Call of Duty Zombies is in a weird place at the moment. While Treyarch has always been the king of this mode, it had a very up-and-down performance the last few years when it comes to making memorable Zombies experiences. From a pure gameplay standpoint, I would say Black Ops Cold War is the best in the series, but it had uninspired maps, focused too much on Outbreak, and lost a lot of charm by focusing so hard on players’ operators as the main characters. That was then followed up by unquestionably the worst Call of Duty Zombies we have, and hopefully ever will, see in Vanguard. By every possible metric, that version of Zombies was awful and was rightfully chastised by the community.
Now, with Modern Warfare 3 out, Treyarch is experimenting with the mode again, ignoring the traditional round-based format for a reskin of MW2’s DMZ. The result is a divisive mode that has potential to be great, but in its current form will leave you loving or hating it.
Don’t look under the first layer
DMZ is a mode that made its debut in last year’s Modern Warfare 2, as a secondary mode for Warzone. The first thing you will notice when you get into MW3 Zombies is that this is that mode with a layer of Zombies paint put on it. In some aspects, it feels like a Halloween event for DMZ, but the difference is this is staying for the long haul in MW3.
The main goal here is to jump into each game, loot as much as possible, and exfil with useful items that you can use on the next run. In contrast to DMZ, there is no PvP this time. While squad sizes start at three people, you can meet other players and add them to your squad to up to six players, but even then, you can work alongside players outside of the squad as much as you want. Essentially, all 24 players in the lobby are on the same team, although anyone can go on their own solo adventure whenever they want; they are just putting themselves in danger of not being revived if they go down and losing all their progress. This gives Zombies a new found freedom to explore and do what you want, regardless of what others in your squad are doing.
All squads will find contracts dotted around the map that reward them with currency used to purchase various weapons and upgrades. Squads can help protect each other and talk with proximity voice chat, with the only real competition being who can get to each loot chest first. For a game with no competitive balancing whatsoever, everyone sharing the same loot is a massive oversight. For example, there are infestation areas all over the map that can become quite hectic. You have to go through a building, destroying all cysts within while zombies attack you in an area that also harms you if you don’t have a gas mask equipped. Upon completion, the loot chests in the building will become available for everyone to open. The problem is, you either get random people that run into your building when you beat it and steal all the items, or one member on your team hoards everything for themselves. As much as I love the idea of incentivizing players to be more cooperative, you can’t expect dozens of people who have no prior history together actually to display teamwork qualities. Overall, the missions and events to do here are fun, challenging, and have variety, but the rewards structure needs some tweaking.
The game also suffers from some technical speed bumps. Zombies’ running paths are not as good as you expect. In particular environments, they can get stuck on nothing and run in place. I’vealso experienced quite a few bugs in my matches. Loot crates disappearing upon them becoming available, exfil helicopters being invisible or just not arriving, and one instance of getting stuck in a rock and not being able to move. I also had quite a few games where the matchmaking absolutely refused to fill my squad with other players, forcing me to go in solo. I will say that these moments were pretty rare, but there were enough of them popping up that it was noticeable.
You’d have to be a zombie yourself to keep coming back to this
To make the transition from the traditional round-based experience, areas of MW3’s Zombies map are denoted by three zones. Your game starts on the outer edges of the map, and as you move in, enemies become tougher. On the surface, I like how this essentially lets you decide how difficult of an experience you want on any given run. If this is your first time playing Zombies, you can stay in the low-tier difficulty zone and find plenty of things to familiarize yourself with before you work up the courage to venture deeper. New players are not bombarded with enemies they can’t handle at round 20 like in the past, although the experience isn’t too easy for them still. That level of choice is not something we have seen before in Zombies. However, the game actively works to force you to do things faster against your will.
Every game in MW3 Zombies has a strict one hour time limit, though you can leave early whenever you want by going to an exfil point. You’ll have a lot of zombies to defeat, but if you survive and get on the helicopter, you keep your loot. To begin, you have a 45-minute timer that, once it expires, the game warns you that a storm that is randomly placed around the map begins expanding, forcing you to exfil within the next 15 minutes or lose all of your progress if you die. If you played even one DMZ game last year, you probably will know if you like the formula here. I find it to be tedious due to all of the good item and weapon drops being completely RNG dependant and not having someone around to help you in tough situations will set you back drastically. While solo play is doable, it is by no means the most feasible way to play here, as one death makes you lose everything not just from that run, but anything you carried over from a previous run.
On the surface, an hour sounds like a reasonable amount of time, but for what the game expects you to do, it’s very limiting and makes MW3 Zombies feel like the ultimate grind. Every game you start, regardless of whether you escape with loot from a previous game or not, you start with basic weapons. Even if you have the same weapon that you upgraded at the Pack-a-Punch machine and upgraded its damage tier previously, it is reverted to its weakest state in the next game. It makes sense to start from zero on each run, but with how much the game relies on chance and how long it takes to beef up your weapons, every opening of the game needs a good half hour before you begin feeling truly powerful. If you decide to take a moment to do any exploring, you are drastically cutting down on the things you can see in that match.
Having both the time limit and your weapons and perks being reverted really dampens the experience in MW3 Zombies. In past versions of the mode, you always have started from scratch, outside of weapon attachment unlocks. However, that mode was always framed as an arcade experience tuned to the smaller maps that allowed you to kit yourself out very quickly. Here, because the map is so large, your one-hour time limit is very restricting. Perks, which have been a Zombies’ staple since the beginning, feel weaker than ever before and more of a hassle to get. If one you want is across the map, you waste too much time going to get it, leading you to exfil with nothing valuable and that game feeling like a complete waste of time. It makes sense to have either a time limit or weapons that always revert to their basic form, but having both of them active makes starting a new game very unappealing when you have to spend so long just to get to where you were before.
Modern Warfare 3 Zombies is a take on the series that you are likely going to love or hate. Traditional Zombies players still have many of the same tools as the past, but the time limit and grind to progress is very aggravating. If you usually only buy Call of Duty games for the Zombies, you are better off waiting for a free weekend or steep sale to see if you like it or not. If you enjoyed DMZ in MW2, you might miss the PvP side of things, but other than that MW3 Zombies is the same thing. It is not perfect by any means, but it is better than Vanguard Zombies (a stupendously low bar to hurdle). As it stands now, Modern Warfare 3 Zombies is a tedious take on the game mode that wants to waste your time while dangling the potential to find loot that won’t have a big enough impact on the next run. It abandons Zombies’ roots to paint over DMZ and pass it off as something old being new and is a mediocre experience because of it.
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 was reviewed on Xbox Series X with a code provided by Activision. The game is also available on PlayStation and PC.
- More freedom to determine your difficulty
- The combination of time limit and weapons reverting to their default state makes every new game a chore
- Shared loot pools encourage selfish play
- A few noticeable bugs