There’s only so far that murdering thousands of zombies on the same map over and over can take you before it gets old, but within those constraints Treyarch has somehow managed to deliver one of the most tightly crafted and fun to play Call of Duty Zombies modes in years. Like always, you and up to three friends mow down horde after horde, and only survive the higher levels by being smart about what to pick up and what to leave behind. Gunplay is strong with a handful of additions but Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War’s Zombies does admittedly skimp out on actually new content by dramatically overhauling an original Zombies map. It’s just a shame they had to drop modes and features that I miss in the process.In the main mode, Cold War’s Zombies is generally the same routine it’s been for years now: a dark, mysterious conspiracy is unraveling at an abandoned WW2-era bunker and you and your international team of generic Requiem operatives are dispatched to inspect and find out what’s going on. Naturally, what’s going on are waves upon waves of relentless flesh-eaters who you must slaughter while rebuilding defenses, purchasing upgrades, and venturing deeper into the facility to uncover its secrets. It’s kind of a bummer that your playable cast is the same as the voices in standard Multiplayer – there’s no zany Jeff Goldblum stunt casting here. The story details are extremely easy to miss, too, because when things get hectic it’s hard to pay attention to voices over the din of the battle. While I’ve never personally been the type to scour for Easter eggs trying to uncover every single reference and throwback, longtime fans will certainly discover plenty of hidden details throughout.For now, it’s a little underwhelming that there’s only one single map: Die Maschine, which is actually an expanded and reimagined version of Nacht Der Untoten, the first-ever Zombies map from Call of Duty: World at War. Thankfully it’s extremely large, layered, and dynamic, so there are plenty of hidden areas to explore and you can play it in either Endless mode, which gets harder and harder the further you get, or a predetermined 20-round mode. It’s fantastically designed and extremely intense: bullets start flying as soon as the chopper drops you off and they don’t stop until the final body hits the floor. It’s got the same flow of progression Zombies players will be used to in that you’ll gradually venture deeper by unlocking doors, turning on power, activating machines, stepping through portals, and more.
That being said, it’s still just one map that only takes around 40 minutes to run through, whereas Black Ops 4 had four at launch, and it absolutely will get old pretty fast because of that. However, the good news is that Activision is planning free updates and new content over time, just like it does with Multiplayer and Warzone. Previously, new maps were always paid DLC, but it would seem that Zombies is getting rolled into the ongoing free content plan now.One big shake up to the formula is that, for the first time ever, Black Ops Cold War lets you pick a loadout from Multiplayer to bring with you directly into the Zombies mode. This makes use of the unified progression system introduced in last year’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare to make all of the weapon levels, attachments, battle pass unlocks, characters, and so on that you earn in standard Multiplayer also available in Zombies – and vice versa. I’m a huge fan of that because it means no matter which multiplayer mode you’re playing you’re making meaningful progress rather than being expected to grind ranks in each one individually.
Being able to use your loadout from the get-go is a big deal. Previously, you’d start out as a barebones survivor with maybe a pistol and a knife, but now you’ve got a fully automatic assault rifle, shotgun, or whatever your primary weapon is in your chosen loadout slot. This dramatically changes the dynamic for the first few waves and eliminates the need to scrounge for cash so you can hurriedly buy a marginally better gun off the wall that you may or may not even want. Part of me misses the slow power creep of gradually earning better guns, but on the other hand it’s nice being able to hit the ground guns blazing (and it makes more sense as part of an elite team). As someone who’s returning to Zombies, I’ve been more than happy to skip that early phase and go straight to the more intense and complex action.
Every IGN Call of Duty Review
The classic Zombies experience gets a handful of other minor new features as well. Perhaps most notably are all of the Skills: Field Upgrades are special attacks you charge up over time, like the Frost Blast that slows zombies; and Weapon Classes let you specialize and upgrade your loadout with new abilities, such as transforming the rifle butt melee hit with R3 into a knife slash for more damage, which very helpfully conserves ammo. Those are persistent upgrades, but within each match there’s also weapon rarity to keep an eye on: as you progress deeper and purchase more weapons, a higher rarity level denotes better attachments and damage, which gives you motivation to check every gun you come across to see if it’s better than what you have instead of basically forgetting about the loot system after a certain point. I also felt liberated by the fact that there’s no limit on how many mid-game perks you can have, so unlike in previous Zombies modes you never need to second-guess whether it’s worth grabbing one or not.
