How Call of Duty: Vanguard reenvisions its classic Zombies mode

In many ways, Zombies redefined the Call of Duty series. It added silly, arcade-style horror gameplay to break up the seriousness of a gritty war game. Something about being able to take a break from the stone-faced shooting to battle an infinite onslaught of zombies (with the use of your alien Ray Gun) in Call of Duty: World at War in 2008 was refreshing.

Since then, the Zombies mode has expanded and become much more complicated, full of memorable characters, a streamlined objective system, and much more to do. What started as a weird little one-off mode has grown to explosive new heights thanks to its gratifying gameplay loop that ropes players in.

Zombies makes its triumphant return in Call of Duty: Vanguard, and although it aims to be a familiar experience, developer Treyarch is reenvisioning the way the mode works, with a slew of additions that make it feel fresh. Treyarch is once again leading the charge on Zombies development after having worked on 2020’s Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War. Ahead of its release, I spoke with Treyarch Associate Director of Design Gavin Locke, Senior Writer Tony Bedard, and Lead Writer Craig Houston about what to expect from the upcoming Zombies experience.

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Clearer path ahead

Zombies walking in Call of Duty: Vanguard.

Der Anfang — which translates to “The Beginning” in German — is the new Zombies experience in Vanguard. One of the highlights of Der Anfang is the way it will streamline the familiar Zombies gameplay, giving more direction to help new players learn the ropes. Objectives will play a much larger role this time around, rather than simply having players try to survive against a horde of zombies for as long as possible.

“In this experience, Der Anfang, starting in Stalingrad, we use this objective gameplay loop to reenvision the idea of opening a map,” Locke tells Digital Trends. “So these objectives that you teleport to [will] take place in different arenas that are much different locations than the hubs on Stalingrad. And then within Stalingrad, instead of killing zombies, earning essence, and buying doors, it’s the completion of these different objectives that starts to earn you more paths to the map, and more things to interact with over the course of a single match.”

The inception of objective-based gameplay can be seen in Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War‘s Outbreak mode, which gave players an open world, allowing them to teleport to various areas after completing certain tasks. In Vanguard, you’ll see some of the same Outbreak mechanics return, such as being able to warp to new locales. This time around, thugh, players want to prioritize what kind of equipment they bring along depending on the objectives they choose to tackle.

“It’s an onion that keeps having layers to it. It surprised me. It’s fun, but it tastes better than an onion.”

“In Vanguard, you start with three objectives,” says Locke. “You think ‘Do I want to play Blitz on Shi No Numa, or Harvest on the Hub? And you’ll make that choice differently based on how you’ve loaded out and what your team has. Or you’ll pick your favorite mode and then change up your weapons based on that. So I think there’s a lot more variety for you to choose and the game will play out differently, hopefully, every time, without any sort of like monotony there. You’re not forced to do anything.”

The best part is that players aren’t required to complete objectives. For those who want to play it like the traditional Zombies modes — with the goal of simply lasting as long as possible — they can still do that. With Vanguard, it seems Treyarch is simply giving players the option to follow a narrative-driven objective to help captivate a new audience, without negatively impacting those who prefer a classic style of gameplay.

“I’ve been doing a lot of playtesting [with] this,” Bedard tells Digital Trends. “And that’s one of the things that’s really surprised and delighted me is that you begin to realize how many different strategies, how putting together different covenants will affect your gameplay. It’s an onion that keeps having layers to it. It surprised me. It’s fun, but it tastes better than an onion.”

Characters with more … character

Characters and zombies from Call of Duty: Vanguard.

Zombies will be much more memorable this time around. In attempts to keep the player invested, the cast will have wittier dialogue, according to Houston. “From a narrative perspective, I think we’ve tried to [add] a lot more humor, and a lot more personality into Vanguard,” Houston tells Digital Trends.

Cold War was very much a [military simulation], ” Houston said. “The Operators were quite dry — they were consistent with how they were in Warzone and multiplayer. And they were no longer the driving force of the narrative. So I think with the introduction of the Dark Ether Entities, and the other supporting cast, there’s a lot more personality.” This will effectively break up the horror elements to sprinkle in some humanity throughout, which once again will hopefully make things more refreshing.

“There’s a lot less ‘kill confirmed’ and a lot more ‘what the fuck was that?'”

“The Dark Ether Entities you choose to have a symbiotic relationship with — regardless of who you’ve chosen as your Operator — will offer a lot of encouragement and chastisement in very amusing unique ways,” Houston continues. “There’s a lot less ‘kill confirmed’ and a lot more ‘what the fuck was that?’ And that’s something that’s going to be expanding as the game continues post-launch.”

One big family

Zombies walking in Call of Duty: Vanguard.

While the team won’t quite divulge the specifics of what to expect from Zombies going forward, they did have a few words to say about the overall cohesiveness of Call of Duty as a series. Typically, a Call of Duty game launches annually, alternating between three developers, Treyarch, Infinity Ward, and Sledgehammer Games. While Sledgehammer is still in charge of the main development of Vanguard, Treyarch was tasked with developing its Zombies mode. This means it has worked on Zombies for two back-to-back Call of Duty games, which was a significant change from the usual schedule.

But the team embraced this change, using it as an opportunity to be more collaborative with the rest of the Activision teams. “This reflects a little more of the cohesiveness of Call of Duty as a franchise,” Bedard told Digital Trends. “The folks that I’ve interacted with at Infinity Ward and Sledgehammer have all been great. For me, it’s nice. We’re all one big team.”

Since the series typically rotates between three different studios, there often isn’t much continuity from one game to the next, but this will change with the Cold War and Vanguard Zombies modes since Treyarch is leading the charge. With the implementation of a shared progression system across Modern Warfare (2019), Warzone, Black Ops Cold War, and now, Vanguard, the series has been more unified than ever.

Cohesiveness is “something that we’re very cognizant of,” Houston confirms to Digital Trends. “I don’t think Rambo or John McLean are strictly canon, so there’s always going to be some raggedy edges in terms of how some of the narrative fits together.” Houston refers to the ’80s action stars who were implemented during one of the recent seasons of Black Ops Cold War, showing that fun is always a priority, more so than realism.

“I think there’s certainly a goal across all of the studios to just keep delivering consistent, quality Call of Duty games and all work together.”

Call of Duty: Vanguard launches for PlayStation 4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, and PC on November 5. The game’s publisher, Activision Blizzard, is currently embroiled in a legal battle stemming from a workplace culture scandal.

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