Has there ever been a more maligned handheld title prior to release than Call of Duty: Black Ops Declassified? Reviewers (not all by any means), unabashed and damning in early preview criticism, seemed primed to deliver literary blows to the PlayStation Vita itself with the first-person shooter's release, yet gamers posting user reviews have portrayed an altogether less insulting affair, which has seemingly provided more enjoyment than the critics' obituaries.
Indeed, after playing the game for a requisite period of time, one cannot help but feel a twinge of sympathy towards Nihilistic, or rather, nStigate, as the developer is now known. While their first Vita offering Resistance: Burning Skies received below-par reviews, the actual gameplay was passable, and it nailed some of the series' classic weapons in feel and effect. Unfortunately, the developer's second console conversion was hamstrung the moment its first trailer was unveiled at GamesCom in August. Call of Duty: Black Ops Declassified seemed uninspired and relatively drab for an authentic Call of Duty experience, which is what publisher Activision and Sony had promised. Thankfully, the final product looks much better than those initial trailers, with a smoother frame-rate, more detailed textures, and improved animation. But in spite of the evident improvements, it still falls significantly short of the series' typically high standards.
Taking the lead from the PlayStation 3 titles, protagonists Frank Woods and Alex Mason fill a timeline set between Call of Duty: Black Ops and the recently released Call of Duty: Black Ops 2, with a series of 10 brief covert missions. These bite-sized chunks are inherently similar to Unit 13 in objectives, structure, and breadth; rescue hostages, neutralise targets, and retrieve documents in small doses. Missions are often timed to 5 minute durations, leading to a scandalous lack of content as a result. The miniscule missions are perfectly suited to portable play, but the number of stages amount to less than half of Zipper Interactive's alternative, with the timed excursions negating any opportunity to soak in the atmosphere or environment with experimental play. Additionally, enemy AI is laughable at times, even though the hardest of the three difficulty tiers present a stern challenge. Meanwhile, Hostiles mode, which sees you fending off waves of soldiers, is no replacement for the home console's excellent Zombies offering, but at least serves as a useful pre-cursor to the multiplayer in its relentlessness.
Call of Duty: Black Ops Declassified's graphics are serviceable, but not outstanding. Maps are frustratingly linear, but, as previously alluded, the lighting, animation, and textures are all improved over Resistance: Burning Skies. Enemies, while lacking any meaningful AI, perish believably, and the frame-rate is fairly smooth throughout.
The play mechanics will be immediately familiar to Call of Duty veterans thanks to the Vita's reassuring dual-analogue sticks. While the right analogue stick, used for viewing, can feel a tad off-kilter at times, it's not a game breaker, and you'll adapt fairly quickly to the controls. Similarly, lobbing grenades works fine on the touch-screen, and the general staples of the genre are present and correct. The use of the rear touchpad is also well implemented, allowing you to hold your breath when wielding sniper rifles.
Multiplayer is pleasant but unpredictable, with matches connecting easily on one day, and not at all on the next. When you join a game, the experience is functional, but maps are far too small to invoke any real strategy. Nevertheless, the component has the capacity to thrill in short bursts, and traditional multiplayer mainstays such as killstreaks and perks add to the enjoyable, if diluted, online adventure.
With a shockingly brief single-player campaign, and an enjoyable but inconsistent multiplayer mode, your enjoyment of Call of Duty: Black Ops Declassified will depend almost entirely on your desire for a portable entry in Activision's blockbuster series. The title delivers a satisfactory first-person experience, but falls seriously short in substance. Sony Cambridge will, in all probability, better this effort in virtually every area with its forthcoming Killzone: Mercenary, which ultimately makes the shooter hard to recommend.