I'm an, uh, unabashed lover of all things Jeff Goldblum. I adore his turns as a brilliant mathematician with a strange laugh (opens in new tab), an expert on artisan knots (opens in new tab), the confident spokesman for Waitmate (opens in new tab), a neurosurgeon named New Jersey (opens in new tab), and a straightforward educator on how to pronounce his last name (opens in new tab). Now, courtesy of the Shadows of Evil co-op mode for Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 (opens in new tab), the fine actor will have another inimitable role to add to the list: knife-juggling magician with a rocket-powered shield. And just like that, I suddenly feel the need to buy the next game in a series I thought I was done with for good.
Watching the above trailer simply invigorates me, in a way no Call of Duty trailer ever has before. It's all so delightfully different, from the 1940s metropolis setting lit up with neon signs, to the Cthulhu-like creatures that seem to be in cahoots with the typical zombie hordes. Even though I'm fatigued by gaming's most done-to-death, endlessly reanimated enemy type (opens in new tab), the undead can still be made palatable when they're dressed like gumshoes and gunned down to the tune of a jazzy number, complete with a faux-Frank Sinatra crooning about "snakeskin boots on a Saturday night".
Shadows of Evil's flair for the wonderfully weird goes so far beyond the things I typically associate with CoD, besides snappy FPS gunplay: predictable plots set in gritty worlds populated by uninteresting characters who are constantly yelling at me to get moving. That structure has paid monstrous dividends thus far, so there's really no reason for Activision and Treyarch to veer away from the proven CoD experience of cinematic campaigns and gripping multiplayer. But the Lovecraftian elements in Shadows of Evil feel worlds apart from modern or advanced warfare, with a magical gumball machine that provides the mode's trademark powerups (vending machines: not much of a thing in the '40s), some poor sap getting liquefied and sucked into a dark altar, and a hulking, otherworldly beast sporting spiny tentacles and three heads full of piranha-like teeth.
And of course, you've got my man Jeff going Full Goldblum, with the bizarre inflection of lines like "Ah, it appears that the shield is quicker than the EYEEEEEEEEE!" and "If it imbues me with power, mmmthen CHEW I WILLLL!" (I had to rewatch that bit about eight times to understand what the heck he was saying, and I still get a kick out of it). In fact, the whole cast of Shadows of Evil has a history with geeky weirdness I can't help but love. Heather Graham had a breakout role on Twin Peaks, Ron Perlman made for a stellar Hellboy, and Neal McDonough got to wear a ridiculous fake mustache as Dum Dum Dugan (opens in new tab) in Captain America and Agent Carter (though I'll always think of him as M. Bison in the abysmal Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li). To see them as a flapper-chic burlesque dancer, down-and-out boxer, and foul-mouthed PI, respectively, is almost as enticing as the greatness of Goldblum. You've even got Robert Picardo - The Doctor from Star Trek: Voyager - playing some kind of supernatural broker. What's not to love?
The last CoD game I bought was 2012's Black Ops 2, which in Call of Duty years may as well be a century ago. I skipped the single-player entirely; even though I had heard it was more engrossing than ever, I simply wasn't in the mood for another self-serious theater of near-future war. I had Ghosts pegged as a stinker from day one, and though I appreciated the verticality of Advanced Warfare's exoskeleton suits, the jetboost-jumping gameplay never really clicked with me whenever I tried it out. But the Shadows of Evil announcement has my enraptured attention, despite my brain mostly glossing over Black Ops 3's initial reveal and the intriguing addition of unique Specialist characters (opens in new tab) to the regular multiplayer matches.
As a series, Call of Duty has been an unstoppable juggernaut for the past decade. Being that it's Activision's prized cash cow, there isn't much room to mix it up; the games have a colossal target audience to please, and anything that veers away from the established CoD formula runs the risk of disappointing returns. But Zombies offers a playful space off to the side - a chance for CoD's developers to flex their creative muscles in ways the base game would never demand (or even allow). And it's as though Treyarch has reached a tipping point, realizing that yeah, this billion-dollar franchise really is too big to fail - so why not have some fun with some truly off-the-wall ideas, backed by recognizable celebrities and a seemingly infinite marketing budget?
Things have come full circle. It was Treyarch that first created Nazi Zombies mode in Call of Duty: World at War, just as the franchise was about to get creatively stuck on itself trying to duplicate the mega-success of the first Modern Warfare. Bit by bit, Treyarch's brand of Zombies has experimented and succeeded with some truly eccentric concepts, like the much-loved Monkey Bomb, or Richard Nixon dual-wielding shotguns while John F. Kennedy covers his six with a grenade launcher. On the whole, CoD hasn't taken many chances in past years, maintaining its popularity by delivering something consistent and predictably entertaining. But now it's gotten so huge that it can and will take risks by pouring money into peculiarities like Shadows of Evil. And that's a brilliant, positive realization for a franchise like Call of Duty to make.
In my mind, this is the most out-there thing CoD has done yet - and that includes casting John Malkovich as a gun-savvy janitor in a mech suit and a Snoop Dogg voice pack (opens in new tab). The closest parallel I can think of - where a Western publisher tried something so completely off-brand with a tentpole franchise - is Far Cry 3's standalone Blood Dragon expansion, with its '80s synth, cyber commandos, and neon-pink fire breathers. Shadows of Evil looks so vibrant and strange that I have to support it with my money, because it's the kind of video game experience I will always want to see more of. Jeff Goldblum's inclusion is just the icing on the cake.