Call of Duty Black Ops: Declassified for PlayStation Vita commits a few crimes. The incessant butt rock music that plays in the background during every campaign mission sounds like the generic noise you would hear in a radio commercial for ringtones circa 2002. Each line of dialogue reinforces every negative stereotype about military-themed shooters. “No one gets fu**in’ left behind,” yells your CO. Brilliant! Writing quality akin to a direct to DVD Universal Soldier sequel is always the high bar to which games should aspire. The levels are ugly, the objectives simple, and the Horde Mode – forgive me, the Hostiles – is about as exciting as playing Jacks without the bouncy ball.
These crimes aren’t Declassified’s biggest problem, though. In fact its biggest problem isn’t a crime at all. Declassified is held back first and foremost by its name. This game Nihilistic made on behalf of Activision and Sony is not a Call of Duty game. And at least mechanically, it isn’t that bad a game at all. Declassified’s primary single-player modes are actually kind of fun once you strip away the expectations of its title.
An Archaic Flavor
Declassified attempts to tell a story. Bookending its ten campaign missions are gravelly narrations about the nefarious dealings of KGB agents, terrorists, Vietnamese troops, and the special forces soldiers of the original Black Ops, Alex Mason and Frank Woods. None of this story is coherent. Declassified tells its tale the same way arcade games from the 1980s did. Like Capcom’s Commando: You’re in enemy territory! Shoot the enemy! There are also none of the soap-operatics or set piece spectacles that defined the series since Infinity Ward’s Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. The closest this game comes to gut-punch moments like crawling away from a nuclear explosion or bringing down the Eiffel Tower is a slow-motion jump out a window.
“Arcade” is an important word to keep in mind here. It took me about one hour to get through the game’s second campaign mission on the lowest difficulty setting. A timed rescue mission, you run along a narrow path through a Vietnamese air base trying to save some guys in suits using a predetermined load out of gear. The enemies are in set locations as in older Call of Duty games, but they lack any type of intelligence. They’ll will run at you while you’re firing, stand next to live grenades, and even sit behind cover shooting straight into a wall. Yet I continued to die, despite their idiocy.
I’d get shot in the first hall or accidentally shoot a hostage. Near the end of the stage, one of the enemy planes took off, necessitating a complete restart of the mission. There are no checkpoints. When I finally did achieve victory, my completion time for the level was 2:37. That’s two minutes and thirty-seven seconds. The same thing happened with the following missions, but I improved as I got accustomed to the game’s rigid, seemingly backward dynamics. The fifth mission’s raid on a Russian base took me only forty minutes and my completion time was 6:57.
Eventually I got it: Declassified doesn’t just tell its story like an ‘80s action video game, it plays like one too. Like Mega Man or Contra, Declassified’s levels are preset gauntlets full of brute enemies following simple patterns. The fun is plowing through them aiming for a high score, just like the arcade games of yore. Once it’s clear that scores are the goal and you’re freed from the expectations of Call of Duty, it’s pretty fun. The environments are still drab and the music is still terrible, but they’re not poorly made. It’s ugliness isn’t a technical failing, just an artistic one. If Declassified had an entirely different skin and sound over its action, it may have actually been pretty swell.
All The Rest
So Declassified’s campaign is a moderate success burdened by unsavory aesthetics and an unavoidable legacy. What about the rest of the package? There’s the Hostiles mode mentioned earlier. Much like every shooter to release since Gears of War 2, Hostiles is a mode wherein you shoot wave after wave of enemies while looking to survive the longest you can. The brick-dumb enemies don’t hamper the campaign, but they downright ruin Hostiles, since the first three to four waves of enemies take a while to plow through but they’re not a threat. Many will run up to you and wait to be stabbed, while others will just stand around and wait for you. When the enemies get aggressive in later waves, Hostile picks up and entertains, but when you’re gunned down it’s all the way back to the slog of a start.
There is also Declassified’s competitive multiplayer: Team Deathmatch, Kill Confirmed (Team Deathmatch but with picking up dogtags), and Drop Zone (area control) are your options, with Team Tactical offering a mix of the previous three and a free-for-all bloodbath for some quick candy satisfaction. Having started playing these modes after the release of a patch, I didn’t run into the connection problems some early players reported. I hopped on, shot some guys, got shot, and leveled up. Over and over and over again.
It all works. This is Burger King-style multiplayer, simple, basic, and light on nourishment. For those looking for the sort of engrossing competition borne of the best competitive shooters with the widest variety of character classes and the most intricate maps, Declassified isn’t your game. It isn’t bad. Neither is a Whopper. But you wouldn’t call it fine dining and you certainly wouldn’t call it good for you.
Fast food multiplayer, an ugly-but-fun first-person arcade game, and some token horde action on the side; there are worse things in the world than that. Is it the portable Call of Duty that some were hoping for on a handheld as competent as PS Vita? Certainly not. That doesn’t make it a bad game, though. Expectations don’t damn a studio’s work, no matter how rushed it may be, and Declassified isn’t a terrible game. It’s simply insignificant.
Price shouldn’t damn a work either. An amazing game in 2012 can cost nothing and some of the very worst can run you $60 a pop. Monetary value should not be a determining factor in assessing a game’s quality. But when there are many options for shooters on the PS Vita – from Zipper Interactive’s swansong Unit 13 to excellent PSP games like the SOCOM: Fireteam Bravo series and Killzone Liberation - it’s impossible to justify Declassified’s $50 price tag. That’s a dollar amount determined by the Call of Duty name on the box, and Declassified shouldn’t carry the name.
Score: 4 out of 10
This game was reviewed on the PS Vita, using a copy provided by the publisher)