For years, the first person shooter genre has been a sort of elusive and exotic beast in the metaphorical jungle of handheld gaming.  There have been a few attempts on Sony’s PSP but, unless you were a southpaw, controlling the camera with the face buttons was simply too imprecise and clunky to be considered fun.

The Nintendo DS and the 3DS fare somewhat better with its basic implementation of touch controls with a stylus, that while precise enough, requires some serious feats of dexterity and hand contortion to avoid  developing carpel tunnel syndrome after a few play sessions.

Mobile smart phones streamline the touch screen controls but completely leave out any physical buttons, rendering shooters even less appealing to gamers looking for a first person shooter on the go with the same sort of gameplay they’re used to at home. The state of portable shooters has thus far been a despairing story of going one step forward and then two steps back.

Call of Duty: Black Ops Declassified for the Playstation Vita almost breaks that tradition but falls short of its pedigree, though not in the way you would expect.  For a portable shooter, the controls are good –excellent even — and the online multiplayer is very much in the spirit of Call of Duty on home consoles; the problem is that everything else has been scaled back and it becomes difficult to appreciate the good when considering the ludicrous $50 price tag.

The story in Call of Duty: Black Ops Declassified takes place somewhere between of the first Black Ops and Black Ops II on  consoles. There isn’t any of the futuristic weaponry or motifs here; the classified operations missions span several years from 1075 to 1981 and feature classic weapons and enemies.  The plot, in a very loose sense of the word, follows Black Ops soldiers Frank Woods and Alex Mason.

I say loose, of course, because there isn’t a campaign with a traditional plot and cut scenes but rather short operations missions, explained by short vignettes providing some background, where the player receives a few objectives over the radio and then proceeds to engage ‘all the usual suspects’ in the way as quickly as possible while moving through a small level.  Much like Stalone’s Rambo, these guys don’t need back up from rookie soldiers, instead running and gunning down Vietcong and Spetsnaz solo while detonating plastic explosives and dropping f-bombs at each opportunity.

The Call of Duty franchise has never been one for having subtlety in its characters or any gripping psychological drama in its plots, but Black Ops Declassified somehow manages to one up its bigger-and-betters at having a heavy handed and, frankly, dim-witted approach to story-telling.  But depending on how much time you have while playing the game on the go, the minimal plot and dialogue may not necessarily be a bad thing.

In fact, the missions included are meant to be played in short bursts and last an average of five minutes: the caveat being that there but ten of them.  With all things being equal, this is at its core a one hour affair on the easiest difficulty.  Playing it on the medium difficulty may require double or triple that, and the hardest difficulty will probably require many, many more replays to complete since the levels feature no check points, instead restarting you from the beginning of the mission should you meet your untimely demise.

To extend the solo experience a bit, Nihilistic included a Hostiles survival mode, similar to the one found in Modern Warfare 3, where you face off against waves and waves of soldiers in an effort to achieve the best score possible.  While not as interesting as the incredibly popular Zombies mode in the original Black Ops and in Black Ops II, it’s an enjoyable time-waster but one that eventually grows repetitive and dull due to the lack of variety in enemies.  There’s also a small collection of time-trial missions that, at under a minute, end almost as quickly as they begin.

For fans of shooters looking to get in a couple of quick frags between bus or train stops, Black Ops: Declassified’s rapid fire gameplay that skips on the story and jumps right into the action seems like a good fit.  But in practice, the anemic selection of single player content at an almost shockingly high price makes for a fun but incredibly short ride filled with some, mirrors, and cookie cutter game-play rather than a meaty solo experience Call of Duty fans are used to.

Thankfully, Call of Duty is about more than just the single player campaign and the multiplayer is where Black Ops: Declassified redeems some of its merit as a decent addition to the Vita’s library.

Though it is not the first competitive multiplayer shooter on the Vita — Nihilistic’s Resistance: Burning Skies was released just five months ago — Black Ops: Declassified is the best example of multiplayer on the Vita done right, and I would go as far as to say it is one of the few competent online shooter experiences on a portable thus far.

Resistance Burning Skies, while utilizing Vita’s dual analog sticks, was plagued with unintuitive touch screen controls and a near intolerable frame rate that rendered the game unplayable for all but the most hardcore gamers.  Black Ops: Declassified is largely free of any such problems; the frame rate is steady enough most of the time and the game controls very similarly to its console siblings, only utilizing the touch screen minimally for melee attacks and grenade throws due to the Vita’s lacking a second set of triggers.

Tenets of the Call of Duty franchise, the experience levels, prestige, perks, and kill streaks are all here, though perhaps not as extensively as in the console games, along with about two dozen weapons, game-play modes like kill confirmed, drop zone (think king of the hill) and team deathmatch played across a mix of six new and re-designed maps.  Most of the maps are well designed and a good fit for the 4 vs. 4 matches, with nukehouse, a smaller version of the already small, fan favorite map nuketown, being the sole exception, where it is difficult to spend ten seconds without getting a kill or being killed.

As with the single-player modes, there is still a want for more multiplayer content like maps and perks.  But the most important requisite of being a decent Call of Duty game is that matches are fast, frantic, and are dynamic enough to keep gamers coming back for more, and all that is certainly here in Black Ops Declassified, even if it has been scaled back to fit the portable envelope.  The facsimile online multiplayer may be somewhat uninspired and dated when placed side by side with Black Ops II, but given that it’s on a handheld console, Black Ops: Declassified is definitely taking portable online multiplayer in the right direction.  I wish the same could be said of the single player.

Ostensibly, there is some good gameplay here, especially for those Vita owners looking for a console-like online first person shooter experience.  But with that said, it is hard to recommend Black Ops: Declassified at the full retail price: there simply isn’t enough content here to justify spending $50.

Overall Score: 6.0