Like a lot of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, this year’s Zombies mode has undergone what might be described as a “Warzone-ification,” forcing its traditional PvE elements into a larger, more open map. But as popular as the Warzone side of Call of Duty (or in this case, the extraction shooter mode, DMZ) might be, mixing it together with Zombies just dilutes both. This is less a new take on Zombies than it is a DMZ reskin, and with disparate elements cherry picked from both modes mashed against one another. It has had some highlights in the first few hours I’ve played across eight or so matches, and I still have lots more to see, but so far it’s more often been slow, a bit dull, and at odds with what has usually made Zombies fun.
Operation Deadbolt, the name for Modern Warfare 3’s Zombies mode, takes place on a version of the upcoming Warzone map of Urzikstan. Gone are the usual wave-based battles through smaller, dedicated maps that you explore and unlock as you go. Instead, the moment-to-moment gist of the mode is almost exactly what you encounter in DMZ: Head into the map, search for cool stuff, and call a helicopter to escape with it before you’re either overwhelmed by enemies or the 45-minute match timer expires. On its face, there’s not even much to identify this as a Zombies mode other than the zombies themselves, at least in the early hours.
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 Zombies Screenshots
Though its loot-and-escape mechanics can create both exciting situations and a lot of risk-and-reward calculations for you and your squad of two others, they feel opposed to what Zombies normally offers. The mode is usually all about tension — waves of zombies keep filling the map, requiring you to dispatch the threat, set up defenses, and seek out increasingly better weapons to handle even tougher hordes. The ticking clock and rising difficulty meant you needed to keep moving and manage your resources carefully, or you’d eventually be overwhelmed.
The openness of DMZ, on the other hand, lets you choose your battles, and it’s that approach that defines Operation Deadbolt. You’ll pick your way across the map to take on strongholds full of computer-controlled mercenary soldiers, or complete small objective-based contracts that can earn you money to spend on perks or weapon upgrades. You generally decide which encounters to take on and when, and only scale the difficulty up when you’re fully prepared by venturing further inland to areas designated with a higher threat level. It gives the whole mode a feeling that you have to make your own fun, choosing the right activities and holding back from anything too difficult until you’re absolutely sure you have the gear to handle it. A lot of time is spent on prep, looting and earning money by repeating easy contracts to power yourself up so you can take on the activities that are actually entertaining.
This slow pace, where it feels like you spend a lot of time not doing much and with little direction, prepping for one or two interesting things to happen later, infests the whole experience, but it does the most damage to Operation Deadbolt’s story. There’s a linear tale to uncover here, but unlike in past Zombies campaigns, it’s apparently not hidden away in puzzles and Easter eggs you need to discover on the map. Instead, it’s all deployed through uninspired, MMO-like mini-objectives. Complete enough objectives and you’ll get to play dedicated story missions, but there’s a lot of boring stuff to get through before you can even see what the story side of Operation Deadbolt is about.
The first batch of objectives are mostly tutorial-focused, sending you to do things like use a Wall Buy station or a Pack-a-Punch machine and then to kill a bunch of zombies with the guns you get from them. Progress on these story quests is slow, but it completely stalled for me when I had to track down a convoy of mercenary trucks that spawn randomly and infrequently on the map. I spent the next couple of sessions just wandering around hoping for this event to happen near me so I could move on to the next thing, doing random activities along the way to kill time. Between the lack of a clear way to advance one objective, and a bunch of other objectives that are mostly busywork, the campaign part of Zombies has been pretty listless so far.
Not all of Operation Deadbolt is slow, though. Like DMZ, there are great moments to be had here as your squad creeps through hostile territory. Running around and looting buildings only to discover too late that one houses a powerful special monster, like the tentacle-sporting Mimic, can be exciting and harrowing. Sweeping a mercenary stronghold room-by-room makes for some thrilling firefights, especially with the knowledge that zombies are likely creeping up behind you as you do. Contracts, which are Zombies-focused spins on similar activities in DMZ, can be fun as the difficulty ramps up, so long as you make the effort to vary your choices frequently to avoid too much repetition.
There seems to be a lot of different things to do on the Urzikstan map, and venturing into the higher-threat areas carries with it an exciting dread as you start to worry about how much more easily a group of undead or an unexpected patrol can overwhelm you.
But then there are the sessions where something goes wrong. I’ve played about eight matches of Operation Deadbolt on the PC version of Modern Warfare 3 so far, and suffered crashes during two of them. In the second crash, I lost all the gear I’d earned, which meant my squad had to waste most of the next session just trying to get me back up to strength to continue our quest of getting deeper into the exclusion zone in order to see Zombies’ more interesting challenges.
Other technical issues can frustrate as well, like stuttering and lag, zombies clipping through walls to reach you when you thought you were safe, or user interface elements from a buy station lingering on the screen after you’ve closed its menu. When enemies are constantly spawning around you to run up and whack you in the back, these little irritations can have annoyingly large consequences.
I’m still making my way through Modern Warfare 3’s Zombies mode, and I’m unsure of what the more difficult regions of the map might hold. So far, though, the combination of Zombies and DMZ hasn’t done either mode any favors. DMZ’s risk-and-reward calculus benefits most from the danger of other players lingering just out of sight; Zombies’ previous adventures through twisting, convoluted maps are made exciting by the pressing danger of an ever-increasing threat. Operation Deadbolt has neither of those things, and at least in its first few hours, it’s worse for the loss of both.
Expect IGN’s complete review of Modern Warfare 3’s Zombies mode next week.