Call Of Duty: Black Ops
While playing Call Of Duty: Black Ops on the Nintendo DS, we found ourselves returning to the same question over and over – who, exactly, is this game for? It certainly doesn’t feel like it’s going to appeal to the typical CoD audience – players like N00BKiLLA_74 or AK-47_MaSta are hardly queuing up during midnight launches to get their hands on the next instalment of the game on DS.
Conversely, those gamers that own Nintendo’s handheld and are accustomed to a diet of Brain Training titles and Professor Layton puzzles are hardly going to rush out on day one to queue up for a copy either. At least that’s what common sense would tell anyone who follows the ebb and flow of the industry. But we did our research, and the numbers tell a different story.
This is the fourth Call Of Duty game to also receive a DS handheld version, so something must be going right. According to VGChartz, Call Of Duty 4 on DS sold 838,307 units, World At War 679,391, and Modern Warfare: Mobilised 258,679. Sure there’s a startling downward trend there, but that still remains a cool 1.7 million sales over three years. It’s hardly Black Ops’ whopping 5.6 million day one figure, but it’s a big number nevertheless.
So someone’s buying these games. We just don’t understand why, because they’re not particularly good. Black Ops is once again helmed by Activision’s go-to guys for core-focused DS development, n-Space. There’s very little altered here from the team’s previous attempts to squeeze the big screen CoD experience onto the much smaller dual displays of Nintendo’s hardware, with the weapons, inventory and control handled by the touch screen, and the FPS action occurring on top.
In all fairness, the game tries its very best to imitate the spectacle of its older brother. Set across a variety of environments spanning Vietnam, Afghanistan, Russia and Cuba Black Ops DS attempts to tell its own story involving captured SOG Operatives and – what else – a Russian superweapon of some description.
The straightforward corridor shootouts are peppered with helicopter missions, back-of-the-humvee machine gun sections, slo-mo breach and clears, stealthy crawls through the snow akin to the opening of Modern Warfare 2’s ‘Contingency’, and a replication of Black Ops’ crawl through Vietnam’s rat tunnels in ‘Victor Charlie’.
Here, though, levels are blocky and rectangular; distant enemies are blurry, indistinct smudges rather than humans; and explosions look like weird expanding spheres rather than fiery bursts of heat and shrapnel. It’s perhaps unfair to criticise the game for such failings given the hardware, and we must say that technically n-Space’s graphical achievements are greater than most on the DS, but Call Of Duty has always been a game sold on its unrivalled ability to deliver a screen shaker of a set piece.
Trying to deliver the same experience on a handheld that struggles to present realism even in a dog petting game just feels kind of…futile. It wouldn’t be so bad if Black Ops felt like it better exploited the things DS does well, but outside of basic combat n-Space does very little with the hardware. Take one level in which you and your team infiltrate a Russian submarine base (a mission we’re convinced we’ve undertaken at least ten times in ten different games).
Your teammate must perform a bypass in order to circumvent the installation’s security systems, a task he gets to perform while you, the player, stand, watch and wait. Why n-Space chose not to implement some sort of simple hacking minigame is beyond us. When you get in an elevator, however, n-Space is more than happy to throw up a meticuloulsly detailed rendition of the elevator panel on the bottom screen, where you get to press the button for the floor you wish to head to. There’s only ever one option. Riveting.
The game does get a little more inventive when it comes to defence sections, where you must use a top-down map to direct your teammates into defensive positions in order to secure an area, but even this is little more than a simple dot-matching game. What Black Ops does get right with the DS is control. As in previous entries into the series movement is performed using the d-pad, and the stylus and touch screen for head movement.
It works incredibly well, with the controls fluid and intuitive and the sensitivity easily modified via the option screen. Double tapping down on the d-pad to crouch is a bit of an irritant, but overall movement is instinctive enough to allow for a solid and pacey FPS experience. The vehicle sections, however, are another matter. The back-of-the-box helicopter sections, in which you rain down missile fire upon South Vietnam a la Black Ops’ ‘Payback’ level, see your target reticule controlled via the DS’s face buttons rather than with the stylus.
The result is an irksome and cumbersome experience – it’s difficult to mark your targets, and as such you’ll find incoming missile fire repeatedly takes down your craft. Again, we have to question n-Space’s design. Where’s the logic behind picking an unwieldy control scheme over the responsiveness of touch screen control? It makes no sense. It’s not a long single-player campaign, and most will complete it within five hours (and keep an eye out for the jarringly abrupt ending), but there’s plenty of content to keep the more dedicated players coming back for extended play.
Zombies mode can be played in two-player co-op, and there’s a small but fairly entertaining six-player multiplayer (two of the levels are named Facility and Temple…sound familiar?) that borrows ideas such as perks and weapon customisation from the console games. In addition to this there’s an assault course that recalls the tutorial in CoD 4, and arcade and challenge modes that allow you replay the campaign missions, either against a time limit or under certain conditions.
But why anyone would want to is beyond us. n-Space is certainly technically adept and has built an impressive engine and control scheme that just about deliver a worthwhile imitation of CoD – there are nice touches too, such as weapons having fall off, meaning accuracy and use of improvised cover is a must. But this still remains a game squeezed onto a system that’s simply not designed for it. Truly great ideas are few and far between, and while you can justifiably say the same of the console version, that only goes to prove how important high productions values are to a CoD game.
Black Ops on console elevates itself beyond tedium with great visuals and an immersive atmosphere. Without the drama and excitement delivered through enhanced graphics and a sense of atmosphere Black Ops DS feels little more than the shooting gallery it is. In fact, there were times that we felt we might as well have been playing a touch screen update to Wolfenstein 3D. With that in mind, after playing this technically impressive but easily forgotten effort, we can only imagine that downward trend revealed in the series’ sales figures is set to continue.