Earlier this year, I was present in Los Angeles for the reveal of Call of Duty: Black Ops 4. I remember sitting in the audience listening to Treyarch pitch its latest entry to hardcore Call of Duty fans around the world. Around halfway through the pitch, it became clear that Black Ops 4 was going to skip the single-player campaign this year, deciding instead to focus their efforts on multiplayer.
I felt a good degree of skepticism. I play Call of Duty, but I only play the game's single-player mode most of the time. There's enjoyment to be found in the mindless blockbuster-style adventures that Activision's studios throw in our direction each year. Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare might have been a dud on the multiplayer side, but I really liked the campaign that Infinity Ward crafted. I was looking forward to the campaign for Black Ops 4, only to have my hopes dashed.
Fast-forward a few months and I'm in Treyarch's offices playing a near-final build of Call of Duty: Black Ops 4. Since that initial reveal, I've played the multiplayer and Blackout betas, which having me feeling better about 2018's Call of Duty. Playing more of the multiplayer, including the Heist mode and Hardcore variants, is only increasing that feeling. And that's before I stepped up to the plate and played Zombies for the first time.
Yeah, for the first time. Zombies has been a part of Call of Duty since the mode was first included in 2008's Call of Duty: World at War, also developed by Treyarch. At its heart, Zombies is a horde mode, with players having to survive endless waves of the hungry undead. Each round of zombies you survive is followed by another round that's slightly harder. There's no end to the mode, unless you happen to know what you're doing.
Zombies was wildly popular when it first released as part of World at War and Treyarch has brought the mode back with Call of Duty: Black Ops, Black Ops 2, Black Ops 3, and now Black Ops 4. Zombies has proven so popular that it's expanded beyond Treyarch's games: Advanced Warfare, Infinite Warfare, and WW2 also had their own Zombies modes.
The four playable characters were faceless Marines in the first entry, gaining actual identities in subsequent downloadable expansions. Back then, there was no story and fans had to fill in the blanks. But as Treyarch has improved upon Zombies, so too has the narrative grown. Black Ops gave the characters voices and codified the Easter Eggs that would not only finish the endless play, but would also further the overarching story.
Black Ops 2 split the mode into three stories. One followed a new cast of four characters interacting with Dr. Edward Richtofen and Dr. Ludvig Maxis from the previous Zombies mode, with a branching storyline. Another was a star-studded affair taking place on Alcatraz Island, starring classic mobster actors Joe Pantoliano, Ray Liotta, Michael Madsen, and Chazz Palminteri. The final storyline and map featured an alternate version of the original four protagonists. Though fans still had to put the pieces together, Black Ops 2 Zombies really blew out the story of the entire mode. It created a canon universe that moves forward from game-to-game, at least in Treyarch's case. Black Ops 3 Zombies also split its tale, with one adventure featuring more celebrity voice actors, including Jeff Goldblum, Heather Graham, and Ron Perlman, while the other stayed with the primary narrative.
And now we turn to Call of Duty: Black Ops 4, which is launching with what Treyarch and Activision are calling "the biggest Zombies offering ever". Its Zombies tale is separated into Aether and Chaos storylines: Aether is focused on the crew of original characters (Richtofen, Dempsey, Takeo and Nikolai), while Chaos is focused on an all-new cast (adventurer Scarlett Rhodes, rogue Diego Necalli, scientist Stanton Shaw, and brawler Bruno Delacroix). Chaos gets the primary focus, with IX and Voyage of Despair taking the crew to the Roman Empire and the deck of the Titanic respectively. Aether has a single map, Blood of the Dead, a reimagining of Black Ops 2's Mob of the Dead map.
I never played a Zombies mode before because I didn't really have anyone to play it with and I didn't really know what it was all about. At its core though, a horde mode is pretty easy to get into. Once I understood the mechanics behind picking up weapons, crafting and using perks, and the easter eggs, playing Zombies was simple. Try not to die, try to keep your team alive, and pick up better stuff. No problem. (Many problems. And they all want to eat you.)
What surprised me was how robust the incidental storytelling was in Zombies. It's clear that both groups are in the middle of grand adventures that I only got a small inkling of. Scarlett is following the trail of her father, who has seemingly disappeared while chasing whatever is the magic key to all this zombie nonsense. Stanton is alongside for the ride as a close friend of Scarlett's father, and the other two seem to owe him some sort of debt.
There is a ton of dialog that plays out in the maps of Black Ops 4 Zombies. Though the footage included in this article is only a single run through each of the available maps, we ran through each multiple times. There's basic dialog from each unique character in each run, but there's also dialog depending on the combination of which character you're playing and where your character is. Then there's even more connective dialog between characters, depending on who's next to who and their location. It's not just dialog either, as there are occasional set pieces that are pointing towards... something. I don't know, I'm just getting into all this jazz.
The two levels of the Chaos storyline seem to be out-of-order. IX is the easiest of the Zombies maps according to Treyarch's developers, but it doesn't seem to be the first chronologically in the storyline. From my playtime, Voyage of Despair was the initial outbreak of this magic zombie weirdness, a fact that was confirmed when I went back to research the story in released trailers.
Treyarch tells the story of the Zombies canon across these bits and pieces in the levels themselves and the occasional cinematic. It works because it's a bit odd and cryptic. Black Ops Zombies has one foot in a traditional campaign and another in an alternate reality game (ARG). It's meant to be played multiple times, with the community catching snippets, and forging them into a straight narrative. Zombies is almost like Treyarch and the Zombies community working together to tell a story around a campfire. And that's probably why the Call of Duty Zombies community is so passionate, because they're all working together to make that story what it is.
It's not quite the blockbuster movie in playable form that is a normal Call of Duty campaign. It's more like a television show where you only have parts of the entire season, told out of order and left up to your imagination. Zombies' story only seemingly works when you engage with it. For me, it's at least intriguing enough that I'm doing research on past entries.
I want Call of Duty to have single-player campaigns in the future, but I'm willing to allow Zombies to be a campaign replacement for Black Ops 4. Multiplayer, Zombies, and Blackout looks like it might add up to a product that's worth your $60 when all is said and done. We'll just have to see if the final product lives up to that promise.