Note: This review covers the Zombies mode of Call of Duty: Vanguard. For our thoughts on the other two modes, check out our Call of Duty: Vanguard Single-Player Campaign review and our Call of Duty Vanguard Multiplayer review.
Call of Duty’s Zombies mode has circled around the axis again. With Vanguard returning to the gristly frontiers of World War II, we are culling the rotten corpses of the Third Reich on gothic European battlefields for the first time since 2017’s Call of Duty: WW2. And for anyone who spent their high school years boarding up windows when Zombies debuted in Treyarch’s 2008 Call of Duty: World of War, the developer’s latest interpretation had the potential to be both a homecoming and a living testament to how the mode has evolved since. Unfortunately, a stark lack of content upon release squanders that potential, instead making Vanguard’s Zombies mode come across as a total afterthought.
The basics are right in place. You and three friends have been transported into a hellish, phantasmagoric alternative universe — red skies, cursed talismans, eldritch gods — about a million miles removed from the steely realism prioritized by the mainline Call of Duty games and Vanguard’s own campaign and multiplayer modes. I’ve always loved how Zombies lets Call of Duty stretch its legs into a brutal, Doom-y aesthetic, and Treyarch proudly heaps on the gore as waves of hungry enemies keep coming and you to survive as long as possible.
There’s some melodrama around the margins too: the Nazis have wandered too deep into their occult obsession and have unleashed grotesque perdition in the ruins of Stalingrad, and they’ll tell you all about their sins in audio logs that can (and probably should) be easily ignored. After all, we are here to kill hordes of zombies using the same slick first-person shooting mechanics that have preserved Call of Duty’s spot as a mainstay for nearly two decades, and that part still feels great. The weightiness of 1940s firearm engineering was always a natural pairing for our Van Helsing fantasies; you take the front two windows, I’ll take the back door, and we’ll keep firing our Tommy guns until we’re out of bullets.
The weightiness of 1940s firearm engineering was always a natural pairing for our Van Helsing fantasies.
What’s new this year is an element of randomness on each run. A Treyarch developer told me roguelites like Hades were influential during development, and that touchstone jumps out immediately. A lot of your time in Vanguard’s Zombies will be spent between encounters, dawdling around a war-torn hub zone (a la Dark Souls’ Firelink Shrine or Destiny’s The Traveller) where you can juice firearms, craft weaponry, and swap in powerful but generally uninteresting buffs called Covenants that might give you a kickback of health with every melee kill or revive allies faster, and so on. Those options merge nicely with Vanguard’s four ultimate abilities – a devastating energy mine, an invisibility field, a party-wide damage buff, and a speed-dampening vortex – which fit into the usual DPS/Tank/Healer class balance setup, and add a few more thoughtful flourishes to the action. Booby-trapping a spawn point with a screen-filling explosive is just as satisfying as you’d think it’d be, and skulking away from certain death with an invisibility cloak saved my reputation in front of my teammates more than I’d care to admit.
What We Said About Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War’s Zombies Mode
Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War’s Zombies is as highly polished and tense as you’d expect from a mode that’s been around in some form or another for over a decade now. The iconic brand of frantic zombie killing and interdimensional intrigue is incredibly fun while you’re caught up in the moment, but it doesn’t build enough on what came before. Compared to Black Ops 4’s ambitious Zombies mode that launched with multiple episodes, this single map feels like a disappointment, and the lack of local split-screen co-op is a bummer as well. It should get bigger and better as Treyarch adds new free maps and features, and if so this could become a great year for Call of Duty Zombies. – David Jagneaux, November 17, 2020
Read the full Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War’s Zombies Review
However, most of the Covenant boosts you can buy are pretty uninspiring, and I found myself thirsting for augmentations that provide a bit more color than just speeding up my animations. Part of that is because they pale in comparison to the randomized bonuses you’ll find when you’re out and about on the maps. Case in point: one power-up I found basically gives you the Golden Gun from GoldenEye – every zombie you tag, regardless of location, immediately keels over. It’s so much more fun than all of the expensive stuff available at your headquarters, but of course finding it is all up to the luck of the draw. It’s rare to have one of those loot-based eureka! moments found in many other roguelikes; when all the random upgrades meld together in a sublime miracle run, like catching lightning in a bottle. Alas, Vanguard has little imagination beyond bigger damage numbers sparking out of the heads of its undead.
Vanguard has little imagination beyond bigger damage numbers sparking out of the heads of its undead.
All of those upgrade stations demand currency you earn out in the killing fields, which means that Zombies follows a rigid formula: take one of the outlying portals to an instanced challenge – survive an onslaught, escort a floating skull, or power up obelisks – and then minmax your build back at basecamp. Those three flavors of mission serve up plenty of undead to kill, but they also grow stale very quickly. The onslaught, in particular, puts you in extremely tight corridors for about two minutes while you fend off the hoard, which is the sort of straightforward design you’d expect back in the primordial World at War days. The unexpected left-hook I was waiting for never came. No bosses, or unexpected cutscenes, or unique trials. In fact, the Zombies community has already made a meme of how often the canned voice acting repeats, ad nauseum, as you stand around Stalingrad waiting for something to do.
Once four objectives are complete, the squad can exfiltrate out of the hotspot and back into safety to start from scratch the next time… or they can push forward, knowing that the difficulty will escalate with every victory. To survive that escalation, Treyarch wants you to bleed over your character sheet; to page through the network of weapons, Covenants, and the remaining miscellaneous accoutrements to create the apex zombie-killing machine. There’s certainly room to experiment with these tools – on one of my runs, I put together a combo of upgrades that slowed my targets to a crawl, which paired nicely with my Covenant that increased damage to impeded corpses. Overall though, Vanguard’s Zombies is pretty mindless. There’s nothing wrong with that, few people play Zombies to demonstrate their peerless tactical acumen, but I don’t think Treyarch has brought that much need for incisive thinkiness to the table. At the end of the day, we’re still holding down left-click over everything else.
here’s an efficient undead-killing infrastructure here, but everything else in Zombies is weirdly spare.
That’s the main issue with the latest round of Zombies: the mode is way too thin. Every party I joined cycled through the same three narrow missions over and over again, plodding through a limited suite of upgrades with none of the rising tension of the more traditional horde-mode format. Vanguard possesses no Easter egg storylines, no wonder weapons, and a limited, uninspiring suite of perks. There’s an efficient undead-killing infrastructure here, but everything else in Zombies is weirdly spare.
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One of the best things about roguelikes is their ability to surprise you after multiple runs. Remember how awesome it was when you discovered the secret fight against Charon in Hades? Or when you unlocked an increasingly bizarre arsenal in Enter The Gungeon? It’s honestly shocking how much Treyarch’s design lacks that same verve. We’re killing the same herd of zombies, buffered with some vaguely interesting beefier foes that fall into well-hewn archetypes (A zombie with a gun! A zombie that explodes when shot!), with absolutely no dynamism to speak of. I was not surprised a single time after my first trip into Stalingrad, which is pretty damning for what’s supposed to be Call of Duty’s fun, pulpy diversion.
Of course, Treyarch says that a “main quest,” which sounds a lot like the more story-driven, scripted rendition of Zombies we’ve seen in Call of Dutys of yore, won’t arrive until December 2 – nearly a full month after the initial rollout. Until then, we’ll be crunching through a series of disconnected combat arenas, adding up to oodles of viscera, and not much else. It makes you wonder what a release date even means in an erawhen a significant element of one of the biggest games of the year can arrive openly, flagrantly unfinished.
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