From the beginning of 2011, Call of Duty on the PS Vita, then named the NGP, would be something of a mystery until its eventual, somewhat underwhelming reveal and ultimately, its disastrous, critical mauling. We’ve touched on whether reviews for something as big as a Call of Duty game even matter, but the truth is that somewhere along the line what could have been a great first person shooter ended up being a less than mediocre one, and one that ended the branding of the studio behind it.
January 2011 seems such a long time ago, but here’s Activision’s Philip Earl starting the hype rolling with the world’s first news of a Call of Duty game on Sony’s brand new portable.
Thanks to Takao at GAF for reminding us of that video – it’s oddly telling now how silent everyone was about just what this Call of Duty would actually entail. This lack of information or media on the game would continue for far longer than most would feel comfortable with – it was only very, very recently that we actually saw the game running. We’ll come back to that.
It wasn’t always Nihilistic behind Declassified, though. Indeed, Activision’s previous go-to studio for mobile development, Vicarious Visions, were first to attempt to make the game, which was then actually a port of Black Ops II rather than the cut down mission-based Declassified we ended up with.
“The studio was also working on a Vita version of Call of Duty: Black Ops II before that project, which my source said was flawed, was moved to another studio” said Kotaku’s Stephen Totilo talking about the developers perhaps best known for their early pioneering work on the GameBoy Advance, with the Tony Hawk franchise, in a piece about Guitar Hero recently.
Not everyone agrees entirely with what Totilo says in that article though, aside from the fact that it’s just a line pulled from a fairly weighty article – Polygon’s Arthur Gies seems to think it’s not true. “Interesting to see the Vicarious Visions on Declassified rumor today,” he said on Twitter. “[It's] contrary to what I’ve heard about the game though.” We can probably assume from that line that as far as Gies is concerned, VV weren’t associated with the game.
Regardless, once it was revealed that Nihilistic were ultimately behind the game going forward, all attention was on them. It wasn’t until Gamescom this year that we finally saw the game in action, and we couldn’t shake the feeling back then that Nihilistic weren’t really given that much time to get the game up and running – it looked rough, and despite assurances that it would launch looking better, it’s still hardly the Vita’s prettiest title.
In October 2012, Nihilistic confirmed that the game had been in development for “about a year” and that they were brought in “shortly thereafter” suggesting that the development cycle was indeed criminally short. It didn’t take too much longer for someone to figure out that the development was actually only five months or so – from the day Resistance: Burning Skies shipped until Declassified hit not long after in October.
Back in July of this year – before Gamescom – we wondered who was behind the game. Bend came to mind, the Golden Abyss devs, but one of the guesses was indeed Nihilistic, but then they had just shipped Resistance and the game was out soon…
Why Nihilistic? They had a first person shooter engine running on Vita. For all Resistance’s flaws, the engine was capable enough and could certainly play host to a Call of Duty title, but that tiny development window meant that the game released with barely a handful of single player missions and a considerably cut-down multiplayer portion. Had the developers more room to breathe then chances are the game would have been better fleshed out with much more content, irrespective of whether those visuals could have been tuned up to match.
Not that all that seemed to matter, with the game selling nicely on release.
So what happened between the time Activision had announced the game and Nihilistic taking over, as it’s clear they weren’t involved from the very beginning? Indeed, it’s reasonable to assume that Declassified wasn’t the game’s name (and the focus was no doubt different) until much later in the development period – and probably not until Nihilistic got involved. Was the game a ‘proper’ port of whatever Treyarch were working on as Kotaku stated?
That turned out to be Black Ops II, one of the generation’s worst kept secrets, and apparently something that Vicarious Visions (or whoever it was at Activision) couldn’t get running on the Vita.
The game – which ended up as Declassified – had to come out alongside Black Ops II on the consoles. It had to make that important Christmas window and it had to ride on the wings of the mainline console versions. That “Black Ops” in the title is all too powerful to miss, and the game saw a healthy first week of sales regardless of whether it was panned by the critics.
But it’s not the game it should have been.
This isn’t a slight on Vicarious – I’ve huge amounts of respect for them – and nor is it a dig at Nihilistic. Indeed, given the five month window it’s a wonder Declassified made it out at all, in any state. They’ve done this before – taken an existing franchise and pushed it to mobile – and it wasn’t entirely bad. But it sounds like there were creative differences, with the studio wanting more from the game (like Zombies) but they were very much at the mercy of both Sony and Activision.
I’m hopeful that Killzone: Mercenary (above) can deliver where Call of Duty failed – a decent first person shooter worthy of the brand, and one that shows the Vita is capable of coming up with the goods, finally, in the genre. In the meantime though it’s fair to say that Declassified had a troubled, uneven development process and never really found its feet, the end result something that really should have been a lot better.