If Call of Duty: World at War taught us anything, it’s that undead Nazis are terrifying. Of course, Dead Snow taught us the same thing. But that game is where the zombies craze in Activision’s blockbuster first-person shooter series all started. Today, Call of Duty: Black Ops II is released onto the masses bringing with it the third and largest zombie mode ever in a Call of Duty title.
For the uninitiated, chances are that you’ve at least heard of CoD. For years the series was developed by one studio, Infinity Ward, which is owned by Activision, who publishes the titles. Eventually, Activision wanted to release games in the series more often, so they began to split development between Infinity Ward, and another one of their development studios, Treyarch.
While Infinity Ward was busy breaking records with sales from Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, Treyarch took the series back to its roots in World War II, and tacked the zombies mode on as an afterthought. It didn’t have any sort of introduction or storyline, it was just sort of there. We spoke to Jimmy Zielinski, the Zombies Creative Lead (how’s that for a job title?) at Treyarch who told us, “We knew we wanted to have a game mode to offer as an unlock. We talked about bunker defense stuff, and we talked about military stuff. But one of our designers said why don’t we do something opposite."
It was just you and up to three other players trying to survive against incoming waves of zombies. That was it. There were weapons and areas to unlock via cash you get for capping zombies, and a ton of easter eggs. But there was no glue holding it together.
Although Infinity Ward sneered at the idea of adding zombies to their war shooter, the mode became wildly popular, and more maps were quickly added via DLC. It was brought back for Treyarch’s next game, Call of Duty: Black Ops, where it was expanded with even more DLC, including a complete level on the Moon, and the infamous Call of the Dead DLC that starred Michael Rooker, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Danny Trejo, Robert Englund as themselves, as well as zombie grandfather George Romero as himself… in both alive and undead flavors.
So how do you bring back the undead and make it seem fresh and new without reinventing the wheel? Fittingly, you put the zombies on a bus and take them mobile. Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 now sports a Zombies mode so large that it has its own menu screen this time around, and it earned an announcement trailer unto itself. Tranzit is the biggest change to come to Zombies since the mode was created, and it brings with it an automated bus (complete with a Johnny Cab-esque driver voiced by Nolan North) on a looping route that will take you and fellow survivors to several different locations.
At each stop, you and your team can collect different parts and assemble what the team is calling “Buildables” that serve different purposes. An electric fan, a fin, and a dressmaker’s mannequin make a portable electrical turbine, giving you the ability to open locked doors that require power. Machine gun parts and a lawn mower make a turret, naturally. Some pieces do standalone duty, like a ladder you can mount on the side of the bus for roof access, or a cow catcher you can affix to the front of the bus to shove zombies out of the way, Dawn of the Dead style.
But while the animatronic bus drive continues the route eternally, you can either ride the bus (where zombies will continue to attack you, even while in motion), or you can get off and stay at one of the many locations. True to Zombies fashion, there are tons of easter eggs and secrets to be found throughout the maps. Zielinski was tight-lipped about letting anything slip, as he wants everything to be found organically... even though by the time you read this, there will probably be multiple online guides describing everything the new Zombies has to offer. Thanks, Internet!
But in a day and age wherever the pervasive online presence makes it nearly impossible to keep secrets, Zielinski is confident that some secrets are worth keeping. “There are some things from the very first Zombies map in World at War that still haven’t been discovered yet. I read the online forums and boards voraciously, and I haven’t seen them mentioned.” While he didn’t hint at what those secrets were, it’s heart and brainwarming to know that some stuff has remained under wraps.
But keeping those secrets isn’t easy. “Some people think that I’m a sick person,” Zielinski commented, “But I realize that we have a mode here in a franchise like Call of Duty that is very unique. To know that people playing our game could discover a secret or discover something new …. It’s all about letting people explore and discover. Once they know something or we tell people something, they think that’s ‘the thing’ and they don’t explore anymore. It’s all about the potential of discovery.”
The rest of Zombies is fleshed out with Survival, which is wave-based survival set in the different locations that the bus stops in Tranzit, and Grief is an entirely new mode where two teams of four humans (the FBI vs. the CDC) try to survive against endless waves of shambling corpses, although you’ll get access to “grief mechanics,” like chunks of meat you can toss into the midst of the enemy team so the zombies will rabidly chase after them.
You’ll also have access to the entire suite of multiplayer technology with Zombies this time, with extensive stats, leaderboards, and the theater mode so you can create your own films starring yourself vs. the undead. You can also create custom zombie games that allow you to change multiple settings, and the online mode has a skill-based matchmaking system that will hopefully pair you up with players who have a decent ability to play as a team. Because the fastest lesson Zombies will teach you is that you need to stay together to survive.
But is it scary? Hell yes. It’s terrifying. If you try to travel on foot between locations in Tranzit, you’ll become enveloped in an eerie mist and witness baby-like demon children emerge from the ground and leap onto your heads. I have no clue what those things are, but they scared the shit out of my entire team. And don’t make the same mistake I did of thinking you’re safe once you get on the roof of the bus, because a low-hanging beam swept me off and into the mass of 30 or so undead running behind our bus. That was one of many heart-attack inducing moments throughout the mode.
While it seems obvious that the new Zombies will be fleshed out with new maps (there have been eleven released for zombies alone to date), we’re starting to wonder how long it will be until Activision simply splits this off into its own franchise free from attachment to a main game. Right now, the community does most of the heavy lifting as far as a backstory for the mode goes, with fan fiction filling in the cracks, but Zielinski said that his team definitely has their own agenda. We’ll see if they get to tell that story eventually.
In the meantime, check out Zombies in the brand-new Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 out now, and pick up a spare pair of pants in the process.