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 back in the 1940s 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 the windows when Zombies debuted in Treyarch’s Call of Duty: World of War, Sledgehammer’s interpretation is both a homecoming and a living testament to how far the mode has iterated beyond its original form. After the scant couple of hours we were given with it at a “virtual review event” over the past couple of days, I can confirm that Vanguard is attempting to fuse a number of different interesting genre influences to Zombies, albeit with some noticeable missing features. I’ll need to play a lot more to see how they pan out when it comes to sustaining interest in Zombies while we wait for more content to arrive, but here are my thoughts so far.
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 Sledgehammer proudly heaps on the gore. There’s some melodrama around the margins: 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. 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 we’re out of bullets.
What’s new this year is an element of randomness on each run. A Sledgehammer developer told me roguelites like Hades were influential during development, and that influence jumps out immediately. A lot of your time in Vanguard’s Zombies will be spent between runs, 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 buffs called Covenants that might give you a kickback of health with every melee kill or revive allies faster, and so on. Those merge nicely with Vanguard’s four ultimate abilities – a devastating energy mine, an invisibility field, a party-wide damage inductor, 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. I can report that booby-trapping a spawn point with a screen-filling explosive is just as satisfying as you’d think it’d be.
However, most of the boosts you can buy struck me as pretty uninspiring and I found myself thirsting for augmentations that are a bit more colorful than quicker animations. Part of that is because they pale when compared to the randomized bonuses you 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 around headquarters, but of course it’s all up to the luck of the draw. The goal of all of this, I think, is to bring those eureka! moments found in the roguelikes Sledgehammer is cribbing from into Zombies’ action; when all the statistical integers meld together in a sublime miracle run, like catching lightning in a bottle.
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 – such as survive an onslaught, escort a floating skull, or power up obelisks – and then minmax your build back at basecamp. Those three flavors serve up plenty of undead to kill, but they weren’t quite as dynamic as I hoped. The onslaught, in particular, puts you in extremely tight corridors for about two minutes while you fend off the herd. I kept waiting for an unexpected left-hook to knock me off my guard, but it never came. Again, maybe the challenges grow more complex the deeper you get into Zombies, but right now, I’m finding them a little monotonous.
Once four objectives are complete, the squad can exfiltrate out of the hotspot and back into safety… or they can push forward, knowing that the difficulty escalates with every victory. Win or lose, all the Covenants you’ve unlocked and perks you’ve purchased disappear at the end of a run, but you’ll earn extra experience points on the Call of Duty ranking system with a successful escape. As with so many horror games, our greatest fear is not about the monsters lurking around the corner; no, it’s the threat of starting over from scratch.
This gets to the base of Vanguard’s appeal. Sledgehammer 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. I’m sure I’ll get to that point after more than a few hours with it, but thus far my teammates and I have had no choice but to slap together builds basically blindly, with no coordination or foresight, and running into the line of fire as recklessly as possible. There’s nothing terribly wrong with that, since Zombies has always been amiable to mindless fun. But it’s going to take some time before I can say whether Sledgehammer has designed its perks in such a way that gives Vanguard some extra afterlife.
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But the main issue with the latest round of Zombies is that, simply put, it feels a little thin right now. There is an efficient undead-killing infrastructure here, but Sledgehammer 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 what should be some incredible combos and oodles of viscera, but not much else.
Because of the tardiness of the traditional story content, after only two hours it felt like Vanguard’s levels had already lost the capacity to surprise me; that all of the fascinating mysteries in this macabre dimension were already tapped. That was a disconcerting feeling to have almost immediately, and I hope it doesn’t bear truth when I play more on live servers over the weekend before I write my final review. Vanguard has the bones and the brains down brilliantly, now it just needs some blood.