If Call of Duty: Black Ops on the consoles is the equivalent of a summer blockbuster movie, then Black Ops on the DS is the version you see on basic cable a couple of years later. It has been cut and trimmed to fit the system, and a few things have been lost in translation, but it's still a fun experience that captures the spirit of its console cousin. The single-player campaign in Black Ops is all about the murky dealings of Cold War-era Special Forces agents. The levels take the form of flashbacks experienced during a mission debriefing. The story tries to give off a backroom espionage vibe, but unlike the story in the console version, it's disjointed and unclear and serves only as an excuse to set up missions. Those missions might not tie in to the overall plot very well, but as one-off excursions, they're varied and exciting. And on top of that, you can hop into some some great online shooter action with up to five other players.
The single-player campaign does a good job of balancing different elements. You spend much of your time running and gunning your way through tight corridors that funnel you in and out of open areas, but you also encounter situations that enable you to take a more tactical approach to combat. For example, one level has you fighting it out through the jungle until you reach a small shantytown. There you have to hunker down with your squadmates and defend the area from an onslaught. Before each wave of enemies, you get some rudimentary real-time-strategy-like controls that enable you to choose which areas of the map your squadmates defend. These moments, along with some fixed turret and vehicle levels, mix up the action nicely. Many of the levels group you with two AI-controlled teammates. These computer-controlled allies actually pull their weight, taking out and engaging enemies on their own. Their support is invaluable, because the AI that you're up against is aggressive, and enemies won't let you sit behind cover for long before they start lobbing grenades. The inconsistent difficulty and the cumbersome controls on the helicopter levels are the only downsides to an otherwise exciting campaign.
This being a Call of Duty game, aiming down the sights of your weapons is important--firing from the hip is wildly inaccurate much of the time. The controls from previous DS Call of Duty games have seen some improvements here. You now have two options to initiate aiming down the sights. You can double-tap the touch screen or press an icon at the top of the screen. You can even adjust the sensitivity of the double-tap if you find yourself accidentally triggering it. You can also switch to button controls, where the face buttons handle moving your reticle. They're less accurate, but they do have a helpful auto-lock-on feature. The action button you use to vault over objects and activate switches is a little too small, but you don't use it enough for it to be detrimental to gameplay.
Impressively, Black Ops on the DS manages to include much of the addictive carrot-on-a-stick multiplayer of the console Call of Duty games. You can play online or locally with up to six people, and you unlock weapons and perks as you level up. The interface for choosing those weapons and perks is clumsier than on consoles, and instead of saving preset loadouts, you choose which guns and perks you take with you into each session. Still, there's an impressive level of customization, and getting in and out of matches is quick and easy. On top of the competitive multiplayer, Black Ops includes the Zombie mode that was first introduced in Call of Duty: World at War. The Zombie mode here is every bit as addictive and nerve-racking as you'd expect as you and your teammates fight off waves of insatiable undead. The only downside is that you can't chat with your partners to coordinate your defenses when playing online, so this mode is best played with friends in the same room.
Black Ops for the DS looks amazing, especially during the vehicle levels. As you trek through the gorgeous environments and stare down the barrels of the detailed guns, you can't help but be impressed. The frame rate remains consistent throughout, rarely ever dipping despite all the chaos onscreen. The sounds, like the difficulty, can be inconsistent. The tense music is great, a nice complement to the hectic action, and all the cutscenes and dialogue are fully voiced. Some of the guns, however, sound off. A few, like the MA16, deliver the punch you'd expect, while others sound more like someone tapping a finger on a coffee table.
Despite a few rough spots, Black Ops on the DS is the best portable Call of Duty yet. It's got all the hallmarks that make the console versions so popular--an exciting campaign, tight shooting controls, and addictive multiplayer. On top of the core experience, there's an Arcade mode, which gives you a set number of lives with which to set high scores, and of course the Zombie mode, which is a blast to play with others. There's a wide breadth of content in Black Ops, and all of it is top quality, give or take a couple of bad helicopter levels. If you're itching for some Call of Duty on the go, it doesn't get better than this.