In 2008, gamers who conquered the islands of the South Pacific and battled through the ruined streets of Berlin in Treyarch’s Call of Duty: World At War were treated to an out-of-left-field bonus at the conclusion of the game’s campaign. A horror-themed horde mode that saw up to four players attempt to hold their ground against a never-ending onslaught of the living dead, this would be the first incarnation of the now series-staple zombies mode. Undead-related content would remain a major part of every subsequent Treyarch-helmed CoD release, and the mode would eventually grow to be so popular that developers like Sledgehammer and Infinity Ward would be tasked with cooking up their own iterations of it.
That said, interest in the Call of Duty zombies anthology would begin to stagnate sometime after the release of Black Ops III. The final DLC release was met with mixed reception, and, with the drawn-out and overly-complicated story having come to an apparent conclusion, it was hard to know what the future of the mode would be. Then, after the oft-reviled Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare and controversial Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 further muddied the waters, it seemed like the franchise’s longstanding staple gameplay offering was in serious need of a retooling.
The lead-up to the release of 2020’s Black Ops Cold War touted a return to form for Call of Duty zombies, heralding the resurgence of a more traditional perk system, an increased focus on approachable gameplay, and a marked difference from the cryptic, Easter egg-focused content releases of past games. Though it only debuted with one map and one gameplay mode—and a partial remake of Nacht Der Untoten, the first-ever zombies map—Cold War’s zombies installment was embraced by the community, many of whom believed it to be a breath of fresh air in comparison to the series’ recent lackluster entries.
That said, Treyarch failed to introduce any noteworthy pieces of content in the months following Cold War’s release, with a few additional pieces of weaponry and a forgettable secondary gameplay mode being the only new inclusions to speak of. Fortunately, that changed in February with the inclusion of the Firebase Z map, and, of course, the all-new Outbreak mode.
While previous Call of Duty zombies installments flirted with more open design philosophies, Outbreak fully embraces the calculated open-world chaos of Warzone and Cold War’s new Fireteam multiplayer game mode, mixing the two with established zombies conventions to form a never-before-seen experience that perfectly revitalizes a formula that had grown stale over the past decade.
Tasked with retrieving dark aether research data scattered across the Ural mountains, teams of one to four members embark on a perilous journey to complete missions set across three separate maps while working to upgrade their weapons, purchase perks, craft special munitions, and, most importantly, stay alive long enough to exfiltrate. A unique blend of all of Call of Duty’s multiplayer-minded offerings, Outbreak enhances the thrill of mowing down packs of zombies while increasing the challenge and keeping veteran players of the series on their toes.
Though its settings and scenarios will grow to be a bit too familiar given enough time, Outbreak is leagues more replayable than traditional zombies maps; while they certainly had an appeal, averages players were often turned away by the overly-monotonous gameplay endemic to older chapters of the CoD zombies anthology. In contrast, Outbreak allows players to take things at their own pace without sacrificing the difficulty of the mode’s higher rounds, and it spices up the gameplay by introducing much larger maps, all-new vehicles, special zombies, and side quests without overdoing things to the point that the mode no longer resembles the classic Treyarch zombies affair.
Dedicated purists may be turned away, but assuming the developers continue to support the mode, Outbreak has a genuine chance to be remembered as a legendary turning point not just for the specific mode, but for Call of Duty as a whole. What’s more, with recent rumors suggesting that a zombies-focused standalone game may be in the works, we can’t help but wonder if Outbreak was intended as a testing ground for some more ambitious ideas to be used in the future.
Obviously, it isn’t totally flawless; the difficulty curve may be a bit abrasive for new players, and the overall aesthetic of the mode feels a bit incongruous compared to the other maps and doesn’t particularly fit the horror roots of Treyarch’s zombies, but these are small gripes that could be amended over time, and, on the whole, Outbreak is deserving of an immense amount of praise. While we wouldn’t necessarily forego the traditional zombies experience in favor of this, Outbreak may well help to bolster Cold War’s popularity and continue to appease zombies fans over the next few months and in the ensuing interim period between Treyarch-led Call of Duty releases.
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