All the features in the world can't save a game that's not fun to begin with.
Black Ops on the DS may be developer n-Space’s most ambitious project yet. It includes a campaign mode, two variations on that mode (Challenge & Arcade), and several multiplayer options including local and online. There’s really a lot of game here, and from a content point of view, it’s definitely noteworthy. I’ve found over the years, however, it doesn’t matter how loaded with features a game is if the underlying gameplay is frustrating and feels like a chore.
This DS game, like the others in the Call of Duty series, follows a parallel storyline to the console games. Here, the plot revolves around Cuba, Castro, and government intrigue. The majority of the gameplay involves first-person shooting, which is too imprecise to be enjoyable. The problem rests partially on the DS itself; the lack of sufficient buttons to handle all the game’s features means that the touch screen is filled to the brim with icons which you tap to handle your primary and secondary weapons, grenades, knife, interacting with the environment, aiming down the scope, checking your radar, and doing a quick 180 degree turn. If that sounds like too many, it is. If you like double-tapping the screen to aim down your scope, that option is available. You can also switch to buttons-only control, although it’s a much slower option and I don’t know why anybody would use it instead of the faster, more precise touch controls. You can change the aiming sensitivity in the Options menu, which helps, but we'll get to the particular gameplay failings momentarily.
The game’s environments are loaded with invisible trip wires which cause enemies to spawn very quickly, and in precise locations. All of the enemies have great aim; you do not. In Black Ops, firing from the hip is utterly useless, especially if you’re trying to peek out from cover and take guys down from any distance beyond arm’s length. Your machine gun will fire a comical outline of your opponent before it does any significant damage. Aiming down the sight is an unfortunate necessity. This leaves you crawling through environments at a snail’s pace, lining up enemies very precisely which usually involves aiming at pixels, and being shot by other enemies—who are very good at shooting from the hip. I was often killed while trying to line up a shot. Each shooter stage amounts to memorizing level layouts and enemy spawn points, requiring much trial and error, then walking around in “aim down the sight” mode and trying to line up your shots quickly enough to avoid being killed while doing so. This is why aiming sensitivity doesn't help the process—you're still creeping around in ADS (Aim Down the Sight) mode at a snail's pace, memorizing enemy location through trial and error.
One area in particular almost had me breaking my DS in half: you are tasked with storming a beach, Rambo-style, while enemies flood the map in every direction. Because of the game’s poor textures, what appear to be rocks actually seem to be brown bushes, and you’ll discover that enemies (that you can’t see) can shoot you in the head through the bushes while you’re hiding behind sand dunes. Trying to shoot the enemies from a ledge above the beach is hilariously naïve—even aiming down the sight, you are still trying to shoot moving targets that are three or four pixels high. Going down to the beach is its own disaster. Try to take out one enemy from a distance and two more will storm your position while you line up the shot. One will shoot you in the back, and the other will kill you with a knife. I’m not kidding when I say it took me more than ten tries just to struggle through that section. That is not fun by any definition.
Ironically, the first vehicular segment follows that horrendous experience. If you’ve been playing with touch controls the whole time (like I was), you’ll be in for a treat as you’re required to suddenly learn how to aim with the ABXY buttons. You’re piloting a helicopter that’s on a rail and can only move left or right to avoid the RPG fire that you can’t really see. Don’t be surprised when your chopper explodes without warning. This section is similarly infuriating, but for different reasons.
Admittedly, even the console versions of the game aren't focused on the single-player campaign. Call of Duty’s always been about the multiplayer shenanigans. As such, Black Ops offers a lot of multiplayer content: You can play Zombie Mode locally, for one. Zombie Mode, obviously inspired by games like Left 4 Dead, has you defending a base from an undead onslaught. The game is best played with several people—you won’t survive long by your lonesome, what with the tasks of shooting zombies, repairing windows, and upgrading your weaponry (you also die quickly once hit). It’ll be fun for a group, but not for the lone gunman.
The more traditional multiplayer is where the fun is at. Black Ops offers local play, friends-only online multiplayer (complete with friend codes) and random-match online multiplayer. Former site director Jon Lindemann and I jumped through a glut of technical hoops for a half hour (love those error codes) to eventually come together for several frag-filled rounds of one-on-one. The complaints I leveled against the solo game are similar here: shooting from the hip is hilariously ineffective. My biggest bone of contention is that it shouldn't take two friends who have exchanged friend codes this long to connect online. Not for ANY game. I was also able to get my fill of the “Quick Match” multiplayer. I successfully connected to about a third of my attempts. Of this third, a few were dropped for unknown reasons. Of the full games I was able to play, the experience was somewhat enjoyable, although the lag was concerning. Quite a few of my kills were denied by unfortunate lag (while simultaneously ensuring my own death). There are five game types: Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, Capture the Flag, Team Capture the Flag, and Sabotage, where team defends a certain object while the other team tries to destroy it. Whoever ends up hosting the match (I did several times) gets to decide the map, game type, weapon restrictions, etc. The console game’s perk system is supposedly in place here, but I was never able to figure out how much experience I earned or if I unlocked any perks or even leveled up. Unlike the console games, there isn’t an experience bar that increases after every match. I had hoped this problem was limited to random matches, but it's present in friend matches, too. How much experience do I have? How close am I to leveling up? These are questions I was never able to answer.
There are a few additions to multiplayer that should be commended. First, you can choose your spawn point. Second, you can switch your primary and secondary weapons out after dying. Finally, the host can choose to play with perks on or off. The spawn point choosing, in particular, is fantastic.
The maps range from simplistic to surprisingly complex. One map in particular, featuring a bunch of connex boxes and multiple levels, encourages sniping and sneaking around for kills while another map, set in a graveyard, is very cover-based. Aside from the timed-out games, dropped games, and lack of knowing how much experience you earned, the online multiplayer in general suffers from the same sort of aiming difficulties that the campaign does—unless you’re face-to-face with your attacker, you’ll need to aim down the sights to shoot with any accuracy. I found several players who had abandoned guns entirely and just went around melee attacking people to death (which was very effective).
Despite its bells and whistles, Black Ops just can’t escape the fact that the core gameplay just isn’t fun. There are plenty of other DS PFS games that I’ve played that proved more enjoyable: Moon, Dementium 2, and even the first Modern Warfare game were more fun and less frustrating than Black Ops. The online multiplayer is a step in the right direction, but the difficulty in connecting to random matches and the same accuracy problems that plague the campaign ruin it for me. It's also unfortunate that Zombie mode is such a local focus. Even bots would have helped make that a fun game. As it stands, I can't recommend Black Ops over many other DS FPS games. If you have the means, I'd stick with one of the console versions.