A Defense of Call of Duty: Black Ops Declassified

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I’m going to open this up with a bit of a disclaimer: I am not someone you would classify as a Call of Duty fan. In fact, I’m more cold to the series than warm. I don’t hate the games, but they’re essentially mindless shooting galleries with explosive cutscenes and jingoist themes. I also don’t like that one of the pre-order bonuses for the latest game was a rather tasteless attack drone toy. The series has some issues in both the ethical and gameplay departments.

But I’d be fibbing if I said that I hadn’t played through every single game in the series since its conception back in 2003, you know, when it was that fun World War 2 shooter that came out of nowhere and punched everyone in their faces with fists of awesome branded by Infinity Ward. Part of that is wanting to hop on the bandwagon. The other part is that they’re, for the most part, successful pieces of entertainment. They probably won’t end up in the MoMa but they’re still fun.

Except for the Call of Duty game for the Vita, apparently: Call of Duty Black Ops Declassified. Metacritic has it listed as the lowest rated Vita release of 2012, with compiled reviews that universally pan the game. Ouch. So harsh were these reviews, that I actually sighed inwardly when I picked up the Vita Call of Duty bundle. I also purchased Persona 4, so it was a little silly to have that kind of reaction, not to mention the fact that Declassified was a free incentive. But the reviews for this game are just savage. Let’s take a brief tour:

Writing for Game Informer, Dan Ryckert ended his review of game by stating that:

Call of Duty: Black Ops Declassified is appalling. In dramatic fashion, it completely fails to live up to the high bar of quality gamers expect… It’s also a discouraging sign for gamers like me who shelled out $250 for a Vita in the hopes of console-quality experiences on handheld.”

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It’s just as good as the real thing! Or is it?

And that’s actually one of the kinder reviews. The introduction to Jim Sterling’s review for Destructoid makes Ryckert’s comments look like compliments given by someone trying to court the developer’s affections:

“I feel I owe Nihilistic Software (now nStigate Games) an apology. After I had reviewed Resistance: Burning Skies, I thought it was a terrible game developer with no talent, no ambition, and no resources. Burning Skies‘ quality was such that I truly believed we were dealing with a bad studio.

Having played Call of Duty: Black Ops: Declassified, I realize now that this is not the case. I’m convinced instead that Nihilistic is a group of performance artists, creating works of intangible brilliance to break the fourth wall and satirize the videogame industry. These are not videogames, these are macabre comedies that, like the late Andy Kaufman, make use of elaborate pranks without necessarily letting the audience in on the goof.

At least, that’s what I’m going to have to tell myself, because admitting that a game like Declassified could be made in earnest is just too damn depressing.”

An amusing twist of the knife? Undoubtedly. But is it unfair hyperbole? In the context of writing a review to let people know whether or not they should shell out 50 bucks for a game, certainly not. However – and keep in mind that I didn’t pay anything for the game – I have to say that Declassified isn’t that bad. Don’t get me wrong: the Louvre, it ain’t. And it sure isn’t a worth a full price purchase.

But let’s take the price out of the equation for a minute and look at game design. I think the fatal flaw with Declassified is that it was designed to be something else than what we’ve come to expect from mobile gaming, at least with handheld devices like the Vita and DS. Declassified, like its Vita cousin, Assassin’s Creed: Liberation, plays like an on-the-go version of the franchise, a distillation of its console siblings.

That distillation is a great deal of why I like the game: there’s a lack of typical Call of Duty related crap. Sure, there’s no real storyline in the “campaign,” but there also aren’t any levels where I’m blowing up the Eiffel tower while pursuing a terrorist in the simulation of some post 9/11 gung-ho American wet dream. A number of complaints have also been made about the fact the levels feature no respawn, meaning that you have to restart from the beginning of each one when you die. I see this as a welcome addition, as one of the most aggravating aspects for Call of Duty for me has always been its LOLRESPAWN slap of the wrist approach to player’s failure. Screwing up actually means something in Declassified; death doesn’t carry the profoundness here that it does in Dark Souls, but it least it’s more than some pseudo-deep quote about the horrors of war followed by five-second wait-penalty.

Hostiles mode (Survival Mode) isn’t too shabby, either. However, it’s here that one notices just how incredibly dumb the AI is, which is something reviewers have been critiquing. And it’s a fair critique, except that I have to give pause to wonder when people actually started caring about AI in any of the modern warfare Call of Duty games. In previous entries, I’ve always run into foes that have done noticeably stupid things, like running headlong into my line of fire, for example, or huddling behind a piece of nonexistent cover. Okay, occasionally shooting in the wrong direction is a new low for the artificial intelligence in the series, but my point is that Call of Duty has never had really brilliant enemies to begin with. Their universal preferred method of assaulting you, after all, is overwhelming you with numbers and unending gunfire. Dumb as they may be, the enemy can still (and probably will) overwhelm you until you learn the best locations in each Hostiles map to bottleneck them and unleash havoc.

The game’s only true failing for me (with a capital F) is the multiplayer mode, which has maps that are smaller than the Grinch’s heart, almost guaranteeing that you’ll probably respawn in front of an enemy. Lag doesn’t enrich the experience either. Multiplayer seems set on being a decidedly anti-fun experience and should probably be avoided.

Still, I profess: the game is far from horrible. In fact, I’ve enjoyed it much more than Uncharted: Golden Abyss and its blatant technology demo sections that have you running your finger back and forth across the screen in order to charcoal rub artifacts.

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Seriously? Someone thought this was a good idea?

The problem with Declassified is that it doesn’t have a long completion time and high replay value. It’s a game meant for a quick fix when you want to play a session of Call of Duty and you’re not anywhere near your console/PC. But our concept of mobile gaming has evolved. Quick-fix games are now being played on tablets and phones—games like Super Hexagon and Punch Quest. We expect something more of 40-50$ handheld games. And we should, after all.

However, I don’t think that Declassified should be entirely dismissed, especially after the price drops. It isn’t an unsung masterpiece or a diamond in the rough, but it’s been battered about a bit more than it deserves. If you can find it on the cheap, try it. You might be pleasantly surprised.

So what do you think of Call of Duty: Black Ops Declassified? A piece of rubbish, or perhaps the next Ocarina of Time? Let us know in the comments below!

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