With the release of WW2, the Call of Duty franchise numbers 39, if you include the myriad of spin-offs over the years. So let’s rank them all – or at least the ones that count.
The one caveat with all of this is that, because it’s a bit too early, COD: WW2 isn’t included on this list. But once we’ve had more time post-launch to see how the game shakes out, we’ll slot it in.
21: Call of Duty (N-GAGE)
If we’re being honest, it’s a miracle that this game ran at all.
Just look at that frame rate.
20/19/18: Call of Duty: World at War/Black Ops/Modern Warfare: Mobilized (Nintendo DS)
The idea of Call of Duty being on the Nintendo DS is amazing. But Call of Duty is all about the production values, the visuals, the big set pieces.
You don’t really get that on the Nintendo DS. What you did get, like aiming with the stylus, blocky graphics, and a really sub-par Call of Duty experience. And for simplicity, I’m lumping the Black Ops, COD4 and World at War DS ports together.
Nice that it exists, though.
17: Call of Duty: Black Ops Declassified (Vita)
Call of Duty was coming to the PS Vita! That was huge news, a big coup for Sony. And then people actually got to play Declassified, a broken, unoptimised mess with awful, awful touch controls.
Sony pointed to, among others Call of Duty as evidence that the Vita was console-level gaming on a handheld. Declassified proved it was not.
16: Call of Duty: Roads to Victory (PSP)
Unsurprisingly, next on the list is another handheld game. Roads to Victory came out in 2007, and was effectively the PlayStation Portable version of Call of Duty 3. Developed by Amaze Entertainment – a US studio that mostly worked on spin-off games for Spore, The Sims and Crash Bandicoot – Roads to Victory ended up mirroring what was, at the time, the worst Call of Duty release.
Without a second analog stick, Roads to Victory relied on the four face buttons for aiming. That paired with the right shoulder button, which acted as your trigger finger.
The one saving grace is that you can run Roads to Victory through the PPSSPP emulator these days, making it infinitely more playable and even semi-enjoyable. Technically you could say the same for Black Ops Declassified, but at least with Roads to Victory you’re getting actual, COD-like missions. That’s miles better than Declassified‘s timed rubbish.
15: Call of Duty: Finest Hour (PS2, Xbox, Gamecube)
A spin-off of the first Call of Duty for consoles (the original was a PC/Mac only affair initially). Finest Hour followed the original COD games by having players controlling different soldiers, re-enacting missions in different theatres of World War 2.
It was an expansion of sorts to the main story, and for the most part was fine. But the game has some awful audio desync issues, which I remember really ruining the experience. Definitely not Call of Duty‘s finest hour. It did have multiplayer on the PS2 and Xbox, though.
14: Call of Duty 2: Big Red One (Xbox, Gamecube, PS2)
Welcome back to D-Day. Big Red One was Treyarch’s spin-off of Call of Duty 2 – although they weren’t called Treyarch at the time – for consoles.
Big Red One had multiplayer, although the singleplayer did the odd thing of only focusing on an American infantry division. COD‘s main attribute was that you got different perspectives from different forces in the war, so having that taken away was a bit of a bummer.
13: Call of Duty: Ghosts
Previously, Call of Duty 3 was considered the “worst” of the main COD games. That changed with the release of Ghosts, which fell apart on multiple fronts. There were staggering performance issues on PC out of the gate, and the game overall suffered a complete lack of inspiration.
The only thing Ghosts seemed to nail was the introduction of Riley, the adorable dog.
Some of the new modes were great, but off the back of the weird things Treyarch were trying with the Black Ops games, it was a dull affair. Ghosts still sold well, but Activision blamed the transition to the PS4/XBO era as a reason for lower sales.
Lower still being in the tens of millions, mind you.
12: Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare
I really liked Advanced Warfare‘s story when it came out: it was strangely coherent, Spacey’s performance kinda worked (if a bit off in places), and the focus on wallrunning/jetpacks/more vertical gameplay worked quite well in a campaign setting.
Getting that to work in multiplayer … complicates things. Exosuits basically turned COD into an arena shooter, rather than a fast-paced tactical shooter, and hey! That’s OK.
Designing maps around that is a tricky matter, though. And when everyone is running around with multiple scorestreaks, flying around like it’s Unreal Tournament, gameplay can be a bit of a mess. And the weapon balance was a mess too, which was a disappointment for the competitive scene.
11: Call of Duty 3
The worst of the original Call of Duty games, and the first main COD title from Treyarch. COD3 was mechanically fine, although your mileage really varied depending on what platform you played on. PS3 users, for instance, had to deal with some really shoddy frame rate.
