Call of Duty has never offered a compelling reason to play Zombies solo. Here is a mode where you fight an ultimately futile campaign against hordes of rotting corpses (and some not-so-rotting monsters if it’s a weirder year) which works best when used as a backdrop to messing around with mates. Try to push your score as high as possible on your own, and you’re greeted with little more than a grind in elaborate dungeons where you'll know the end as soon as you begin. While increasingly obtuse lore or surprising A-Listers have been used as incentive in the past, there’s never been a moment since the original Zombies mode in World at War where I actually wanted to return regularly.
So color me surprised that I can’t stop playing the new Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War Outbreak mode. After years of, at best, curious ambivalence about a strand of Call of Duty that always felt at odds with the rest of the series, I am now fully invested in the idea of a full game dedicated to running around an open world that’s only populated by me and enough zombies to populate a small country.
Ural in for a treat
Perhaps that’s because the recently launched Outbreak seems to flip every convention of the mode it’s ostensibly part of. In normal Zombies, you start in a small location and slowly open up new areas. In Outbreak, you’re plonked in the middle of a random, sizable map in the Ural Mountains and offered the opportunity to explore at your own pace. Likewise, your goal in normal Zombies is to simply survive each wave, with trials, upgrade stations, and easter eggs hidden for dedicated groups of undead bashers. Outbreak, on the other hand, is more structured, layering in objectives for you to complete, letting you set the pace of the game, and allowing you to bounce between different levels instead of confining you to one map.
Over the past few days, I’ve been diving in by myself because it feels like I finally get Zombies. The lore is still needlessly complicated, but having the freedom to take my time, explore the well-crafted levels that offer plenty to differing playstyles – there’s a lot of open-space for snipers, while built-up areas with objectives will sate run and gunners – and absolute annihilate legions of zombies is an irresistible cocktail for even the solo player.
In fact, by increasing the scope of the mode, it’s arguably distilled what makes it so great. The tension is still there, but it doesn’t feel like you’re having to get through busywork by turning on power switches or opening new areas. Zombies can still swarm you, but there’s greater opportunities for strategy by luring them into dense areas or into clearings for a teammate to snipe them. It’s all still going to end one way – death or getting the hell out of there – but the time invested feels more worthwhile.
Dawn of the Outbreak?
As a free addition to a game that’s been out for several months, it’s pretty much exactly what I wanted. But with rumors swirling that Activision are working on a standalone Zombies experience, it suddenly glimmers with potential. Instead of having three maps on rotation, a full game could take us across one large open-world, heightening the tension by making our character have to scrap more for their upgrades and increased firepower. The story – which usually revolves around an unending, circular mission that is perfect for enticing people back for one more round – could mimic the way Hades tells its story, and work in a clear beginning, middle, and end that still leaves scope for you to return after the credits.
Whatever happens, it’s very easy to want Outbreak to become the standard rather than the exception moving forward. By rearranging the foundations, Treyarch has found a more potent formula, one that could work just as well if that expanded scope is pulled out even further. Maybe it’s because after years of tinkering and constant experimentation, the mode has stumbled on a formula that’s potent enough to keep me coming back for more, no matter how futile I know it’s all going to be.
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