If there’s one franchise that should be able to extract the Vita from the sales rut it currently finds itself in, it’s Call Of Duty, but the early omens for this handheld exclusive were far from reassuring. When a publisher refuses to provide review code for a big-name title, it usually suggests that something is amiss with the final product; to bring you this review, we had to purchase a copy from a high street store, just like all the other expectant Vita owners, desperate for another release to showcase the merits of Sony’s much-maligned portable.
Black Ops Declassified is certainly a Call Of Duty game. Once you burst through the frenetic opening mission in the boots of foul-mouthed soldier Frank Woods, that much is abundantly clear. All of the familiar tropes are present: slow-motion sequences following door breaches, tightly controlled battle areas adjoined by sparse corridors, and plenty of jargon-filled military exposition in between missions.
The concept behind the game’s narrative is that the top-secret Black Ops files have been opened, and you’re delving into the history of the aforementioned Woods and his brother-in-arms, Alex Mason – two individuals who will be instantly familiar to fans of the home console Black Ops titles. Each mission is self-contained, and locations range all over the globe. One sees you liberating captured analysts in the Far East, while another focuses on a botched intel exchange in a snow-covered town, with your source receiving a sniper’s bullet through the cranium within seconds of the mission starting.
However, while Black Ops Declassified happily globetrots to a multitude of different locations, the excitement level rarely comes along for ride. The game is curiously muted and largely devoid of the grandiose set pieces, which make the home console editions so arresting. For the most part, you merely funnel from one part of the tightly controlled map to another, picking off repetitive enemies, reloading your ammo and occasionally partaking in some slow-mo blasting. You are locked into this cycle of repetition for around an hour, at which point the credits roll.
Incredibly, Black Ops Declassified’s solo campaign can be finished in a single sitting. Missions themselves rarely last more than a few minutes, and their brevity is acknowledged by the fact that there are no mid-level checkpoints. Fall to your knees in a hail of enemy fire within sight of the final objective and you have to return to the beginning of the level and start all over again. On the early stages it’s merely a mild annoyance, but on the later levels, where the numerical advantage your opponents enjoy borders on downright unfair at times, it becomes far more frustrating. Even so, if you’re a player of moderate skill the game will gladly surrender its secrets within the space of a day, and aside from a mode that allows you to run solo around multiplayer maps, all you’re left with is the online component to justify your investment.
Thanks to a large downloadable patch that improves online performance, multiplayer Black Ops Declassified is much more enjoyable than it was at launch. A selection of four-on-four challenges are available, comprising Team Deathmatch, Kill Confirmed, Drop Zone, Team Tactical and Free-For-All. From a technical perspective, the system is robust enough, although occasional lag and random dropouts do occur. This is arguably the section of Black Ops Declassified where most people will spend their time, but it lacks the bombast of its home console brethren. Maps feel restrictive and too compact, making repeat play something of a chore. It’s hard to see any reason why dedicated fans would chose this over the online mode of Modern Warfare 3 or Black Ops II.
It goes without saying that Black Ops Declassified doesn’t offer value for money. At £45 it’s as expensive as Black Ops II, yet it offers only a fraction of the enjoyment. Largely devoid of gripping spectacle and thrilling narrative, it instead prefers to line up a series of short, unconnected missions, which are wrapped up in a baffling and near-incoherent storyline. Despite the presence of Woods and Mason, it never feels like the game is linked with the other Black Ops titles, and rarely do you get the impression that you’re gaining an insight into the personalities and characters of these hardened warriors. They’re there purely to lend the game some gravitas and to spout a few obscenities to ensure that it earns that all-important Mature rating on the box.
Developer Nihilistic has since recently confirmed that it is rebranding as nStigate Games and is ditching physical retail altogether. While it’s tempting to suggest that the overwhelmingly negative critical reaction to this rather lacklustre Vita title is the reason for the studio’s cathartic rebirth, the choice was clearly made long before the scathing reviews started to trickle in. Even so, Black Ops Declassified is a sorry way to end 14 years of coding history at Nihilistic. The kindest thing you can say about it is that it’s a reasonably authentic facsimile of the Call Of Duty blueprint, yet it feels like the work of an artist who is painstakingly tracing a masterpiece but lacks the craft to replicate the magical that made the original so attractive in the first place.