One of the biggest names in gaming makes its PS Vita debut today. Developed exclusively for the system, Call of Duty: Black Ops Declassified strives to offer the full blockbuster COD multiplayer experience on your handheld, alongside a bespoke mission-based single player campaign that serves as a companion piece to Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 on PlayStation 3.
Considering the series has one of the fiercest and most passionate fanbases of any major franchise, it’s safe to say that developer Nihilistic Software has taken on a huge responsibility. We sat down with studio founder Robert Huebner to find out how it’s dealt with the pressure and what players can expect from the title.
What was your mission statement for Call of Duty: Black Ops Declassified when you first began development?
Robert Huebner: There were three core pillars that we wanted to follow. The reward structure was one – keeping the rich set of XP rewards for special kills, the Challenges tracking system in multiplayer, and so on.
The second goal was, for single player missions, to capture the unique feel of short objective-based missions, where the player wants to replay the mission repeatedly to improve their time and score, effectively trying to achieve that “perfect run.”
And finally, we wanted to make sure that all the core multiplayer systems were kept intact from Call of Duty, so that playing a multiplayer match on the PS Vita was just as feature-rich as playing on console. So keeping things like Killstreaks, custom load-outs, ranks and perks was a top priority.
What did you learn from your experience developing Resistance: Burning Skies?
Robert Huebner: I think the biggest shift we made between the two was how we approached the single player mode. In Resistance, we tried to create a full story-driven single player mode that was similar to what players would get in a home console version, but ultimately, mobile players are looking for a different experience. Games like Unit 13 showed how a single player mode could be more mission-based and be effective and suitable for mobile play styles. We still wanted the single player to explore more of the Call of Duty lore, but we also realised that trying to out-story the console versions was not the right approach.
Call of Duty is one of the biggest entertainment brands out there – have you been feeling the pressure of satisfying the fan base and adhering to the franchise’s stamp of quality?
Robert Huebner: Every product carries with it a lot of pressure, and Call of Duty in particular because of the size of the fan base. But many of the development team are also avid fans, so it was easy to determine which features were the most important to achieve the unique feel of Call of Duty in general, and in particular what features were must-have to make multiplayer feel right.
What were the main challenges bringing the Call of Duty experience to a handheld?
Robert Huebner: Obviously it’s important to try to capture all the elements of an epic franchise that has evolved and expanded over so many years. PS Vita players have very high expectations, so determining the most important features from a massive franchise and fitting them all into a handheld game is far and away the biggest challenge.
Which elements of the game are you most proud of, and excited for gamers to experience?
Robert Huebner: I think the controls feel very faithful to Call of Duty. Obviously some adjustments had to be made – for example, replacing some of the Dual Shock buttons with touch controls – but any skilled Call of Duty player should feel right at home with the controls.
Can you explain exactly how the single player component is structured? Is there a single story to follow? Will we see any familiar faces?
Robert Huebner: Single Player Operations are a blend of story missions and short objective-based missions. They are tight, fast-paced and meant to be replayed to get higher scores and better times. Similar to story missions, they weave together and tell a story, including cinematic moments that feature dialogue and reveals. And yes, familiar characters do appear, and the story fleshes out the events that take place between Call of Duty: Black Ops and Call of Duty: Black Ops 2.
Multiplayer is a pillar of the COD experience – how have you approached it in Declassified?
Robert Huebner: The experience is really quite robust. We looked at what elements people loved most about Black Ops multiplayer and made sure we included those features. This way, players can customise and upgrade their weapons just as in the console version, earn killstreaks, use the mini-map, complete challenges and so on. We also have a very wide array of the most popular weapons from the original and a few new ones as well. We even incorporated a few features that players liked from other Call of Duty titles. Once you get into a match, it’s easy to forget you’re playing on a portable.
How have you used the unique features of the PS Vita?
Robert Huebner: The biggest thing is the dual analogue sticks, obviously. Without those, it’s really impossible to make a legitimate Call of Duty experience. But beyond that, the OLED screen gives a very nice crisp image and the touch screen allows us to simplify some controls, such as killstreak activations or targeting that can be a bit tricky on the console version.
How does multiplayer map design differ for a portable game compared to a home console title?
Robert Huebner: We decided to target eight-person maximum match sizes for Declassified, which allowed us to also support things like Ad Hoc mode and Party mode easily. The maps have been optimised to suit a portable experience. But the most important elements of a good layout remain the same, good flow patterns, fair but useful hiding spots, multiple levels in spots – all those things still make for a fun re-playable map.