From the moment Sony announced the PS Vita's second analog stick, you could hear Call of Duty fans around the world scurry about with excitement. Finally there would be a portable game system that could accurately recreate competitive first-person shooters. And just in time to piggyback with Black Ops II, Activision has delivered on the promise with an exclusive Call of Duty title for the handheld market. Boy are longtime fans of the series going to be mad when they play Call of Duty: Black Ops Declassified.
After releasing seven different versions on modern game consoles, you would think that Activision might know how a thing or two about making a Call of Duty game. At this point the formula is so obvious that even a C-list developer should be able to hammer out a workable Call of Duty game. Apparently that is not the case, because Black Ops Declassified is an unmitigated disaster. Not just a disappointing Call of Duty spin-off, this PS Vita exclusive is one of the worst games of the year.
Expanding the fiction of Black Ops, players switch between Special Forces operative Alex Mason and Sergeant Frank Woods. Set between 1975 and 1982, Black Ops Declassified is meant to fill in some of the gaps and further the mythology of these two characters. We see these men sabotaging missiles in Russia, meet up with a Stasi defector in Germany, snipe hostage takers in Nicaragua and recover the CIA analysts in South Vietnam.
Although each mission starts out with an obnoxious cinema, there's really no story tying everything together. There's no overarching bad guy to fight against or even an ending once you've completed the game, Black Ops Declassified is just a series of one-off missions. Perhaps all this has resolution in Black Ops 2, but as a standalone Call of Duty narrative, Declassified is a complete failure.
If inept storytelling was the only problem, then perhaps I might give Black Ops Declassified a pass. But we're only getting started. The ten missions only take five or six minutes to complete, some are as short as 120 seconds. It's possible to complete all ten stages in less than an hour, making this the shortest first-person shooter I've ever played. The game wants you to speed through these stages; there's even a stop watch keeping time in the lower corner of the screen.
This is one of the few times where I wish there was more padding. There are times in the pathetically short single-player campaign where everything feels rushed for no reason. Take the first stage, which has you fighting through the rain-soaked streets of Saigon, Vietnam. After spending five minutes following the narrow path, players will complete the mission and be told there's a helicopter en route with an ETA of three minutes. In most Call of Duty games, we would spend the next three minutes fighting off bad guys while we waited for the evacuation chopper to touch down. But not here; instead of waiting three minutes, we're rushed off to the next stage.
To make things worse, the developers opted against adding checkpoints throughout the stages. It's not that any of these levels are particularly long, but the average stage will contain a few different objectives to complete. Because dying at the end of a stage means starting it completely over again, you'll creep through the level with a new awareness of your mortality. All it takes is two armed guards to rush out and the last five minutes of your life will immediately go up in smoke.
Part of the problem is that the artificial intelligence is wildly inconsistent. There have been times when I could jump up and down in front of a bad guy for a full minute before he took a shot, while other times the enemies start shooting long before they can see me. Sometimes the character can take ten bullets without dying, yet other times I'll get pegged twice and instantly die.
Things go from frustrating to maddening when you add computer-controlled characters into the mix. Suddenly there are a dozen new ways to inadvertently fail a mission. For example, one of the characters you're escorting could get hit with a stray bullet. Or, what's even more common, a character will get stuck in the geometry. In some cases I've had computer-controlled characters wander into out-of-bound areas, triggering an instant "game over". Sometimes you'll fail a mission because the computer didn't convey what you were supposed to be doing. These are things you have no control over, testing every inch of my patience. This is the closest I've ever gotten to throwing a portable game system against the wall.
Even if you can forgive the lack of checkpointing and the cheap deaths, you're still left with a game with almost no content. The idea of five minute Call of Duty missions isn't a bad one, especially on a portable system. But if you're going to go that route, then we should be talking about dozens of different missions. Instead we're left with a campaign that can be completed in under an hour.
As disappointing as the single-player campaign is, at least it works properly. To be polite, playing online is an absolute train wreck. The first seven attempts to play online resulted in the game crashing out to the PS Vita's dashboard. My eighth attempt was successful, but half way through the match I was inexplicably booted to the main menu. It took me another ten attempts to finally connect and play a full round in Black Ops Declassified.
When working properly, Call of Duty's multiplayer is passable. It allows rooms of eight players, features a large assortment of weapons, has the prestige system of the console games and includes a few familiar maps from past Black Ops releases. It's a shame that it's so difficult to get the game working long enough to see any of this. Even the 400 mb patch didn't seem to fix the rampant connectivity issues.
Through process of elimination, the best thing about Call of Duty: Black Ops Declassified is a wave-based mode called Hostiles. Here you'll fight rounds of computer-controlled enemies until you eventually die. The object is to get a high kill count and beat your friends on the leaderboard. There's nothing especially new or groundbreaking about this mode, but it represented the only time I was truly having fun. Even then, there are only five levels in the mode and I quickly lost interest.
On top of the broken multiplayer and short single-player, Black Ops Declassified is chockfull of other technical problems. I ran into scripting issues on more than one occasion. Even when I completed a mission, the game refused to send out the next wave of mindless bad guys. I also got stuck in the geometry in at least a third of the stages. The game also has some sound issues and the collision detection is all over the map. At some point it's going to sound like I'm just piling on, but nearly every aspect of this game feels broken.
The $50 asking price isn't helping matters any. While other Vita games retail for $20 - $40, Activision is charging a premium for a game with depressingly little content. Even if everything worked flawlessly, it would still have a fraction of the content of Assassin's Creed III: Liberation, Persona 4 Golden and many other recent PS Vita releases. But it doesn't work flawlessly. Not since Mortal Kombat Advance have I seen a handheld game with so many technical problems.
Activision would have been better off porting the original Black Ops (or any other Call of Duty game, for that matter) than releasing this overpriced garbage. The single-player campaign isn't worth spending the hour to complete, the online multiplayer is unplayable and none of it looks very good. The best thing I can say is that the wave mode isn't completely broken. Call of Duty: Black Ops Declassified is an absolute failure.
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