Modern Warfare 3 Zombies revolutionises an entire legacy of undead FPS

call of duty modern warfare 3 zombies mode undead from the series

call of duty modern warfare 3 zombies mode undead from the series

The reveal of Modern Warfare Zombies has been controversial amongst followers of Call of Duty’s legendary horde mode. While many are excited at the possibilities of new ways to slay the undead, myself included, a vocal section of fans are unhappy that there isn’t a bigger focus on traditional round-based Zombies. With a community fractured, questions linger over the direction of the mode and its uncertain future.

Zombies first appeared in Call of Duty: World at War as a surprise reward for completing the campaign. What started as a fun co-op mode soon became the dedicated mode of choice for many, with the gameplay loop of surviving as many rounds as possible, leaving players itching to play “one more game”. Each subsequent iteration of the series brought new gameplay innovations and a focus on “easter eggs”, hidden quests that provided players with story details and occasional gameplay bonuses. The “Aether” storyline grabbed the attention of fans, who faithfully followed characters Richtofen, Dempsey, Takeo and Nikolai across multiple dimensions – and games – until it came to its emotional conclusion in Call of Duty: Black Ops 4.

Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War felt like a fresh start for the mode, delivering classic round-based experiences, overhauling gameplay and introducing “Dark Aether” – a sequel to the still beloved Aether saga. It also experimented with the open-world mode “Outbreak”, where players would explore, loot, and complete objectives in increasingly difficult regions. Outbreak was incredibly popular, with Treyarch announcing its player base was “virtually neck and neck” with traditional Zombies. Despite this, some players loathed the mode as it was the biggest shake-up Zombies had ever seen.

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For Modern Warfare 3 Zombies, Treyarch is combining the sandbox nature of Outbreak with the urgency of DMZ, Modern Warfare II’s PvPvE extraction mode. Twenty-four players fight the undead across Urzikstan – the new Warzone map – discovering weapons, loot, and secrets to extract successfully. While this is an even bigger departure than Outbreak, Treyarch has developed a solid foundation for open-world Zombies as all the staples are here: perks, wall buys, pack-a-punch, and wonder weapons. The extraction gameplay loop allows for some of these items to be used in successive runs, which enhances both in-game and out-of-game strategy, which is vital for an engaging Zombies experience.

There is no PvP in MWZ either, which shows Treyarch hasn’t forgotten Zombies’ roots as a PvE experience. Human AI does appear across the map, with the ability to use Zombies as bait to ambush mercenaries, making for an entertaining premise. MWZ looks like it’ll have plenty of these dynamic gameplay moments, too, with three tiers of difficulty increasing as players get closer to the Aether Storm in the centre of the map, meaning there’s a challenge for all types of players.

The opportunity to join up with teams during a game of MWZ is also an exciting feature, with tough “world bosses” likely requiring multiple squads to take down. It will also benefit solo players who get into trouble, as Treyarch stressed that the mode will be a massive challenge for independent slayers. Apparently, ways to further improve the solo experience are being explored and should arrive post-launch.

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We know the bulk of MWZ’s storytelling will occur through missions, but traditional easter egg quests are also on the way, and Urzikstan will host plenty of secrets at launch. Several story missions will take players out of Urzikstan to visit different locations, with more intimate experiences waiting alongside cinematics and huge story revelations. World-building collectable intel is also posited to make a return. There is a clear commitment to pushing the Dark Aether story and its narrative techniques to heights never before seen in Zombies. Still, some purists believe Zombies should only ever be round-based, and experimentation should be limited to the confines of what has come before.

I’ve been playing Zombies religiously since 2008. I, too, desire more traditional Zombies experiences, but I also look forward to new twists on an admittedly ageing formula. A map to the standard of “Der Eisendrache” takes a lot of development time, and unless CoD’s seasonal strategy changes, Treyarch cannot deliver a round-based map alongside every content drop. MWZ and traditional Zombies can co-exist by providing smaller but more frequent updates between round-based map launches to ensure players always have something to anticipate.

For example, Treyarch could add a new enemy to MWZ’s enemy pool after it debuts in a round-based map. Treyarch attempted this during Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War; however, the cadence of updates wasn’t quite right. It’s certainly worth trying again, as it benefits Zombies greatly.

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If the rumours are accurate, Treyarch is the leading developer of CoD 2024, and I expect a significant focus on round-based Zombies. The studio is well aware of what fans want. It pivoted to create a round-based mode that wasn’t in the plans for Vanguard Zombies, and during a preview of MWZ, the Zombies Team reinforced that they are aware of the desire for round-based Zombies and think those players will be satisfied with MWZ’s post-launch support.

It’s important to note that Call of Duty and its many studios are now under Xbox control. It’s too early to know what Xbox’s plan for the franchise is, but there’s hope that Treyarch will no longer be on fire-extinguishing duty, allowing for smoother Zombies development. The rushed Vanguard Zombies, responsible for much of the current anxiety, was a clear last-minute call from above.

There’s reason to be cautiously optimistic. Games like Pentiment and Hi-Fi Rush succeeded because Xbox trusted developers, recognised that not every game needs to be a massive AAA project, and used Game Pass to help them find an audience. This ethos is the antithesis of pre-merger Activison, which transformed from an eclectic publisher to a Call of Duty conveyor belt under Bobby Kotic’s rule. While a standalone Zombies game is likely a pipe dream, Xbox removing some of the eggs currently stuffed inside the Call of Duty basket can only be positive for Zombies.

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Whatever happens, the next few years will be defining for Zombies. Despite fifteen years, the mode still has untapped potential and a fanbase desperate for more. Modern Warfare Zombies marks a step into uncharted waters, which may not satiate every player, but diehards should still stick around. If I’ve learned anything from my time following the mode, Zombies will never truly die.

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