Outbreak is the Call of Duty Zombies mode we need right now

Cold War Outbreak
(Image credit: Activision)

This must be 2018, because Call of Duty suddenly feels like Fortnite again. Not the battle royale mode that spawned Blackout and Warzone, but Fortnite: Save the World—the underplayed PvE mode that set four players free in a massive outdoor map to scavenge, muck about, and ultimately fend off waves of marauding undead in defence of an objective.

Call of Duty: Cold War's new Outbreak mode takes me right back to those weird months before Fortnite found its final form. It has the same big, purple sky, and what I once fondly referred to as the ‘natter phase’—an early, undirected stage of the match where close coordination simply isn’t necessary. As players casually one-shot zombies in twos or threes or trundle down dirt roads in Eastern European sedans, Outbreak occupies just enough of the brain to loosen tongues, facilitating easy conversation in ways a Zoom video chat does not.

Outbreak isn’t built to win over Save the World diehards, of course. It’s intended to woo Warzone players into paying for Cold War while it's free-to-play for a week, and it’s likely to be successful. There’s a recognisable rhythm to the way your squad moves from house to house in the Ural Mountains, listening for the telltale noise of a nearby loot crate—which no longer rattles like a malfunctioning fridge but rather giggles in the voice of a creepy child.

Parachutes even come into play, though you start every mission on the ground: Jump pads fling you high into the air where you can steer yourself closer to an objective or pick up hovering essence vials on your way down.

Treyarch has smartly recycled three of the massive maps it had already built for Cold War multiplayer. Away from the complication and mess of Fireteam: Dirty Bomb, Alpine, in particular, comes into its own, recalling Modern Warfare 2’s Bond-esque descent down a mountainside on a snowmobile. Your shambling targets are all potential roadkill, and there’s plenty of fun to be had with teammates riding shotgun or carsurfing on the roof.

And don't worry too much over balance: Damage is evened out by the fact that each rotting skull passing under your wheels takes a chunk of your vehicle’s health bar, so nobody can doughnut their way to the top of the leaderboard.

It’s a very different kind of playground than the usual Zombies level. While increasingly elaborate and enlivened by the odd wormhole, they remain classic COD maps—warrens of interconnected pathways rather than wide-open playgrounds. Outbreak, by contrast, successfully evokes Warzone’s sense of violent orienteering, asking you to regularly consult the map for the position of objectives and your teammates.

What’s missing is the constant time pressure of the diminishing circle, leaving this a much more freewheeling multiplayer experience—at least to begin with.

At which point Outbreak buttons up, tightens its tie, and becomes a genuinely cooperative game.

The map’s objective only comes into play once somebody deigns to approach and activate it, at which point Outbreak buttons up, tightens its tie, and becomes a genuinely cooperative game. You could be hunting down and defeating an elite in a fight that, frankly, won’t go very well if one of your comrades is still stunt jumping on the other side of the ski resort. Or you might all be warped to a tiny house with boarded-up windows, which you’ll defend from oncoming enemies in tribute to the humble origins of Zombies mode. Or (and this is my favourite) you’ll be escorting a brittle research rover through the map, clearing undead from its path. Occasionally the rover will be rejected from its exit portal like an undercooked prawn and spewed across the sky, leaving you scrambling to find and fortify its new location.

You don't know which objective you’re getting, which helps keep things fresh, though for how long is another question—I did notice that a rover ended its journey more than once in the same spot, so dedicated players may eventually tire of familiar battles.

The bigger problem right now is that surviving multiple rounds in Outbreak requires making smart decisions as a team, and that rarely happens in public games.

The concept is a good one: Having reached the exit you’re given a choice to either attempt exfil or warp to another map with the same team to face a harder challenge with better loot. Step back and you’ll recognise the traditional structure of a Zombies match at play, with each level a sprawling ‘wave’ and the promise of greater rewards tempting you to push your limits.

Each successive map significantly ups the difficulty and, by the third or fourth, the standard zombies you once swatted away with a rifle butt are now covered in kevlar, readily eating whole clips of LMG ammo. At this point the natter phase fades away, and teammates need to occupy the same space, physically and mentally, to avoid wipeouts.

Step back and you’ll recognise the traditional structure of a Zombies match at play

You respawn fairly quickly so long as one player still lives, but that’s not quite the mercy it seems. The Zombies resource economy has survived the transition to Outbreak and requires you to regularly upgrade your primary weapon, pick up secondaries, and glug cans of carbonated stat boosts to stay in the game. A death will strip you of some of those perks, and falling behind the curve will eventually ensure your team’s failure—if not on the current map, then the next.

Shrewd players will realise when they’re approaching that point of brutal consequence and tap out, taking all their rewards with them. The issue is that the choice isn’t only yours.

Teams vote on whether or not to tackle another map, and in the random match-ups I’ve played, my comrades have voted to press on every time—ultimately dooming us all. That’s frustrating, especially when the very first challenge in the current Outbreak event is to exfil three times. For now, the best solution is to play with people you know so that you can chat through the early game, pull together during the mid, and quit before the bitter end.

It’s ironic that while Ubisoft struggles to find a pandemic-friendly name for its new Rainbow Six spin-off, Activision has brazenly ploughed ahead with a mode called Outbreak. And even more so that, despite its name, Outbreak is ideally suited for blasting past lockdown blues to reconnect with friends. Is there any more noble purpose for a game right now than that?