Call of Duty: Black Ops Declassified review: inconsistent mediocrity

If anything ties Call of Duty: Black Ops: Declassified together, it's inconsistency. The entire package reeks of a lack of care and oversight and feels like a slapdash cash-in on the franchise's name. Everything from controls to campaign design and multiplayer lacks the coherent vision and level of quality Infinity Ward and Treyarch have cemented on their PC and console releases over the past decade. focalbox The campaign is supposed to bridge the gap between 2010's Black Ops and this year's Black Ops 2, but aside from a few familiar names, it's a lazy shooting gallery. Declassified's story's told through compression-artifact-laden cutscenes and sneering over-the-top F-bomb-laced voice-overs. There isn't a clear message of what's going on as you trot around the globe from one hyper-linear gray or brown environment to the next breaching doors, placing widgets on series-trademark flashing yellow objectives, and shooting Europeans in the testicles. Say what you want about the franchise over the past five years, but you can't fault it for irresponsive controls. In Declassified, sometimes pulling in the left trigger to lock onto a target works, sometimes it doesn't. In the middle of a firefight, hiding behind cover with several enemies unloading clips in your general direction, accurate potshots are the only way to advance. The ever-present threat of dying and having to restart a mission from the beginning due to glitchy controls slows the pace down considerably and creates a feeling of unfair tension. Parabolic enemy AI forces perfection and memorization, stripping away the feeling of playing a dynamic and unpredictable campaign. Declassified's biggest problem is that it ignores the last ten years of advances in first-person shooter design. Objectives are doled out on the fly, with zero progress-saving checkpoints along the way. This was designed to make for short bursts of pick-up-and-play play, but it could have been achieved by well-spaced checkpoints instead of crushing difficulty – most often induced by time-based objectives -- forcing repetition thanks to shortcomings in design. Yes, console-based Call of Duty games use scripted enemy encounters too, but on the Vita's smaller scale it becomes much more apparent with each one playing out exactly the same regardless if it's your first time through an area or the eighth. Each mission takes anywhere from a minute and a half to 11 minutes to complete and the entire campaign can be finished in under 60 minutes by a skilled player. I know this because there's a running clock in the lower left corner of the screen for each level and best times are listed in the mission select screen; dying and repeated sections add to the count, but once you fall into Declassified's rhythm you'll see the end credits in short order. The adage is no one plays Call of Duty for the campaign and that fits perfectly here, there isn't any redeeming value to the time spent playing through Declassified's story. Removing the expectations of what a FPS campaign should be allows the wave-based survival mode "Hostiles" to stand out as not horrible by comparison. It's pretty standard fare: You're placed into one of five maps with waves of enemies pushing toward you. Between each wave, there's a supply drop. Because the biggest risk is starting each game over instead of losing forward progress in a narrative, it distills what Declassified sometimes succeeds at: the fun of shooting enemies. That's not to say the A.I. problems don't exist here, but they somehow don't feel as cheap. It's an enjoyable distraction, albeit at the expense of the depth offered by recent variations of the mode like Gears of War 3's more tower-defense-style take.

Spawning right in front of enemies is never a good thing

There's no way to match the scope and breadth of the full multiplayer suite seen in the most recent Modern Warfare or Black Ops games on a handheld platform; by comparison Declassified feels stripped down with a paltry five modes--Kill Confirmed, Drop Zone, free for all, team deathmatch and a team playlist that combines the objective and team modes. It most resembles Call of Duty 4, for better or for worse. The full set of weapons challenges, perks, and experience earned per-kill work as well as ever as the carrot at the end of the string that kept me coming back for more, but could wear thin as players approach their Prestige level caps. A decent selection of maps vary in size and teams are limited to four players each or eight total in free for all. Score limits tend to stay lower with matches taking around ten to minutes each, keeping the pace brisk and perfect for short play periods. With these smaller map designs and lower player-counts, Declassified's multiplayer problems are exacerbated, though. It's not uncommon to spawn in the middle of a firefight with two or three other players, or right in front of someone running through an area like my personal favorite map Nukehouse's living room. Getting stuck in a doorway or on a piece of geometry happens quite a bit, too. There's also a problem with network connectivity. With a Type 2 NAT I couldn't connect at all, even though I haven't had any issues connecting with other games. On my home network with a wide open NAT and 6 MBPS DSL, in the time it took me to hit level eight I disconnected at least once per session toward the end of a match. The one bright spot in Declassified's multiplayer is that matchmaking works better than that of its console counterparts. Atypically for the series, I was always matched with players in my skill range. I didn't have anyone more than one level higher or lower in any of the rooms I played in. This kept the action fair and even. Declassified represents a lot of what's wrong with the Vita as a platform: Namely, publishers using well-respected franchise names to sell mediocre or sub-par games. If you're hard up for online multiplayer on the go there aren't many other options, but your money is best kept in the bank. Declassified can't stand on its own as a worthwhile experience and sticking the Call of Duty name on the box doesn't help matters any, it makes them worse.
This Call of Duty: Black Ops Declassified review was based on a retail version of the game provided by the publisher.