Hello Call of Duty fans! This year we’re trying something new: because Black Ops 4’s modes are so different, we’re reviewing them separately, followed by our overall review and score. This part covers Zombies – be sure to check out the others next.

Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 Zombies is fantastic. The tactile, satisfying feedback of the weapons; the varied, confined passageways and wide open spaces; and the ability to customise the experience with a broad range of options makes it the most confident and welcoming iteration of the undead horde survival mode yet.

This ever-more integral inclusion in the Call of Duty package has evolved significantly over the last ten years. Its simple core premise of building and rebuilding barriers while shooting the walking dead has turned into a meaty offering with buildable power-ups, a bespoke perk and elixir system, and obtuse, multi-step hidden quests. It can all feel overwhelming, particularly for those accustomed to the tightly scripted set pieces and objective markers of traditional Call of Duty campaigns.

Thankfully, for the first time in the series, Treyarch has included a robust tutorial that caters to newcomers and returning veterans alike. The traditional four player co-op is more welcoming of solo players too, with the long requested addition of AI teammates finally arriving. They don’t assist in any map objectives, like restoring power or solving quest objectives, but they’ll follow you into the breach, opening paths, reviving you when you’re downed, and helping to keep the growing throngs of enemies at bay.

Playing with bots isn’t without its problems, though. While the three robotic comrades would usually stick close, their path finding was sometimes a little shaky which led to more than one missed revive, but overall I found them to be a great way to experience Zombies. If you’re a purist you can still run each map completely alone, except now you start each attempt with three lives.

You Only Get Out What You Put In

Black Ops 4 Zombies offers two story timelines for you to tackle, Chaos and Aether, each with their own characters and story. The Aether storyline takes place across remastered Zombies maps from previous Black Ops games, linked by a parallel time travel story starring the original four characters from World at War. Chaos introduces four new characters into the world of Zombies, and while not as complicated as the Aether storyline, it’s still somewhat difficult to follow if you’re new to this style of player-driven storytelling.

Maps are introduced with a cinematic that sets the scene. As you work through waves, characters chat and quip back and forth, which helps fill out their backstory. Those expecting a more guided story experience may struggle with the way Black Ops 4 Zombies doles out its narrative. Lots of story beats and quests are hidden behind the series’ staple Easter eggs. These are hidden objectives in each level that need to be activated in a specific order and, when completed, trigger a cut scene that tells more of the story.

If you’re not willing to scour the Zombies subreddit or poke and prod at every lever or locked door in a level, the story that’s there is still enjoyable. The characters fit the established Zombies motif of larger than life caricatures but the new recruits display a little more depth. They’re a team of street smart thieves and con artists, working together to steal back an ancient artifact. Scarlett Rhodes is the group’s hardened safe cracker and inventor, for example, but as you move through the collapsing halls of the Titanic, you’ll hear of her disdain for her father and his connection to the Zombie epidemic.

Unfortunately Black Ops 4 Zombies stumbles in its first DLC map. As part of the season pass or one of the many special editions, you can get a second remastered level called Classified, a remake of the Black Ops 1 map, called Five. In Five, JFK, Nixon, Castro, and Robert McNamara face off against zombies in the Pentagon. This time around Treyarch has opted to use the original cast of characters from World at War Zombies. One of those characters is Takeo Masaki, a Japanese character voiced by Tom Kane.

All the characters are wacky stereotypes; you can figuratively hear Nolan North chewing the scenery as the deranged German doctor Edward Richtofen. But the delivery and writing of some of Takeo Masaki’s lines in Classified is so tone deaf that it undermined the improvements and welcoming feel of Zombies overall. I’ve included video of the lines below as I feel reading them doesn’t do them justice.

The lines aren’t intentionally offensive, they’re just lazy and rely on outdated stereotypes for laughs. Surely in 2018, video games can do better than the vocal equivalent of somebody pulling at the corners of their eyes in a smoke filled supper club, desperately searching for an easy laugh.

