We never talk about grenades.
We hold up the heft, the snarl of a shooter's assault rifle or pistol as some kind of platonic ideal for a shooter. We praise first-person games for the handling and the speed of their third-person vehicle sections. We even talk in hushed tones environmental destruction and collapsing buildings. But we don't talk about grenades.
Call of Duty: Black Ops Declassified is going to make us talk about grenades, because it has got them wrong. They sound tinny, are slow to detonate, and are not particularly good at cleaning out rooms or cutting down waves of enemies. Aesthetically, they're everything a grenade shouldn't be. To throw one, the player must either be looking in the direction they wish to throw it which leaves them vulnerable fire, or they must hold and drag a targeting reticule across the screen, taking their thumb off the right analogue stick for a good few seconds in the process.
But that's not all. Nihilistic had the bright idea of assigning the melee attack – a sluggish knife lunge – to every other part of the touchscreen. This means one slip or misjudged tap to the side of the grenade button and the player is trapped in a drawn-out stabbing animation, flailing hopelessly in the direction of bemused opponents. Problematic in the game's Campaign and Hostile modes, these touchscreen mechanics are rendered utterly useless in online multiplayer against even the most slow-witted human opponent.
Declassified's grenade crisis is but one example of the game's fundamental misunderstanding of the Call of Duty juggernaut and of contemporary first-person shooters generally. Everything about Call of Duty's PS Vita debut is awkward and slow, taking a series renowned for its fluid, tightly-choreographed bombast and ramming a bottle full of Valium down its throat. Controls are lethargic and imprecise, and the player moves with all the speed and accuracy of a small truck. The unsatisfactory look sensitivity leaves the player vulnerable when performing simple actions like turning around. And there's only cold comfort to be found in the tragic AI who will actively wait for to be acknowledged, to the point of running right past the player before opening fire. Some even get trapped on walls, which is apparently still a thing that is happening in major releases in 2012. It's ungainly and unseemly.
As a game, it's also incredibly small. Take the Campaign mode. Nihilistic successfully translates to the Vita the jingoistic self-righteousness and troubling historical revisionism we've come to expect from the contemporary war shooter (the whole game seems premised on the idea of the Cold War being secretly won by the United States). But none of the ten Operations have the grand scale and eye for the extravagant sublime that Call of Duty has made its name mastering. Without that spectacle to distract players, Declassified's other failings are exposed to the cold light of day - the abysmal dialogue, the voice cast's comical mountain-man growling, the game's reluctance to explore anything approaching complex moral or emotional territory, and the lack of character – let alone character development. It's an insultingly simple experience.
The notion that people will take to Call of Duty's pandering nonsense when you strip away the spectacle that makes it work is offensive enough in itself. The notion that people will spend $100 on less than ninety minutes of that pandering nonsense? Unforgivable. Declassified's as short as it is small, with each of the ten Operations able to be finished in under ten minutes. As if it wasn't enough to make the game that short, Nihilistic even taunt the player about it; a small timer on the bottom left of the screen keeping track of 'Time Played', as if the player is the weirdo for wanting to play something that can't be timed with a stopwatch.
Declassified's total lack of ambition is starkest when one looks at the multiplayer, arguably the one thing a Call of Duty developer needs to get right. Five classic game modes are on offer, four of which are simple variations on the classic deathmatch, and all are fought on a handful of cramped, bland maps. Brown and grey corridors abound, with the only map deserving of acknowledgment being Nuketown, literally a small two-storey house on a single suburban section.
Even with multiplayer matches restricted to eight players, the maps are so small that there's a very good chance of spawning right next to another player or even a firefight. It's a shame that the maps are so tiny and so anodyne, that the game modes are so limited, and that the mechanics are so unresponsive, because they're the only things stopping the multiplayer experience from being a solid, if unremarkable, affair.
Declassified enters the Vita's near-empty multiplayer shooter market with an enviable advantage - it's a game with a multi-million dollar brand name and a fan base that's incredibly loyal (some might say to a fault). But Declassified squanders all the goodwill that brand name nets them by promising the world and delivering nothing. It's a muted, ungainly piece of work, the bare minimum for a ridiculously inflated price tag.
Avoid. This is a bad game.