Even though they're wheeled out every year alongside their console cousin, n-Space's Call of Duty games on DS never cease to surprise. From making first-person gameplay work well on the unconventional handheld to pushing horsepower limits, each entry seems to have something new to prove. This year, Call of Duty: Black Ops pushes the DS ever more and proves that a portable shooter can be just as feature-packed as on a console.
Black Ops doesn't try to tell the same story as its home-bound counterpart, instead following past Call of Duty DS games by pursuing a new narrative in the same universe across 16 stages. Even though it doesn't run through the same plot, it still follows the same beats: instead of being interrogated between missions you're being debriefed, there's a very familiar underground tunnel section, and so forth. Level design is strong and well paced, more so than before in fact, helping the campaign maintain its fun momentum throughout. Ultimately, it's really not that different from past Call of Duty games besides a few headache-inducing vehicle segments, so if you've played those then you know what to expect – if you haven't, n-Space's years of DS FPS experience poured into Black Ops make it the best place to start.
Much like on consoles, the campaign is a heavily scripted affair with multiple friendly NPCs at your side. While the scripting does allow for some exciting firefight setups, it can just as easily take you out of the game. Your two allies are very capable fighters, often able to take down most of the opposing force without you; that is, when they're not in the way when going through tight corridors. More often than not they're a very useful addition to your battle, and there are indeed times when you battle alone. Handily, you're a killing machine thanks to strong gunplay.
Shooting feels much better than it did in GoldenEye, primarily because it feels accurate and effective; enemies aren't the strange bullet sponges as they were in Bond's outing. In fact, the controls in general feel better, allowing more versatility in the middle of combat thanks to smart touchscreen functionality: there's a quick-turn button and a double-tap brings up your gun sights. As in past n-Space DS shooters, you can choose to aim using either the touchscreen or the face buttons. Stylus aiming is more accurate but is more strain on your wrist, whereas buttons feel more comfortable but less quick. Both work, though, and are ultimately down to preference.
The only times controls become an issue are during the vehicle sequences sprinkled throughout the campaign. Flight sequences are on-rails affairs where you can dodge left and right while aiming at targets with a reticule, but the reticule only moves with buttons — not a problem when you're playing with the all-button option during the campaign, but stylus players may find the change jarring and unnecessary. Mobile turret sections screw up aiming as well: in one battle you fire RPGs at a helicopter from the back of a truck, but it feels like trying to thread a needle that's running in the other direction.
After the last campaign bullet has been fired, Black Ops still has a bundle of extras to occupy your DS with. Arcade and Challenge modes out a slightly different twist on the campaign stages; the former focuses on score and time, the latter providing specific objectives to conquer: use a particular weapon, accrue a certain kill count and so forth. These are fun diversions, but they're not too drastically different from the campaign.
However, the online modes are. Up to six players can compete in local and online multiplayer, complete with an abbreviated version of the console game's leveling and perks system. Friends can even speak to each other in pre-game lobbies over voice chat. If competitive modes aren't your bag then you and a friend or stranger can play co-operatively in Zombies on four maps (three more than on Wii), barricading doors and windows and upgrading weapons. Zombies can also be played solo offline, but we wouldn't recommend it: the undead will drop you in a couple of hits, which wouldn't be a problem if you were properly warned of their location beyond the unhelpful face on the screen.
The same relatively high production values of past n-Space shooters are back and better than before, with more enemies in play at a time and slightly tighter graphics. The only visual issue comes with enemies blending somewhat into the environment, a problem that past Call of Duty games have faced on the platform. Characters are given full voice work, and what sounds like music from the console versions makes an appearance as well.
Black Ops is inescapably similar to prior Call of Duty games on DS, but the improvements made to the campaign and wealth of extra features make it the best of the series and one of the top first-person shooters the handheld has to offer. The numerous modes and options may not be hot across the board, but the strong campaign and bountiful multiplayer options provide a memorable blast through the Cold War.