Activision’s Call of Duty: Declassified for the Vita is horrible, but it’s Sony who will be punished
It’s depressing to think that just a few short months ago, we thought that the 2012 holiday season was going to be a great time to own a Vita. There were big-name games coming out, attached to huge franchises. A portable Assassin’s Creed game? YES! A Call of Duty title exclusive to Sony’s handheld? That’s going to drive massive amounts of sales. Sony even announced a bundle that packed Black Ops: Declassified in with new Vita systems. That will get people excited about the hardware again, right? Instead, Assassin’s Creed was a disappointment, and Declassified was an absolute fiasco. Activision is going to be fine, as the sales of Black Ops 2 will likely break records. Nihilistic Games, Declassified's developer, has been renamed nStigate Games and will now focus on mobile. Their future, after a string of forgettable games, is uncertain. The one big loser is easy to spot when you look at the situation as a whole: Sony. More specifically, the Vita.
The Vita needed Call of Duty
The Vita isn’t just struggling in the market, it’s drowning. Sony has had to decrease expectations for portable hardware sales multiple times, and sales are lower than they were this time last year, before the Vita was even released. In other words, Sony has released new hardware, but sales of the Vita combined with sales of the PSP can’t match the performance of just the PSP last year. That's not a dip, that's a death spiral. Developers are being sent a message with each high-profile game that’s released to tepid reviews and low sales: the Vita is toxic. Don’t go near it. By all accounts, everyone knew Call of Duty was going to be terrible. Very little information about the game was shared before launch. There were few previews. Very little video of the game was released. The game wasn’t sent to reviewers until after it was launched, if they got a copy at all. Sony and Activision seemed to go out of their way to try to hide the game’s existence from the press, perhaps hoping that it would sell a few copies based on the name alone before word of its lack of quality began to spread. No one talking about it was much better than everyone talking about how awful the game proved to be.Handing the title to Nihilistic Software for development also seemed like an odd choice. Their last game, Resistance: Burning Skies on the Vita, was a disappointment, adding to the string of big-name Vita games to let down fans. The developer had released a series of mediocre games throughout its history. Vampire the Masquerade: Redemption was its best-reviewed game, earning a 74 on Metacritic. Nihilistic was given one of the most popular names in gaming, and there was either no time, money, or enthusiasm to create a high-quality game. The result was a mess. The single-player portion of Declassified can be finished in around an hour. The multiplayer is weak. It barely works. There was a large patch since launch that kind of fixed some of the problems. It would have been disappointing for a $5 mobile game. As a $50 release it’s borderline criminal. “Call of Duty: Black Ops: Declassified is appalling. In dramatic fashion, it completely fails to live up to the high bar of quality gamers expect from the Call of Duty name,” Game Informer wrote in its review, which for a time was amusingly surrounded by ads for the Vita bundle. “It’s also a discouraging sign for gamers like me who shelled out $250 for a Vita in the hopes of console-quality experiences on handheld. I can’t recommend Declassified to anyone; casual FPS players and Call of Duty fans alike will recognize the train wreck Nihilistic Software has developed.” What should have been a glorious release for the embattled portable became yet another debacle for players hoping for a near-console quality experience from one of their favorite franchises. The game is currently sitting at a 29 on Metacritic, and lacks even a single positive review.
How this hurts Sony
Once again, this doesn’t really hurt Activision. The console and PC Black Ops 2 games will sell amazingly, the brand won’t be hurt by the terrible Vita game, and Nihilistic will soldier on as a company making mobile titles. On the other hand, Sony is stuck with a holiday season where stores are filled with bundles advertising a game that’s absolute shit. Sure, the $250 Vita bundle may basically give you the game for free, but having a customer’s first experience with your system be a broken, barely-there version of a popular franchise is incredibly damaging. What are they going to do when they go to the store, ask about Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation? Another big-name game with middling reviews. Resistance? That was abysmal as well. We can pray that a knowledgeable clerk will be able to point them towards Retro City Rampage or Gravity Rush. The best Vita games remain amazing, but sadly niche, titles like Rayman Origins or Lumines. Sony made a large, and very expensive, bet with the Vita. The idea was that gamers wanted a premium, console-quality experience from their handheld, along with full-priced games. It’s not a bad idea, and there may be a group of people out there who are interested in paying $50 per game for their favorite franchises in portable form. This all falls apart when companies fail to release high-quality versions of their games for Sony’s systems, and gamers are left with disappointment after disappointment. While Activision is ultimately responsible for the quality of their games, Sony is going to be the company that is hurt by the failure of Declassified. Without a single, mainstream, breakout hit for the system, developers have little reason to devote resources to the Vita. Once that decision is made, the system is all but done for except for a small number of Sony-created titles a year.