I’ve recently dived back into Call of Duty: Black Ops III’s Zombies mode, which coincided with the announcement of the final Zombies chapter in Call of Duty: WWII, and it made me realize something: I just don’t care about WWII’s Zombies mode. Since World at War first introduced zombies into the franchise, nearly every Call of Duty tried its hand at a survival mode, most of which have been zombie-focused. And yet, none have managed to capture the undead magic of the subseries that started it all, and the recent announcement of WWII’s final episode made me think of the ways in which Treyarch Studios handles Zombies survival, and how Sledgehammer Games struggled to match it.
Perks have been in Treyarch’s Zombies mode almost from the start, and while most were pulled straight from the competitive multiplayer, some were created purely for the survival experience. These Zombies-specific perks in particular—PhD Flopper, Electric Cherry, etc.—brought tons of color to the survival combat. Not every perk has been equally useful—far from it—but the contrast between the perks that serve a very distinct purpose, like Juggernaut, and the goofier and more situational perks, like Tombstone Soda, opened up the spectrum for how seriously players wanted to take each run. WWII traded out these perks for buffs called Blitz machines, and while their functions are very practical, that color is gone. Blitz machines are all about getting the job done, but their lack of variety not only robs the mode of some much needed levity, it also limits how creative players can be in their tactics.
This tonal shift is equally present in the two games’ Easter eggs, if they can even be called that anymore. Treyarch quickly realized that you can only ask players to survive against repetitious waves of undead so many times before it starts getting a little stale. To remedy this, the developer began implementing increasingly complex Easter egg challenges into its maps, to the extent that any reasonable person would need a team of coders and researchers to discover them on their own. These secret missions fed into each subsequent map, weaving an insanely convoluted (but somehow no less satisfying) saga across four games. It seemed like WWII tried to capture this same magic, but Sledgehammer built it through a similarly rigid lens as the one used on the perks. The missions in WWII Zombies are designed more like campaign objectives than uncoverable secrets, and while they are optional, that’s not the air they give off. They are built to have a simpler path for more casual players, and a more complex path for those after a challenge, but embarking along either of these paths feels obligatory, rather than mysterious.
This darker, more formal structure may have worked if players were already invested in the characters and setting of WWII’s Zombies, but in this the two games are not comparable. Zombies fans have been growing alongside Treyarch’s Richtofen and the gang, and the more time we spend with them, the more impactful each uncovered secret feels. Being the start of Sledgehammer’s own Zombies saga, it’s not fair to expect the studio’s characters to connect with fans to the degree that Treyarch’s group has, after so much time, but the more similar Sledgehammer makes its Zombies mode to Treyarch’s, the more stark comparisons like this become. And my own lack of connection to Sledgehammer’s new group may make this an unfair observation, but WWII’s zombie-killing gang doesn’t seem to offer up the charming personality found in the original squad, perhaps because, unlike them, WWII’s squad is designed around real-world actors.
It’s possible that WWII’s Zombies evolved in some way since its first on-disc map, but I wouldn’t know, as the first map didn’t have the spark it needed to turn me into a recurring fan. While this Black Ops III refresher has me reflecting fondly on games past, it also kicked up some concerns for Treyarch’s sequel. Dialogue the studio has used, like “quests” instead of “Easter eggs”, makes me a little uneasy about Black Ops 4’s Zombies direction, but after four successful Zombies installments, I can’t help but have faith. The studio survived this long, so it must be doing something right.