How Call of Duty: Black Ops 4’s Zombies mode is social, deep, and customizable

If Call of Duty‘s new battle royale mode is accessible, then the Zombies experience is hardcore. You have to love dying over and over to get good at Zombies, as I learned in some play sessions at an Activision event. And this time around, Activision’s Treyarch studio went all out in making a new Zombies experience for Call of Duty: Black Ops 4, which debuts today.

Treyarch has done what it could to invite first-time Zombies players into the fold. It has three story experiences — IX, Voyage of Despair, and Blood of the Dead — and IX is geared to beginners. IX takes place in ancient Rome, Blood of the Dead revisits the Alcatraz prison, and Voyage of Despair takes place on the Titanic. A tutorial and a single-player mode allow you to play with bots.

But Treyarch has also peppered the Zombies levels with new kinds of weapons and Easter Eggs that appeal to the core Zombies fan. And it has lifted the previous cap of 255 on rounds. Now you can play as many as 1,024 rounds altogether. In Voyage of the Damned, plenty of narrow spaces make it exceedingly difficult for all of your co-op players to stay alive.

I talked to Jason Blundell, director of Zombies and executive producer at Treyarch, about the effort that went into tripling down on Zombies. He noted the script for all of the Zombies stories, when printed on paper, stands far higher than previous scripts for single-player campaigns.

Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.

Above: Jason Blundell is director of Zombies and executive producer on Call of Duty: Black Ops 4.

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi

GamesBeat: What was your position on Zombies this time out?

Jason Blundell: I’m director of Zombies, and for my sins I’m executive producer as well.

GamesBeat: Is it three years you’ve been working on this?

Blundell: I’ve worked at Treyarch for 15 years, and this is a three-year project.

GamesBeat: How would you say you approached this Zombies at the outset?

Blundell: This time, it really stemmed from the mentality of the whole project, which is one of the most socially connected, most customizable and deep games — now, it sounds like a tagline, but that’s the place we started from. All the decisions around all the aspects of the game were guided by that goal.

Taking Zombies as an example, when I say it’s the most social, obviously the number of maps, the number of stories, the amount of emergent behavior that can come from those different scenarios. When I say the most personalized, the idea that you can customize your character, choose your loadouts and equipment. Even meta-systems, which we’re going to be rolling in regardless of whether you have Black Ops Pass or not — we’re changing our mentality of how we’re approaching it to give you more ability to unlock skins and calling cards and all this other fun stuff. And then the most customizable, we have custom mutations. We have bots. All these things come together to give us the experience for Black Ops IV.

GamesBeat: With the three experiences in one, where did that come from?

Blundell: You can look at it from a lot of different angles. I like to look at it from an adrenaline point of view. You have multiplayer, which is just snap snap snap, a very fast tempo. Then you have Zombies, which is more of a medium tempo that spikes at key points. And then you have Blackout, which is a slower initial bit, and then the intensity ramps up as the circle comes closer and the conflict is pushed on you.

Based on what mood you’re in, what tempo you’re after, what kind of action gameplay, there’s a mode for you, but all the modes are geared around social interaction. They’re about being there with your friends and the stories you can tell based on the things that we’re putting in the tool box. The same story will not be told twice. It’ll be more like, “Today I did this in Zombies. I did this in Blackout. I just had this game in multiplayer.” That’s how we approached it.

GamesBeat: The variety between the three different Zombies experiences, what is each one supposed to convey? It seemed like you guys had a pretty good idea that IX was more accessible or approachable, so we should start there and then end up with Voyage.

Blundell: Each one has a different set of properties that appeal to different people. The Zombies community is actually quite complex in terms of the different groups who identify and say, “This is what we do.” For instance, there’s the high round community. Their goal, quite simply, is to get as high a round as possible on a map and say, “This is what I did.” Even those guys actually subdivide into, “Did you do it with perks?” and so forth.