Outside of that, the game’s biggest weakness – intriguingly for Treyarch – was a lack of ambition. The campaign and multiplayer did little to advance on what had been introduced in COD and COD 2, resulting in a playable, but bland experience.
You know how they say it’s better to be bad than boring? That was COD3‘s problem: it was utterly, and completely, forgettable.
10: Call of Duty: Black Ops 3
Treyarch had started to find their wings as a lead developer for the COD series, but Black Ops 3 was a reminder that sometimes ambition outstrips ability. If you were to value a game on the sheer amount of stuff, irrespective of quality, then Black Ops 3 could be considered a masterpiece.
But Black Ops 3 was more of a one step forward, two steps back affair. After all the weird and crazy things Treyarch did with the campaign in the previous Black Ops games, BO3 was a linear, uninspired affair. It leaned too heavily on a fear of technology; it was also super serious, which never made sense for Call of Duty once it left World War 2.
The multiplayer was a series of tweaks to the formula introduced by Advanced Warfare, and the weapon balance was a lot better too. But your mileage with the game depends on what matters most: if you just come for the campaign, BO3 is one of the weaker games in the series. That said, COD has really been a multiplayer-first game since COD4.
9: Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare
Infinite Warfare really was a tale of two halves. While the game’s competitive scene continued to grow, and on the surface Treyarch updated some of the concepts introduced in Advanced Warfare, the multiplayer ended up being one of the worst in the series.
Infinite Warfare further enshrined the series’ penchant for loot boxes, revolving around an unbalanced pay-to-win model through mods that offered better stats without any tradeoff. That wasn’t helped by the fact that, for most people, buying Infinite Warfare got them the supremely better Modern Warfare Remastered, which wasn’t affected by 9/10ths of the nonsense in Infinite Warfare.
The campaign in IW, however, was surprisingly good. A sci-fi underdog tale at its heart, Infinite Warfare offered plenty of variety by mixing it up between zero gravity environments and space combat. The space flying, in particular, was a huge break from the usual fare you’d get from a COD campaign, and for many it was a solid reason to get back into the series again.
It’s just a shame the multiplayer didn’t live up to the same standard.
8: Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3
The third game in a trilogy is always in a tricky spot. You can’t innovate too much, because you’re dealing with the legacy of two of the most successful games of its generation. But you have to change things up somehow – while still offering the bits and pieces that came before.
The kindest thing I can say about MW3 is that it was functional. It didn’t break ground in the way that MW1 or MW2 did. The story wasn’t as controversial. The campaign in general wasn’t as interesting, or coherent. And the multiplayer was a fraction of a step back, if only for the lack of true innovations introduced.
Something MW3 did introduce was the excellent Kill Confirmed mode, which has become a staple of shooters since (see Destiny‘s Supremacy). But the campaign was comfortably the worst of the three Modern Warfare games, and the maps were the least memorable. Spec Ops did get an upgrade, which was nice, and the balance of some of the killstreaks was improved. But for a game with so much money behind it, and such high production values, you have to take a few steps forward to avoid going backwards.
7: Call of Duty: World at War
World at War was another chance for Treyarch to play second fiddle to Infinity Ward, but unlike COD 3 World at War turned out a lot better.
WaW introduced a more serious tone to Call of Duty, starting with that opening POW scene. The multiplayer was competent across the board too, but a lack of truly memorable maps (unlike the original Modern Warfare‘s mix of Backlot, Strike and Crash) or singleplayer missions held it back.
Where WaW did stand out was for its introduction of Nazi Zombies, a game mode that has since become one of the three main pillars for the franchise ever since. The mode helped Treyarch find their voice as a COD developer, and gave them the confidence to do what they do best: take risks, something COD could always use more of.
6: Call of Duty: Black Ops
Speaking of risks, let’s talk about the Black Ops menu. Rather than just being a traditional screen, you go from the initial splash to a torture room, tied up in a chair with a modulated voice demanding you reveal who you’re working for.
Not only was it completely foreign territory for a COD game, it was a breath of fresh air for blockbusters in general. Once you got out of your constraints, Black Ops was a solid entry into the franchise. It carried on from the Modern Warfare multiplayer games with a strong mix of weapons and some top maps, including the frantic Nuketown.
The campaign itself was a little more inconsistent, with Sam Worthington failing to maintain a consistent accent throughout. All in all it was a great romp, perhaps suffering only for the fact that Treyarch took more risks with the opening menu than the gameplay itself.
None of the above, incidentally, is referring to the Wii version. Let’s pretend that one doesn’t exist, OK?
