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Hands on: ‘Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare – Zombies in Spaceland’

‘Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare’ has a Zombies mode that's like a John Hughes nightmare

Infinity Ward’s first stab at Zombies mode plays it very safe, but should add little touches that appeal to both veterans and new players.

It seems like Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare developer Infinity Ward has been struggling to capture the lightning-in-a-bottle that is Call of Duty’s “Zombies” mode.

Actually originating with Call of Duty: World at War, the mode features as many as four players battling through various arenas, fighting off reanimated dead soldiers. The mode has become a sort of signature for off-year Call of Duty developer Treyarch, Zombies mode has become extremely popular since it first clawed its way free in 2008. Since then, Infinity Ward — the team behind the Modern Warfare games in the franchise, as well as Call of Duty: Ghosts — have seemingly been trying to find its own way to match Treyarch’s fun, goofy experiment.

With Infinite Warfare, Infinity Ward has a new philosophy: If ya can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. Infinite Warfare will have its own take on Zombies, albeit with some changes from Treyarch’s long-running version. “Zombies in Spaceland,” a new edition of Zombies that’s set in the 1980s, takes place in a theme park that uses an outer space motif, and is full of goofy characters and ’80s jokes.

Cue up that U2 song from ‘The Breakfast Club’

“Zombies in Spaceland” four new player characters, each based on an ’80s stereotype that would have made John Hughes proud. There’s the Nerd, who flailingly slaps away enemy zombies as he sputters; the Valley Girl, who between delivering annoyingly accented one-liners can literally gag zombies with a spoon; the Jock, a letter jacket-sporting dude with good looks; and the Rapper, who dishes out rhymes while he dishes out zombie-ravaging bullets.

The basic gist of Zombies remains the same in Infinite Warfare: You and your team must take down wave after wave of zombies. Each time you kill one, you earn cash to spend on new weapons and ammo, as well as environmental upgrades — stuff like activating park rides that thrash zombies if they get too close.

Related: ‘Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare’ is Stalingrad meets ‘Battlestar Galactica’

You also need money to open doors and complete the game. Like other past versions of CoD Zombie experiences, you can complete the game by finding and restarting the power in the park, then finding a way out. You’re not just trying to stay alive as long as you can, although that’s certainly part of its wave-based gameplay: Unlocking all of the various areas and getting out requires players to be careful and economical with their money, and work together as a team.

It’s all part of an overlying storyline, much like Treyarch’s Zombies maps have carried throughout the franchise. The whole “caught in a theme park with the living dead” thing is the work of a famed cult movie director, who has created a real-life horror scenario for you and your aspiring actor friends to fight through.

The aesthetic of Spaceland and its ’80s characters is the biggest change.

“The story setup for this is that there’s a reclusive director of horror,” said Activision Senior Producer Jason Ades. “His name his Willard Wyler, and he’s been in hiding, he’s been a hermit for a long long time. And he’s come out of hiding to finally create his magnum opus — he wants to create the defining film for his career. So he sent out invitations to four aspiring young actors. Little do they know that this is going to be much more than an audition.”

Fighting in a ‘fully functional’ theme park

The aesthetic of “Spaceland” and its ’80s characters is the biggest change between Infinite Warfare’s Zombies mode and previous Treyarch approaches. What’s less apparent are the small tweaks that are going into the mode. Ades said Infinity Ward focused on additions that would encourage team play, and make it easier for new players to get accustomed to the ins and outs of Zombies mode.

For one thing, firing up “Zombies in Spaceland” on your own will allow you to work through a tutorial explaining how the the game works and what its goals are. Zombies mode has been pretty esoteric in past Call of Duty games. The mode, which features less clarity and fewer directions than the series campaigns and multiplayer, can feel confusing for new players. While the focus is always on killing zombies and survival, each level has secrets to unlock and a story to uncover. The mystery was part of the fun for “Zombies” veterans, but made for a steep learning curve.

Related: Latest ‘Call of Duty’ boasts a zombies mode set in an ’80s amusement park

The tutorial will at least get players through the basics of “Zombies in Spaceland” and introduce a few new mechanics. The theme park setting gave Infinity Ward a chance to expand on how Zombies works, Ades said. For instance, players can earn carnival game tickets in addition to the money they get for killing bad guys, which can also be exchanged for weapons and equipment.

“There’s a really cool sort of park mascot, Neil the Robot, and he actually gives your team challenges and allows your team to achieve all kinds of things using teamwork, together, to earn tickets,” Ades said. He also mentioned the Astro Cave, an area of the park where players can play carnival games and old Activision games to earn more tickets.

Some zombies also drop new “souvenir tokens” when they die, which correspond with specific machines found within the park. There, Ades said, players can use their tokens to craft new equipment and zombie-smashing traps to deploy around the park.

Conclusion

Like previous Zombies modes, it sounds like there’s plenty to discover in “Zombies in Spaceland,” and if nothing else, the mode presents another new spin on the aesthetic — just as each new Black Ops game has offered fun additions and celebrity voices (Zombies in Spaceland features Pee-Wee Herman actor Paul Reubens as Willard Wyler and David Hasselhoff as an enigmatic DJ character). It’s jokey, bright and fun, offering somewhere new for players to trash zombies.

Related: Hands on: ‘Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare’ multiplayer

Zombies fans seem likely to enjoy the fact that Infinite Warfare is expanding on many of the mechanics that make the mode fun, hopefully adding quality-of-life improvements that encourage teamwork without sacrificing difficulty. But the biggest takeaway from 15 minutes spent with the mode at Call of Duty XP is that it’s more Zombies as we’ve come to know it, by and large. Now that zombies mode is part of all Call of Duty games, rather than just a single sub-series, Treyarch’s Easter egg experiment has truly become a staple of the franchise. And like other aspects of the Call of Duty experience, it’s safe to say that if you’ve liked it before, you’ll probably like it again.

Highs

  • Bright, goofy 1980s setting is a fun fit for zombies
  • A fun twist on a familiar experience
  • Theme park offers lots of variety

Lows

  • Despite new feature, it’s the same old “zombies” mode
  • Feels less challenging than past CoD “Zombies” levels
  • Still not especially intuitive