Oh the Places You’ll Go

Three intricate, detailed, and above all completely different maps fill out the base offering of Black Ops 4 Zombies. In IX, a circular gladiatorial arena gives way to four distinct areas themed after different cultural gods, each built above a labyrinth of tombs, crypts, and hidden temples, while Voyage of Despair takes the overwhelming hordes to the tight, claustrophobic corridors of the sinking Titanic. The Alcatraz set Blood of the Dead rounds out the three and is the first in the Aether story timeline. The maps demand different playstyles and learning what works for each kept me excited to jump back in after the zombies overwhelmed my team.

In Rush, weapons and ammo are free and the challenge comes from sprinting through maps and killing zombies to build a multiplier…

Not only is each map playable in traditional survival mode, there’s a new, more arcadey mode called Rush. In Rush, weapons and ammo are free and instead the challenge comes from sprinting through maps and killing zombies to build a multiplier while avoiding damage that causes your multiplier to decrease. The speed and more guided nature of this mode lends itself to shorter, bite-sized play sessions; a welcome change of pace from the slow build of the core Zombies experience.

Even though you’ll still be running, sliding, and weaving around zombies for the most part, the short respite between rounds allows you to really soak in the smaller details; the eerie blue glow at the roots of the Celtic Tree of Life or the Titanic’s grand staircase, smashed and broken and littered with debris. The more I played the more I wanted to turn off enemies and just wander around, probing the corners of each setting for secrets.

While I couldn’t turn off enemies completely, I was surprised by just how customisable Zombies is. Everything from the amount of starting currency for each player right down to the spread of the zombie packs can be tweaked to your liking. Custom games don’t count toward player and weapon level progression but the ability to jump into a custom mode tuned a little easier made learning the intricacies of levels much less stressful.

The core mode’s difficulty can be tuned too, though this seemingly only affects enemy damage and player health. Each map throws different enemy types and wave configurations at you to keep you on your toes. IX for example introduces demon tigers and hulking, axe throwing brutes as boss waves, eventually combining them with base enemies in higher rounds. The base zombies also become more resilient the longer you survive, forcing you to seek out the weapon upgrading Pack-A-Punch altar and random weapon rewarding Mystery Box if you want any chance at delaying your character’s inevitable demise.

What is Old is New Again

The classic, snappy Call of Duty gunplay remains unchanged and, honestly, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The purchasable weapons feel unique, with weighty sound effects and satisfying feedback. Zombies explode in showers of viscera when hit with an explosive, and larger enemies can be dismembered by targeting limbs.

What is new this time around are special weapons chosen before each game starts that charge with each necrotic nemesis you kill. These mystical artifacts were often the make or break of my many runs through levels. When my back was to the wall and I had nowhere to go, summoning a whip sword/blunderbuss combo or grenade launching chain gun immediately turned the tide. Initially, I would instinctively save my special weapons for tight spots and boss waves but Treyarch has incentivised against this kind of play with an upgrade system. Basically the more you use your special weapon, the more powerful it becomes.

Treyarch is clearly drawing on everything it’s learned to make Zombies more accessible to new players.

Also new are Elixirs, which take the place of Black Ops 3’s Gobblegums. These mostly temporary powerups grant bonuses such as retaining purchased perks when downed or instantly transporting you to a random location in the map. Finding the perfect loadout is a bit of trial and error, though I found the Anywhere But Here instant transportation and grenade replenishing Equip-Mint elixirs invaluable in all situations. You start with your chosen four elixirs immediately, rather than having to find vending machines in each level, and they recharge slowly after use. This more straightforward, easy to understand system makes sense. Treyarch is clearly drawing on everything it’s learned to make Zombies more accessible to new players.

The Verdict

Black Ops 4’s Zombies is the showcase of a confident team that has iterated and improved the formula they created. The addition of a tutorial, a more streamlined single player experience, and a wealth of match customisation shows Treyarch wants everyone to experience what the studio has been perfecting for the last decade. And with the 10 year anniversary of Call of Duty Zombies looming, there’s never been a better time to grab some friends, chug an elixir, and see how long you can survive.


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