Call of Duty: Black Ops - Declassified is a cynical, half-baked, tired little mess of a game, and Activision knows it. We didn't get a review copy of the game in before launch, or even on launch day. We had to go out and buy our own copy - such is the entertainment giant's faith in it.
I'm glad we did, because hopefully we'll save a few potential punters from squandering their hard-earned money on this garbage. You'll need to be the world's biggest fan of the series to derive any enjoyment from this lazy first-person shooter offering.
Where to begin?
If you're really into the fiction of the established Black Ops universe and are looking for more insight into Alex Mason and Frank Woods's past then you're out of luck. The presentation of their narratives is bewildering, jumping from character to character, not explaining fully where or when they are, or what they're up to in the individual missions - let alone why you should care.
You're in some snowy research facility! Now you're in a city shooting dudes in suits! Now you're in Afghanistan! "Are these events connected in some way?" you wonder to yourself, as you mow down room after room of identical looking soldiers in drab, lifeless environments.
Who knows? Maybe there's some greater canonical tie-in, but taken as a separate title outside of the two home console releases you'd be hard pressed to find anything that even tangentially links the seemingly disparate events that make up Declassified. They're all implemented simply to serve the purpose of dropping you in an area and asking you to wipe out the enemy.
That's because Call of Duty: Black Ops - Declassified sets its sights on a more instantly-rewarding, far shallower single-player experience. As you beat its dozen or so levels on varying difficulties, you build up Campaign XP. You're even awarded it for each kill. There are Time Trials to try and get a maximum of 3 stars for beating quickly, and a mode in which you attempt to survive increasingly difficult waves of aggressors.
It's not difficult in the slightest, missions are short, and if you're a seasoned Call of Duty player, you can probably beat the entire story mode in forty five minutes. However, the game attempts to counter this by being brutally unforgiving in certain spots, usually by adding hostages or a timer.
I couldn't push past the second level - no matter how hard I tried - for an entire hour, for example.
"Oh well" I said to myself, "at least I'll build up loads of XP to carry into the multiplayer". No. Those experience points have no bearing on the online component of the game.
As for the down and dirty mechanics of play, this is a post-Modern Warfare game of Call of Duty, and things are as you'd expect.
You have access to two guns at any one time, you toddle into an area, spot an enemy, tap the left shoulder button to snap to the target, squeeze off fire, rinse, wash, and repeat 'til the credits start rolling.
There are none of the spectacular set pieces the series is known for, just section after section of totally adequate, completely phoned-in shooty shooty action.
Also, the analogue sticks are too twitchy by default, so you'll spend time lowering the sensitivity until you get things just right.
And there are some touchscreen shenanigans thrown in for no discernible reason. To throw a grenade you tap and hold the ever present grenade icon on the cluttered UI, drag to where you want to aim, and release.
This requires you to stop in the middle of a firefight, take your thumb off of the right stick (which controls where you're looking) and faff about smudging the screen with your index finger to hurtle the explosive.
Enemies react in almost the same way each time you tackle a section. This pop-up behaviour has been the same in most of the series, but the generous checkpointing of Infinity Ward's games means it's normally not noticeable.
Not so in Declassified. If you die then it's back to the start of the mission to do everything again - same enemy movements, same guns, same tactics, same embarrassing hackneyed voice acting. If you thought home console CoD was linear, you ought to play Declassified.
Wait, no, don't do that
It's not even as if your opponents put up much of a fight. A couple of bullets will put them down, and though it appears that they can see through walls (they'll start firing long before the laws of physics say they should be able to see you), their strategy in combat is often bewildering.
Some happy campers will dive for the nearest cover and fire round after round into the concrete block or burning car they're sheltering behind, for instance.
When they do line up their sights just right, and you take damage, it's difficult to tell how badly in shape you are. The visual representation of "it's just a scratch" and "dear God, get a priest" are almost the same.
Not that you can make too clean a retreat anyway, the geometry is dodgier than a £9 note. A small obstacle might snag you for whole seconds at a time, and invisible walls will deflect that perfectly lined up headshot you thought you had. Sometimes the AI trips up on them too, such as the soldier that threw a grenade at me, only to have it hit a low ceiling and bounce directly back at him.
It's all just so cookie cutter, lazily pasted together from the 'Big Book of Call of Duty Games' manual that nStigate Games was clearly handed. I could go on, but if you need a perfect example of how poor this element is, then just know that if you lose connection to the Internet at any point during the single player, a screen-covering pop up rears its head to notify you that this is the case, without pausing the action. It's thoughtless, it's sloppy, and it's infuriating.Disconnected
If you thought that was bad, then perhaps the multiplayer is the worst offender. Though - criminally - only on a technical level. Which is to say: I spent two hours trying to play this aspect of the game, and managed to get in only five matches in that time. Declassified just doesn't want you to enjoy its online. Ever.
Random boots from games in progress, connections getting lost, the game hanging indefinitely and even one spectacular GPU crash that brought up a debug screen. All things I spent my time doing instead of blasting randoms in the face.
Yep, Declassifed manages to fail here so badly that I managed to see its secret inner workings - if only for a second before my device hard locked and needed a full reboot.
Which is a gigantic let down, because when games did hold, it's undeniably the best aspect of the title. It's a full, expansive experience with all of the Perks, Kill Streaks, loadouts, and upgrades you'd expect. By reusing sections from the single player the maps can feel small, but this does get you into combat quickly.
Each class feels different enough to the point that you can imagine people really sticking with one type and exploring its possibilities. You'll do this across the standard deathmatch and assault-type modes, plus Kill Confirmed, in which you must pick up the dog tags of fallen enemies to score.
But none of this matters if you can't actually access the content, which at the time of writing (launch day) is absolutely the case - even with a 400MB patch slapped on top of the baseline software. The patch did include an ad hoc multiplayer offering, but we weren't able to test this in time for the review.Scuppered
Everything about Declassified is a massive middle finger to the fans. It's a £45.00 mistake for you to make this Christmas, driven to purchase it on a wave of excitement from Black Ops II on PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360.
It serves no purpose but to frustrate and annoy, with lacking single player, little use of the potentially fascinating BLOPS universe, and almost totally broken multiplayer.