Call of Duty Zombies needs a facelift

Later this year, Call of Duty fans will get to play the latest entry in the series: Sledgehammer Games’ Call of Duty: WWII. Like many Call of Duty games that have come before it, WWII will include a setpiece-laden story campaign, competitive multiplayer, and a four-player co-op mode that will pit players against unending hordes of zombies.

Co-op multiplayer is a passion of mine. I usually prefer co-op multiplayer over competitive. However, as much as I love blasting zombies, Call of Duty’s implementation of the titular Zombies mode has quickly dug itself into a rut as of late, and sadly it doesn’t sound like Call of Duty: WWII will do much to dig it back out.

The More Things Change…

Now, granted, Call of Duty’s Zombies mode has changed a great deal since it first showed up as a hidden bonus mode in the 2008 title Call of Duty: World at War. While it hasn’t appeared in every mainline Call of Duty game since World at War, it has shown up in most of them, and with each new appearance it has increased in size and scope, acquiring features which have now become synonymous with the mode, features like protagonists played by Hollywood actors, incredibly well-hidden easter eggs, and, in more recent entries, progression elements that give players more clearly defined goals to work towards.

With slight deviations here and there, Call of Duty Zombies has stuck to the above formula for several years now and has even expanded beyond the scope of the Call of Duty titles developed by original Nazi Zombies creator Treyarch to find homes in Call of Duty games developed by other studios as well (Sledgehammer’s 2014 game Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare and Infinity Ward’s 2016 title Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare both included a Zombies mode). In short, the presentation of Call of Duty Zombies has become iconic, to the point where the Zombies fan community pretty much already knows what it’s going to get with each new iteration well before it actually gets to play said iteration.

However, when a franchise fails to make any major changes for going on several years now, ‘iconic’ can quickly morph into ‘stale,’ and sadly I think that’s exactly what’s happening with Call of Duty Zombies.

Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One…

While we won’t know for sure until the recently confirmed July 20 Comic-Con reveal, it seems safe to assume at this point that Call of Duty: WWII’s Zombies mode will carry on many of the same traditions that have been established in previous Zombies titles, albeit with a fresh coat of paint and maybe a few minor changes here and there. We already know from the reveal event’s official Comic-Con description that WWII’s Zombies will feature Hollywood actors, and I’d be willing to bet good money that it will also feature at least some (if not all) of the following:

  • Map-based perks that must be earned by consuming some sort of junk food
  • In-depth easter eggs that require extensive collaboration from the player community to solve
  • ‘Wall-Buy’ weapons that must be found and bought in a particular level before they can be used
  • A hidden Pack-a-Punch machine that can drastically increase a weapon’s strength

Now, again, there’s nothing inherently wrong with the above setup. Zombies fans have clearly taken to it, which is why it has appeared in one form or another in virtually every Call of Duty title of the past few years. The problem with the above setup, at least in my opinion, is that it continues to cater to the same small subset of fans (i.e. hardcore ones who are willing to devote the hours and hours necessary to figure out and complete Zombies-based easter eggs) while also making no meaningful strides to appease more casual players or players who enjoy the customization elements of Call of Duty’s competitive multiplayer.

Sure, bringing in recognizable Hollywood actors is kind of cool, but at the end of the day it’s also little more than a gimmick. Kudos to Activision for being able to hire such actors to star in its various Zombies iterations, but I doubt I’m alone when I say I’d rather work with a playable Zombies character that I could create and cosmetically customize rather than the alternative of seeing which four Hollywood actors Activision got for its newest game, shrugging my shoulders, and saying “cool.”

If Activision really didn’t want to give up its tradition of getting familiar Hollywood faces for its Zombies mode, by all means bring them in as NPC allies and villains (it seems to have worked pretty well in Infinite Warfare’s Zombies mode), but if a particular Call of Duty game lets me customize my competitive multiplayer avatar, I’d want it to extend me the same courtesy in Zombies as well.

What’s really frustrating is that Infinity Ward tried to do just that in the 2013 game Call of Duty: Ghosts, i.e. letting players use the same customizable multiplayer avatars in both competitive multiplayer and the game’s unique co-op Extinction mode (a mode which featured aliens instead of zombies). Unfortunately, Ghosts didn’t resonate with the Call of Duty community which means Infinity Ward likely won’t ever try such a move again.

Giving Zombies players more clearly defined (and less difficult to achieve) goals wouldn’t be such a bad thing in my opinion either. I’ll admit it is fun to be part of the large collaborative process dedicated to solving a particular Zombies map’s hidden easter eggs and secrets, especially when the map is new and fresh, but as a casual gamer whose FPS skills are average at best, I personally won’t ever actually complete most of these in-depth easter eggs, which means all I’m really left with is seeing how long I can survive before the zombies overwhelm me. Infinity Ward was once again on the right track when it implemented weekly Zombies bounties in Infinite Warfare, and I hope Sledgehammer carries that particular torch onwards into WWII.

Lastly, and this is a minor point of contention at best, I’d like to be able to create and utilize my own weapon loadouts in Zombies instead of having to rely on map-based Wall-Buy stations. Again, I understand that exploring a particular map and figuring out where the Wall-Buy stations for my favorite weapons are is supposed to be part of the fun, but when I want to level up a particular weapon or, in Infinite Warfare’s case, when I need a particular weapon to fulfill a bounty’s requirements, I don’t want to spend 20+ minutes fighting through a map just to reach the weapon’s Wall-Buy station. I know I’m likely in the minority in that regard, but a minority group of fans is still a group of fans.

I’m willing to admit to myself that, due to the competitive nature of the gaming industry as a whole and the overt lack of interest which AAA studios like Activision seem to have towards radically deviating from what has been proven to work in years past, my ideal vision of Call of Duty Zombies (or Call of Duty co-op in general) will never come to be.

Some Call of Duty games might come close to delivering on that ideal vision (heck, some already have), but none will leave me fully satisfied. Plus, even if one game does manage to do so, it will just be replaced by a new game the following year, a pessimistic outlook I know, but also one that’s grounded in undeniable reality.

It is my sincere hope that we see a radical shakeup of the Call of Duty Zombies franchise sooner rather than later, a shakeup that maybe implements some of the major changes I outlined above. I’m not going to hold my breath though.