The trajectory of Call of Duty Zombies could never have been predicted, but Call of Duty World at War ignited a fire that would burn brightly for over a decade. The flames are starting to dwindle though, as Call of Duty Vanguard felt like the first major nail in the coffin for the once-promising game mode. The peak achieved by Black Ops 3 likely won’t be achieved again. How did it get like this?
It really is a miracle that COD Zombies has spawned the success it has. Former senior executive producer Jason Blundell told Games Radar in 2016 that it all began with “a couple of scripters who started playing with the on-fire animations […] that was the basis of the beginnings of the zombie stumble and movement.” The project would be worked on behind the scenes, prompting “people to pop their head around and have a look; people from each department,” Blundell explains. This creative ethos and passion would run all way through Blundell’s tenure with the mode, becoming the go-to guy for all things Zombies.
Hopes for better content after Blundell’s departure have been limited, as Treyarch associate director Kevin Drew professed “big plans” for the mode in June 2022. I’m still waiting for those plans. Prior to that, Black Ops Cold War was a step in the right direction, bringing players back a revamped Nacht Der Untoten. While the focus was back on survival thrills, easter egg hunters could still get their fix in maps like Firebase Z and Forsaken. It wasn’t a perfect experience, but compared to the blunder of Black Ops 4, the complete lack of a Zombies experience in 2019’s Modern Warfare, and middling attempts from Sledgehammer Games in Vanguard, COD Zombies was feeling pretty good.
YouTuber and Zombies enthusiast ‘ObeyFPS‘ claims in a recent tweet that “free DLC ruined zombies maps and quality.” He also expresses that “operators are a huge L, set characters on maps add so much character to the map.” Selectable operators were introduced in Cold War, making it possible to shred zombies as Die Hard’s John McClane. To an extent, I do agree that there is a correlation between paid map packs and quality. After all, the track record is strong: Shi No Numa, Der Riese, Ascension and Call of The Dead just to name a few. Battle passes and the live service model have redefined our understanding of content in multiplayer games, offering up paid cosmetics in return for free map updates, weapons, and modes in COD titles.
Sadly, it’s never been as good as Black Ops 3 was. Maps like Shadows of Evil and Der Eisendrache were outlandish and bold. Gobblegum was well-intentioned, though an unfortunate representation of microtransactions. The game’s slick movement and tasty gunplay injected a new sense of satisfaction. The masterstroke was adding the Zombies Chronicles DLC pack, a collection of the finest maps to grace our fingertips.
But the map pack model is redundant, especially as COD Zombies players like myself would reluctantly buy DLC packs just for one new undead experience. Black Ops 3 lives on though, and though the server population will fall off eventually, the remastered glories of classic-era maps always deliver the goods. With the advent of the Steam Deck, it’s never been better to get a good session in on the go or at home.
Though Sledgehammer Games tried its hand at re-inventing the fan-favourite survival mode, Treyarch remains the flagbearer for COD zombies. Whether that continues is a complex issue. Pipe dreams like a standalone Zombies title seem further out of reach as the years go by.
Treyarch returned to handle zombie duties for Vanguard, which sounded great at the time, but ultimately led to the mode’s most uninspired content yet. Round-based survival was added too late down the line, the maps were mediocre and the biggest heartbreak of it all: it wasn’t fun to play.
It’s been well over a decade since World at War started the game mode, and maybe, just maybe, it’s time for Call of Duty to throw in the towel for COD zombies.