5: Call of Duty 1
You can’t hold some reverence for the series without appreciating where it all began, of course. And COD 1 even to this day remains a strong, albeit much slower paced, ’00s military shooter. The singleplayer campaign could be surprisingly brutal – allies dying left and right, with no special armour or fancy revives to save them.
It was more of a tale about war, than a superhero tale. You weren’t literally saving the planet: you weren’t saving your allies every step of the way. But it was also made during a time when military shooters were more concerned with reliving historical periods than power fantasies. (In some sense military shooters have always been power fantasies, but that’s a chat for another day.)
COD 1 worked so well thanks to a solid balance of guns; a campaign that spanned the British, Soviet and American theatres; and the introduction of a “kill cam”, which has become a standard of sorts in shooters ever since. It wouldn’t have as much impact on the gaming industry as another title in the franchise, but it laid a strong foundation for the several games that followed.
4: Call of Duty: Black Ops 2
Treyarch really started to hit their stride with Black Ops 2, and there was no place they loved showing it off more than the campaign. The first game in the series to introduce non-linear elements and story choices that could impact some of the outcomes in the plot, Black Ops 2 offered a more consistent, stronger storyline than Black Ops 1.
After all, how often do you get to fire rockets while on horseback?
But Black Ops 2 stands out for the changes it made in multiplayer. For one, it abandoned killstreaks for score streaks, which encouraged players to play objectives more. League Play also revamped the competitive COD scene immensely. And then there was the introduction of Pick 10, a perk-based system that allowed for more customisation based on the items you liked, rather than having items purely gated behind XP and level progression.
It made for a game that had a fundamentally longer tail than most Call of Duty games. There’s still people playing Black Ops 2 today, although on PC at least Black Ops 3 has a larger fan base.
3: Call Of Duty 4: Modern Warfare 2
Ahh, the worst boycott in gaming history. Modern Warfare 2 stood out for many reasons, but the failure of all those petitions, Steam groups and angry comments, will take a long time to forget.
Another monumental change that Modern Warfare 2 made was the transition to peer-to-peer servers. It was the turning point for the COD franchise from being a PC-centric shooter to one that would focus almost exclusively on consoles. The eventual sales were a case in point: according to Robert Bowling (who left to join Respawn*), only 3% of MW2 sales in the UK were for the PC.
MW2 was also a much faster shooter, setting the pace for the franchise in the post-Modern Warfare world. While the campaign lacked any of the iconic missions from the previous game (no crawling around in a ghillie suit), the multiplayer was astoundingly successful and the co-op Spec Ops mode was a huge plus for playing with friends.
2: Call of Duty 2
You can really draw a ton of comparisons between Call of Duty 2‘s recreation of D-Day and the rendition in COD WW2. Infinity Ward really did love their beach landing missions.
That aside, most of why Call of Duty was such a great shooter initially stemmed from COD 2. The campaign was one of the best for WW2 shooters of the era, and the multiplayer was balanced and robust enough that a strong competitive community formed around the game both in Australia and abroad.
There’s still people to this day that swear COD 2 is the best game in the franchise, which I can completely understand. If you go to any LAN parties locally, you’ve got a good chance of running into a COD 2 multiplayer server (potentially shotguns only). And it still plays really well, even in 2017.
COD 2 wasn’t groundbreaking because it changed the industry around it, or for its effects on other military shooters. It was just astoundingly solid on every level, from the sound, to the multiplayer, campaign, the maps (Carentan was remade for COD WW2, for instance) and the balance between the weapons.
The only thing the game doesn’t have today that feels like an omission is a sprint key, really.
1: Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare
People are still playing some form of COD 4 today, whether it’s a modded zombies server or just roaming around enjoying hardcore team deathmatch. And it’s the level of reverence with which people hold Infinity Ward’s most famous creation that Activision opted to bundle a remaster with Infinite Warfare.
Hell, for many people, that was Infinite Warfare‘s main selling point: you got to be the ghillies in the mist once again.
I could go on and on about what made COD 4 work, but it’s greatest triumph was undoubtedly the XP system. In an industry that was struggling to adapt to the massive success of World of Warcraft, COD 4 laid the foundations for progression systems in virtually every game that came afterwards.
It became the franchise of a generation. It taught blockbuster developers more about singleplayer set pieces. Elements of COD have been retooled and worked into nearly every shooter since. It became a benchmark for everything else, and a bedrock pillar for Activision.
Few games define a company; fewer define a genre as well. COD 4 did both.
Update: Modern Warfare 3 slotted in, just behind World at War. Also corrected an earlier error where Robert Bowling was stated as a founder of Respawn Entertainment; Respawn was founded by Vince Zampella. Apologies.