Call Of Duty: A Brief History of Zombies

By Andy Humphreys

In the years since its debut in 2008, Call Of Duty’s Zombies game mode has become synonymous with the franchise, so much so that it’s now difficult to imagine a world where four-player co-op zombie survival doesn’t exist within the Call Of Duty world.

Now, with the release of Call Of Duty: Infinite Warfare and its own take on the Zombies experience, let’s take a moment to explore how the game mode has evolved over the years, and the significance of this evolution within the Call Of Duty series.

Nacht Der Untoten

The game mode actually made its debut in the most unlikely of ways. Call Of Duty: World At War was the second in the series to be developed by Treyarch, and the last game to be set in World War II.

Perhaps it was the use of this setting, and the limitations that come with observing historical accuracy, that led developers Treyarch to come up with Nazi Zombies (as it was then called) as a way to cut loose. Or perhaps it was a gambit from a studio desperate to move out from under the shadow of Infinity Ward, who at the time were seen by many as the only true stewards of the Call Of Duty franchise.

The start of a master plan to put their unique stamp on the series, or nothing more than the folly of a bored developer? It didn’t matter. Because Zombies, even in its original guise, was fantastic fun, its single tiny map and basic survival gameplay endearing gamers from the very start.

Zombies was a success in what was an otherwise fairly unremarkable entry in the series, going on to receive two more maps in the game’s subsequent add-ons.

Treyarch had started something, and for the first time, truly differentiated themselves as developers with ideas of their own.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Zombies did not make an appearance in the next entry in the series, Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, developed by Infinity Ward. However, a nod to co-operative gameplay was introduced in the form of the objective-based Spec-Ops. Was this the first instance of Infinity Ward following, rather than leading where development of Call Of Duty is concerned?

Peril in the Pentagon

With Call Of Duty: Black Ops, Treyarch came back to the series with an ambitious entry which partially continued the plotline begun in World At War, and would also go on to become a wildly successful story-arc in its own right. 

With Zombies too, Treyarch has much greater aspirations. Rather than a tacked on mini-game, Zombies was now a legitimate game mode, and boasted two standard maps, one of which featured historical figures Kennedy, Nixon, McNamara, and Castro as playable characters, and the pentagon as the scene of the carnage.

The inclusion of these world leaders in a sort of Odd Couple (or should that be ‘quadruple’?) type-scenario gave an early taste of the sort of silliness that would blossom in subsequent outings. And, sure enough, the maps that were released in the game’s four DLC offerings were wildly varied, from an abandoned Siberian outpost, to Area 51 and even the actual Moon itself.

This version of Zombies served to cement the game mode as a fan favourite, paving the way for its regular inclusion in future iterations.

Meanwhile, a number of high-profile departures at Infinity Ward meant external studios were drafted in to help finish the next installment of Call Of Duty -- Modern Warfare 3. Spec-Ops was again included to scratch players’ co-op itch, and although again perfectly serviceable, never really served to ignite the imagination in the way Zombies had already begun to.

Zombies Comes-of-Age

Next was when Treyarch really took the ball and saw how far they could run with it. Pretty far, as it turns out.

In Call of Duty: Black Ops 2, Zombies went from being a modest game mode to something that could have arguably been put out as a wholly separate release. It was Treyarch’s baby, and they clearly saw it as such, wanting to push the limits of what many thought possible in peripheral game mode.

A full-fledged, totally insane story ensued, incorporating dimension-hopping, multiple time-periods, and parallel timelines, all cleverly linking previous narrative elements. It also included returning characters, and even celebrity voice actors to really cement the brash and audacious tone Treyarch were now aiming for.

Meanwhile, it seemed Infinity Ward were becoming increasingly inspired by Treyarch’s bold take on cooperative multiplayer. With the series’ next entry, Call Of Duty: Ghosts, the developers included Extinction, a game mode that involved repelling waves of hostile aliens that also owed more than a little to popular co-op types in other franchises, too, for example Halo’s Firefight or Gears Of War’s Horde.
This game mode is remarkable not only for its relative outlandishness, the type seldom yet seen in an Infinity Ward title, but also the clear inspiration it took from the otherworldly aspect of Zombies, albeit still clinging a little too fervently to the Spec-Ops framework. Extinction was popular, but unfortunately this popularity was as short lived, just as it was for its parent game.

The Infection Spreads

Sledgehammer Games, in their first outing in the series (not counting their work on Modern Warfare 3), did not display Infinity Ward’s reluctance to distance themselves from Treyarch’s now wildly popular game mode. It’s possible arriving late to the Call Of Duty development party left them blissfully free of the stubborn pride that may have prevented Infinity Ward to embrace what had become at that point a very bankable asset.

Sledgehammer tried something new by introducing their own flavor into the game mode, giving Zombies the greater mobility afforded by the game’s exo-suits. While lacking a certain personality, it served to reiterate the importance and persistence of Zombies as part of the accepted Call Of Duty package.

By the time of Black Ops 3’s release, Treyarch had started to show some serious swagger. 

They were showing off, freewheeling, messing around with their own formula. They furthered their ever more bizarre story, and even found time to invoke nostalgia in the now in-built fan base by revisiting previous maps and bringing back series regular characters, along with even crazier celebrity cameos.

This confidence was not only obvious from the zombies game mode, though. It resounded through the entire game. The increase in popularity of Zombies coincided with Treyarch’s rise to become the apex developers of the franchise, their Black Ops sub-brand now indisputably publisher Activision’s golden goose, striking a chord with the most fans and bringing in vast amounts of cash.

Which brings us to now, and Infinite Warfare, the latest game in the series. And in perhaps the biggest indicator yet that Treyarch have usurped Infinity Ward as the prime studio in Call Of Duty’s development, Infinite Warfare does feature Zombies. Infinity Ward appear to have bowed to the immense popularity of this now unignorable game mode, and have simultaneously dropped their attempts at trying to establish their own variation of a fun co-op game mode.

Although Infinity Ward have eschewed Treyarch’s established characters and universe, they have lifted the gameplay mechanics and the offbeat tone that have become the hallmark of Zombies, setting the madness in a crazy theme park, and even including a cameo from David Hasselhoff, playing his Knight Rider character trapped in an 80s horror movie. You can’t get much more off-the-wall than that.

It’s a necessary step; like it or not, Zombies is now intrinsic to Call Of Duty’s DNA, an expected and beloved part of the series. To deny their fan base this would be to risk disappointing them, and in the ever more competitive multiplayer shooter market, that is simply not an option.