When I had enough of Call of Duty: Black Ops II's campaign, I decided to spend some time with its more fantastical mode, Zombies. These are my thoughts.
There are three game types: the story-based "Tranzit", the classic "Survival", and, less excitingly, the maliciously spirited "Grief". All overtly have the same premise: using teamwork, survive/kill the zombies. You get points for shooting the zombies or building barricades, which you can use to buy weapons, upgrades or vending-machine powerups depending on the mode.
The overall aesthetic makes you think Fallout — it's very '50s, but combined with some futuristic elements, if not fantastical ones. You can't help but wonder what happened — how did this world, which has rayguns, assault rifles, magical teddy bears and is bursting with lava get infested by zombies? What in the heck? Enter Tranzit, which apparently has some sort of explanation for what's going on.
I word it this way because boy, is almost everything but the "shoot zombies" part of Tranzit inscrutable. You start off on a small bus depot as one of the five available characters. The reason it's a small map, I'm guessing, is because it's one of many — from the depot you can take a bus to other locations.
You can stay in any one place for as long as you're able to keep shooting the zombies down. But the promise of learning more, if not enjoying a change of scenery, will likely entice you to hop aboard the bus. The single prompt that the game gives you (at first) is "turn the power on" - so you figure that you should go find out how to do that.
About that "what happened?!" investigation: as of this writing, after spending a few hours with Tranzit, I have no idea what's going on. In fact, were it not for the video that was posted on Kotaku earlier this week that explains what you're supposed to do, I doubt I'd be able to figure much of anything out on my own!
Get this: every map has a number of objects in them, which you're supposed to find and craft into other items. The game gives you no indication that this is the case. Unless you're standing directly in front of the item, there's nothing to signal you might be able to interact with it.
This is a typical scenario: you get to a new location, and you try to hover over every single object on the map — because hey, what if you can pick it up? It reminds me of adventure games, where you're trying to find that one pixel where you can click, and then on top of that you have to figure out what random combination you have to put these items in to get a new one.
And when you figure that out, you still have to figure out what to DO with these items. How the heck was I supposed to know that that mannequin-turbine contraption is supposed to be put in front of doors so they can be opened? There's nothing gratifying about stumbling on the answer — I never felt like I "figured something out."
Once you memorize what's where and what combines with what, going through the maps relies on rote memorization — which can be confusing for anyone that's not in on how things work. I know I've felt like a lost puppy while following players who seemed to know about items that I didn't know about or what their usage was.
I imagine that other players felt the same as I rush through maps that I do know some things about. Its in the exchanges with other players that you realise just how little sense any of Tranzit makes, and that you either need a FAQ, a zombie-sherpa or dumb luck to get through it.
Apparently there's a Wiki that explains the story that Tranzit is supposed to. I honestly can't be bothered, and I'm typically a fan of subtle games. This isn't subtle, it's just obtuse. Don't take this to mean the mode can't be fun; the shooting part is still enjoyable and if you want to just hang out and take care of the undead, you totally can. But if the purpose of Tranzit is to communicate a story, then it fails.
This is a shame, because everything about the aesthetic tells me there might be something interesting here; I'm genuinely curious about what happened! It almost seems like Tranzit wanted to channel Left 4 Dead a little, what with the story, subtle storytelling and the unique characters — which remind me a little of the characters from L4D. But the story is hardlyCall of Duty's strong suit, and at best, the characters in Zombies are tired archetypes like "nerd." The nerd says really annoying things in a nasally voice. He is one of the better characters.
Ultimately if you just want to shoot some zombies, why not play the classic survival mode instead? Just your standard survive-as-long-as-possible, buy-upgrades-if-you-want-them and try-to-rack-up-as-many-points-as-possible game type. Nothing fancy, but serviceable.
Survival starts looking particularly attractive when compared to Grief. I have nothing good to say about this mode. It sounds like it might be a good idea, but the implementation is lackluster. Unlike the other game types, this one pits you against another team — 4 vs 4. The name of the game type gives it away: you're supposed to grief other players. You can't do this in a directly, not exactly — like you can't shoot a non-zombie enemy down. But you can block their way, or you can smack them while they're trying to revive a teammate — to name a few tactics. You're supposed to outlive the enemy team this way.
The problem is that there is no way to coordinate anything, not as far as I can tell. Every time I've played, it's been a test of endurance — in the bad way. How long can you wait around until the enemy messes up and you have a chance of maaaaybe making something happen? Matches can last forever, and unless the other team is utterly incompetent, it's not difficult to revive someone and make sure your team keeps on trucking. But at that point, if the other team is that awful, there's no real joy in beating them. The times that I lost it was because I gave up.
I found myself either yawning out of boredom while playing Grief, or wishing that the game would end — because I didn't want to be a jerk and just leave. Also a shame: multiplayer modes that have you griefing other players, like in New Super Mario Bros, can be a delight. Making other people mad in a playful context is fun! Alas.
In theory Zombies is a great addition to the Black Ops II package, but everything outside of "Survival" isn't really worth your time.