When Call of Duty Zombies first appeared in World At War, Treyarch had captured lightning in a bottle. Now over a decade later, has this beloved game mode had its day?
Wave-based survival had existed in gaming long before Treyarch had their stab. Just a few years earlier, clever modders were already hard at work with a defining Unreal Tournament mod. That mod would eventually turn out to be Killing Floor. Eventually getting its own standalone release in 2009, the Tripwire Interactive effort would be part of the booming zombie pop-culture wave. Valve and Turtle Rock Studios were leading the way with their beloved Left 4 Dead series.
Cinematic endeavors like Zombieland only added fuel to the fire. Gamers were hungry for their next horde. Treyarch had just what they needed. Call of Duty: World At War was a shock to the system for fans of Infinity Ward’s runaway success with Modern Warfare. The franchise had left the WWII era briefly, now players were back in the allied trenches.
Everything was in place for the game-mode to relish in heaps of success for years to come. Sadly, the path has been fairly rocky since those golden era days.
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it
As the franchise has evolved and approached new concepts, of course, Zombies has undergone several transformations. Swapping hands between developers on numerous iterations, each company (be it Sledgehammer Games or Infinity Ward) have had their turn to actualize what their idea of Zombies is. Aesthetically, the starkest makeover was in Advanced Warfare. Opting to ditch the war-torn horrors of WWII, Advanced Warfare replaced it with sterile sci-fiction adjacent visuals.
In theory, the notion of zipping around maps with exo-suits and high-powered futuristic weapons should be a blast. In the practical sense, there was just something missing from the whole affair. This isn’t helped by the lack of any vaguely compelling lore, even with a star-studded cast to boot. However, it’s fair to give the maps their due for one core reason: simplicity.
Cold War Zombies seems to understand that principle. For years, CoD Zombies has suffered from a phase of overly complex objective-based maps. Though, side objectives aren’t a bad thing. Quite the opposite. However, in the case of Black Ops 3, Black Ops 4, and WWII, most if not all of the maps were plagued by objective-based survival.
Mainly boiling down to dull fetch quests or defending missions, the more complex objectives broke up the flow. This is especially true in maps like Black Ops 3’s Shadows of Evil. Painted with a gorgeous noir palette, the ambitious level design is hindered by obnoxious quests that aren’t fit for the map’s maze-like navigation. At this point, these quests were becoming an obligatory part of the experience, rather than a secondary option.
Getting back on track
Cold War Zombies however has a course correction. Launching with the Nacht Der Untoten soft reboot, Die Maschine, it seems Treyarch has been listening. Aided by a mini-map and a few introductory quests (indicated on-screen), the main goal is to get the power on. From there it is completely down to the player to pursue anything more than that.
If they choose not to, then it’s time to grab the Ray Gun once more. Pure survival is back in the limelight, as it rightfully should be. Panicked communications and hilarious banter with your squad can carry the course of the session. There is no need to worry about fulfilling an arbitrary goal.
Both Firebase Z and Mauer Der Toten embody this ethos too. No mandatory missions, just classic Zombies thrills set against conceptually rich and vibrant locales. Whether it’s the doomed heat of Firebase Z or the nightfall terrors that lie waiting in Mauer Der Toten, control has been given back to the player to make their own unique experiences.
Even if players are actively pursuing quest completion, the great thing about these new lore-based events is that they feel more welcoming to participants. It might require some light guide reading or tips from fellow players, but these new quest variants are player-friendly enough to join in with. After all, Zombies is a mode that thrives off comradery.
Hopefully, as Cold War Zombies finishes its cycle, and Vanguard’s begins later this year, we’ll still gain access to an initially simplistic approach to proceedings.
With Treyarch confirmed to be on board, we can only hope their expertise and authorial presence over the game mode is a blessing rather than a curse.