassified’s arrival, many feared that the impending package was already dead.
The thing is, while those fears were largely justified, the red flags were more indicative of what Declassified would be rather than how badly it would fail. As a shooter, as a member of the Call of Duty family, and as a good product for the struggling Vita, “CodBod” is a total disaster; but what it is, without regard to its other duties, is simply a tablet shooter in the wrong place.
Declassified is designed for mobile play, almost certainly to a fault. A dozen or so bite-size missions comprise the “campaign” on this cartridge, and they’re so short that checkpoints are nowhere to be found. There’s a brief collage of intelligence photos and other military-thriller drudgery that precede each mission, but it’s the thinnest of veils for simple take-out-all-these-targets, save-all-these-hostages, or blow-up-all-these-’spensive-toys scenarios. There’s no set-pieces, no real plot, and none of the other campaign trappings that make for a real Call of Duty game.
There’s also a horde-style mode that convincingly apes the one found in Modern Warfare 3, but the tiny multiplayer maps it takes place in make it difficult to last more than a few rounds at a time. Furthermore, the supply drops that come between each round always seem to be placed at the cardinal opposite of the player’s position, with rarely enough time to reach them. Much like the “campaign,” this mode is enjoyable for about 5 minutes at a time, but soon wears on the nerves.
Multiplayer is also present, but it’s a pursuit only for the most desperate of CoD fans. Maps are tiny, poorly designed without any strategic flow, and the spawn system goes out of its way to immediately place combatants in the line of fire. There’s the smallest of rushes that comes with seeing the trademark “+100” appear over an enemy’s death animation, and with putting together classes using the same system from Black Ops prime, but it’s all quite poorly optimized for the Vita. There’s no doubt that Call of Duty could be awesome in this medium, but every line of code on this cartridge betrays the lack of time and resources Nihilistic had to make this. It’s all completely baffling.
Black Ops: Declassified looks like it’s using assets pulled straight from Black Ops prime and Modern Warfare 3, with a few animation rigs from Nihilistic’s Resistance game thrown in for good (?) measure. Obviously, the framerate has been dropped from 60, and the anti-aliasing has been pared-down- these changes make sense. What’s less forgivable is the frame stability and jerky quality of the controls. The avatar always seems to take a half-step back after every movement, imparting the feel of a laggy online match even when playing the single-player modes. It makes for an uneven looking game that feels awkward and could perform much better on this system. Also, like Burning Skies, there’s a damaging lack of music and atmosphere.
Everything about Black Ops: Declassified that’s designed to be fun actually is at some point or another, but none of those points are able to sustain themselves for longer than ten or fifteen minutes. It’s clear that Nihilistic went into this intending to craft something that would perfectly fulfill a “pick-up-and-play” use-case, but Call of Duty isn’t necessarily applicable to that. Call of Duty's quick action fixes always work best as snacks: there for a small morsel if needed, or a full-on pig out if desired. Black Ops Declassified is well-built enough to satisfy the occasional craving, but there’s no universe in which pigging out on this design doesn’t send players rushing for the Tums-and-toilet.
It’s really unfortunate and frustrating. With enough months, and money, Call of Duty should be able to carry the Vita to a new level of saturation, but this is a rush job, and not only that, it’s a rush job that feels optimized for tablets, not a powerful handheld with dedicated analog sticks and a relatively proven online structure. What enjoyment there is to be derived from this entry only serves to remind the player of how much better it could be, and given the Vita’s tenuous place in the market right now, that’s a nightmare.
The final word on Black Ops: Declassified is somewhat paradoxical. It’s not quite the trainwreck that many have made it out to be. In fact, if this were an iOS game available for $1.99, there’s every chance that it would garner much more praise. But the Vita isn’t an iPhone, or a tablet. It’s capable of so much more, and for that reason, Declassifed is incapable of defending itself as anything other than execrable. It’s a black mark on the franchise and yet another massive missed-opportunity for the Vita.