Call of Duty: Black Ops Declassified review: A black mark

Call of Duty: Black Ops Declassified should have been a pleasing success, a competent shooter on the go, but instead it triggers the awkward smile and feigned gratuity reserved for an earnest, botched gift. Like a slice of cake poured from a decanter, there are clear, disturbing signs of a good thing gone wrong in its preparation.
%Gallery-171355% Declassified developer Nihilistic – recently reclassified as nStigate – didn't do the Resistance franchise many favors either. The lesson learned: Two thumbsticks and a fancy screen do not a good shooter on the Vita make. Thankfully, Black Ops steers clear of the system's other gimmicks, relying on drag-and-drop grenade chucking and an elegant back-panel tap to steady your sniper shots.

Sprinting is sent to the d-pad, or you can choose to enable auto-sprint on the left stick, which means you can keep your left thumb in charge of steering and strafing. It doesn't kick in until you take a few steps in a straight line, and you never have much traveling space, so you often oscillate like an oaf between a spirited walk and the start of a jog. You're the guy who has to be somewhere urgently and then goes, "Screw that, they can wait," in perpetuity.

Whereas the console games strap you to a roller coaster hurtling through one opulent spectacle after the next, Declassified's single-player component is more like riding a skateboard down a short rail. The missions are over within a few minutes, well before they can establish meaningful context or momentum, and cover so little geographical space that they feel like errands on par with a coffee shop run.

You'd think this short span would grant forgiveness for the fact that there are no checkpoints whatsoever. Dying and repeating five limp minutes just makes the game's faults appear more jagged, though, and the simplistic environments soon begin to congeal into one generic shooting range. Enemies seem to malfunction if they're not in their preordained pop-up spots, and will run straight at you – or past you into a dormant part of the level – as soon as you drop a grenade in their section of the warehouse/corridor/hangar.

Pulling up the map screen reveals an agency-crushing style of level design that's either limited by imagination or hardware. You can lob such complaints at several proper Call of Duty games, but they feel harsh and amplified in Declassified. The difficulty levels are poorly tuned, either casting you as an unstoppable steamroller or an aerated sponge lying face down in a doorway, and your choice of weapon is rarely important. Even when the game tries to introduce a less rote encounter, it stretches as far as making you deploy a sentry gun a few feet from where you found it.

There's more intelligent design at play in the multiplayer game, the core of Call of Duty's enthralling machine, but it's not the fast-paced arcade shooter you've come to expect. Declassified drops the display down to 30 (ish) frames per second in a noticeable compromise, even to those who don't have the vocabulary to describe it. Movement and shooting feel sluggish, and the pacing of every match suffers because of it.

There is a competent matchmaking system and the obligatory suite of XP bonuses, killstreaks, levels and weapon upgrades to unlock, but these are extrinsic prizes detached from the unrewarding act of playing. The Nukehouse map, borrowed and miniaturized from the popular Nuketown variant, is emblematic of how environments impede most matches: it's too small, even for the maximum 4v4 configuration, too predictable and too flat. You end up doing tedious laps around the house and through the yard, stopping only for the occasional drive-by shooting.

Though this may suffice for those in desperate need to prestige on portable platforms, Declassified can't shake the stigma of being a cynical checkmark in the Vita's commercial campaign. Declassified is a flimsy, forgettable, phoned-in Call of Duty. The only entertainment value comes from watching the relationship between Activision and Sony, who now seem chummy enough to exchange gag gifts.

This review is based on the retail version of Call of Duty: Black Ops Declassified, provided by Activision.

Joystiq's review scores are based on a scale of whether the game in question is worth your time -- a five-star being a definitive "yes," and a one-star being a definitive "no." Read here for more information on our ratings guidelines.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.