Then you have a narrative group. Their whole goal is to put together the story and understand all the complexities of the story. We’ve gone deeper with that than ever before in terms of visual clues, audio cues, dialogue lines, physical things. And then you have the Easter egg guys. Their goal is about main quests and sub-quests and sub-sub-quests and hidden things. I’m just scanning over it, but each of those groups goes down into different levels of granularity about what they go for.

Each map has different combinations of things that help these different groups or hinder them in their goals. Like you said, IX, that’s a good one to start with. The reason I say that is because, spatially, it allows you to do more. It has some larger open spaces. It warms you up quite nicely. Blood of the Dead is the next one. Difficulty-wise, spatially, it’s somewhere in the middle. Then you have Voyage, very tight corridors, very tight spaces. It gets tricky very quickly. And then you have Classified, which is a combination of Blood and Voyage, with some tight spaces and open spaces.

That’s just the spatial component, but I could go through each one of those maps and break it down. I could point out the story aspect, what you can get the most out of based on what you’re interested in. Each one, we do a sort of matrix and talk about what goals we have.

Above: The Zombies cast

Image Credit: Activision

GamesBeat: How many rounds are we talking about across each one? We definitely didn’t hit the max. I think we made it 13 or so.

Blundell: To give you an idea, in the past we had a hard cap limit at 255. We’ve removed that limit now. The maximum round limit you can hit in Black Ops IV is 1024. We also introduced difficulty levels now. There’s the easy difficulty, all the way up to realistic. Our hardcore group, who play it every single day and have been playing for the last 10 years, on a normal day they hit round 100 without breaking a sweat. When we set it to realistic, the maximum they normally get to is 12.

We’ve made the hard even harder, if you want to go up there, but then we put easy in. If someone’s a beginner, a newcomer, they can put bots in. They can set it to easy. They can have a more fluid experience, get into the mode and find their feet.

GamesBeat: I had a hard time on normal. I can’t imagine what realistic is like.

Blundell: Realistic is one point of damage. Normally you have 150 health. In realistic, if you take one point of damage you’re dead. If a grenade goes off over there and you get a bit of splash damage, you’re dead. That’s the craziness there. And people will do it.

The other thing, I don’t know if you noticed, but in the after-action report, at the top right-hand corner is a phrase you saw. It would say something like, “Fluffy red apples are in the tree.” If you take that pass phrase and your gamertag and you go to callofduty.com/BOAS, Black Ops Authenticity Stamp, and type that in, it will give you a detailed report on everything you did in your match. You can exchange that code with your friends for bragging rights, comparing high scores.

You can do something like a first room challenge. “I never opened any doors, and this is the round I got to.” These are the kinds of the things the community do. Now you have this stamp that proves you did what you said you did, instead of handing around eight-hour video files.

GamesBeat: Do you have some tips based on what you see from people who max out around 10-15 rounds?

Blundell: If you’re a guy who’s new to it, or if you’ve played it before and you want to get a bit further, I would say first of all, start with the tutorial. We have a tutorial for the first time that steps you through the new mechanics. Once you pass that, start with the IX map. Put a bot or two on with you. You can have up to three if you’re playing solo. But load a bot or two to help you and set it to easy. That’s a good way to start and get used to the mechanics of the level, get used to the map.

Bearing in mind, now, all of the Easter eggs are switched off on easy difficulty, and they’re also switched off with custom mutations. But what that will allow you to do is get familiar with the mode, understand the enemy AI types, learn where the weapons are, get used to using your perks, get used to using your elixirs and talismans. It’ll just get you familiar. That’s a good place to start.

Above: The zombie tigers come out in IX.

Image Credit: Activision

GamesBeat: Forgetting about those elixirs is probably a common problem.

Blundell: Certain people in the community — this is how we design it, by the way. The elixirs are not required to do any part of it. They’re all nice to have. If you’re a terrible player like me they’re a necessity. But everything is designed so that you don’t have to use them. Obviously by playing the game you’re making that chemical, nabulium plasma. We like to use tricky words to tongue-tie people. That’s what you take to the laboratory to keep getting your elixirs and talismans.

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