Mystery Boxes stashed around the levels add more spice as well, since you never really know which gun they might spit out. Classic Zombies features like the Power-Ups are of course back; there’s nothing quite like getting downed and desperately crawling onto and triggering a Nuke that wipes out the entire wave just as your team is about to be killed off.
There’s a new Exfiltration mechanic now, too, and it thickly layers on the risk/reward tension. Once you hit wave 10 in the Endless mode, you have the option to call in an Exfil chopper to rescue the team. If you skip it at wave 10 and fight on to earn more rewards, you get another chance for a chopper every five waves after that. However, once you do decide to cash in your chips while you’re ahead and call it in, while you wait for the chopper to arrive the intensity is cranked up to 11 and the horde gets larger and more chaotic than ever in the final moments before your attempted escape. That’s something to keep in mind because if you die here – or anywhere else – before making it out, you’ll get no bonuses.
All of this is to say that, even though there’s only one map and the overall objective of the mode is still exactly the same, it doesn’t take away from how tightly designed and fun to play Zombies is in Black Ops Cold War. On a moment-to-moment gameplay sharpness basis, this may be the best Zombies has ever been. It’s an excellent foundation to build from, but at this moment it’s important to keep in mind the lack of breadth.
Oddly enough, though, in the process of adding a few new features, Treyarch also removed several that I miss. Chief among them is the fact that local split-screen multiplayer doesn’t work in Zombies as it does in Multiplayer; it’s online only. That’s a crushing blow if it stays that way. Servers have been stable since shortly after launch, so at least you can expect online play to be smooth, but having to buy a second copy (to say nothing of a whole second gaming system) just to play with someone in your own home stings a bit.
Additionally, previously you could play through Zombies solo but with AI-controlled companions that would help fight off the hordes and revive you when you got downed – they just couldn’t complete objectives. That’s missing now, and I could only find the option for matchmaking online or very lonely solo.
Black Ops 4’s Zombie Rush, in which you compete with other players to kill the most zombies as fast as possible, is also gone, and that’s a missed opportunity because it would have been a good way to add some longevity to the single map. It doesn’t look like the custom settings that let you tweak the size and intensity of the hordes in Black Ops 4’s Zombies mode have returned, either. Dropping features from just two years ago is a huge bummer and makes this Zombies mode feel less fleshed out by comparison, even if the gunplay and mid-game progression are great.
Some of that development effort may have gone into the two smaller game modes: Dead Ops Arcade and Onslaught. Just like in years past, Dead Ops Arcade is the type of thing you try once or twice as a novelty and then forget it exists. It’s a top-down twin-stick shooter (with optional online co-op) that’s reminiscent of old-school arcade games, but it feels janky and half-finished. It’s clever and has some fun to find, but it’s generally neither deep enough or fun enough to be worth more than a passing distraction. The fact that my favorite bits are when I get a power up that switches the perspective to first-person just goes to show that Call of Duty Zombies is best played that way.
The PlayStation timed-exclusive Onslaught, on the other hand, is actually quite fun as a shakeup to the usual Zombies formula. In this mode you and an online co-op partner (or you by yourself) are placed in one of the Multiplayer maps with a glowing purple orb that creates a safe zone. Outside the safe zone you gradually take damage over time, so you have to stay inside the circle and fight off waves of enemies. After each wave the orb moves to a new spot on the map and you repeat the process, but every now and then big Elite creatures spawn – and that’s usually when things go off the rails.
I’m honestly surprised Onslaught is capped at just two players because it gets incredibly hard by the time you get to the second Elite spawn. They’re such absorbent bullet sponges and take so long to bring down, and there are usually two of them in play at once. It feels nearly impossible to have much success playing solo, and co-op is no joke. It’s a fun mode, though, and lets you see the Multiplayer maps in a new light. It’s a shame this isn’t available on PC or Xbox for an entire year – by the time those players get access to it we’ll be gearing up for the next Call of Duty game all over again.