Call of Duty’s zombies mode has always been a major part of my life as a gamer. It was what coaxed me into buying a PS3 back when they were still five-hundred dollars in late 2008, and it was the sole reason for my continued investment in the increasingly tired CoD series through the early to mid-2010s. Struggling through the Origins main easter egg in 2012’s Black Ops II or unleashing Lovecraftian nightmares in Shadows of Evil, the pack-in map featured in 2015's Black Ops III, were the sorts of experiences very few other games could provide.
Unfortunately, as it was so succinctly put by Aaron Eckhart’s Harvey Dent in 2008’s The Dark Knight film, you either die a hero or live to see yourself become the villain, and the fact of the matter is that Call of Duty zombies should have been put to bed a long time ago. Though it was essentially one-third of the Black Ops 4 experience, it had become such a bloated, diluted experience that it could hardly be recognized when compared to proceeding games.
Innovation isn’t a bad thing, of course, and the mode couldn’t simply stay stagnant, but, in their quest to provide a wild story with each new content drop, Treyarch warped their simple-but-elegant zombie-slaying mode into a confusing mess that required myriad YouTube tutorials and microtransaction investments to get through.
For many, the tipping point came with the end of Black Ops III’s DLC season, Revelations. Though interesting in concept, it felt like a bit of a rehash and left fans of the story wholly dissatisfied. What’s more, aside from the following game's Chaos storyline, it would be the last time the long-running CoD Aether storyline would introduce any new locations.
That’s right, half of Black Ops 4’s zombies content—the only half that really mattered in the minds of most players—didn’t introduce any new maps or settings; everything was entirely rehashed, albeit with some minor amendments. From Blood of the Dead and Classified to Alpha Omega and Tag Der Toten, Bo4’s Aether content was well-worn from the start, and it did nothing to rejuvenate an already age-old experience.
What’s worse, the story had, at that point, stopped making sense two games ago. Opting for something of a Soulsian approach to storytelling, the narrative of CoD’s zombies maps has always been hidden in the background, and, while some prefer it that way, it was jarring for Treyarch to both obscure the story behind convoluted easter eggs while simultaneously adhering to it so rigidly. By the time Bo4 rolled around, the mode’s story was so far up its own rear end that gamers practically had to conduct an endoscopy to figure out what was going on. It had become an impenetrable, unwieldy thing, and those who weren’t in the know or didn’t particularly care were left out in the cold.
Compounding these issues was the fact that Bo4 zombies innovated in all the wrong areas; it kept chugging along with concepts and plot threads that would have made Lovecraft blush, and it threw out the series-staple perk system in favor of a much-derided DIY perk mechanic which old-school fans didn't appreciate. They also doubled down on the microtransactions—likely at the behest of Activision—to the total detriment of the mode’s accessibility and balance.
Yet, with the Aether storyline finally concluded, it could be time for Treyarch to do away entirely with all that nonsense and start fresh. Rumor has it that Black Ops V, though apparently in development turmoil at the moment, will represent a fresh start for the zombies mode. Obviously, that’s a good thing; zombies simply couldn’t continue in its current state. Black Ops 4 probably won’t be remembered fondly by the mode’s community, and, though some may complain, it would be best to return to the basics and rebuild.