Is it all over for Call of Duty campaigns? The last instalment of the wildly popular shooter launched without a traditional single-player mode, with developer Treyarch focusing on adding multiplayer-only elements like a battle royale mode. That in itself reflects a wider industry shift, as Activision looks to adapt this golden goose to current trends, as well as find ways to make more money out of its playerbase.
For those who’ve followed the series from the start, Black Ops 4‘s abandonment of singleplayer was a melancholy precedent. Call of Duty may have been, at times, simplistic bombast and spectacle over substance. But this franchise has also delivered some remarkable singleplayer moments, campaigns that burrowed beneath the shallow glorification of war to present uncomfortable, shocking, at times even harrowing experiences.
As this is the internet, there’s only one suitable way to reflect my sense of loss. I’m getting my boots on the ground to rank every single mainline Call of Duty campaign from worst to best. Spoilers, obviously. Hoo rah!
14. Black Ops 3
A horribly convoluted slog, Black Ops 3 tries to weave a tale around the contemporary topics of AI and government whistleblowing. Nice idea perhaps but it results in a complicated, obnoxious story stuffed with dull initialisms that seem designed to confuse you. The gameplay is what makes this such a stinker, though, with most missions involving little more than shooting waves of dull robots.
Best Mission: Ziplining around the Supertrees of Singapore while being chased by helicopters and gangsters in ‘Provocation’ gives a glimpse of what Black Ops 3’s campaign could’ve been.
Celebrity Rating: Treyarch pretty much hired the entire cast of Battlestar Galactica and Stargate SG-1 to voice their characters. Sadly, the writing is so godawful they could’ve hired Daniel Day-Lewis and it wouldn’t have mattered. 3/10
13. Call of Duty 3
Call of Duty 3 was Treyarch’s first mainline title, and plays like what it was: a filler title while Infinity Ward worked on Modern Warfare (which would launch the next year). That’s not entirely the game’s fault, because it landed just as most playets were suffering from WW2 shooter fatigue, but that aside the campaign is a pretty middling affair. It had its moments — the Francophobia-laden SAS missions in particular are an unexpected and funny presentation of the era — but it shows exactly why, at this time, the series needed its upcoming reinvention.
Best Mission: Defending Hill 262 in ‘The Mace’ is a dramatic, action-packed end to the Polish and Canadian campaigns that really should’ve been the game’s climax.
Celebrity Rating: This was a time before COD celebrity cameos but I can share with you that Ben Diskin, voice of two of the agents in Codename: Kids Next Door, appears here. 1/10
12. Call of Duty: World at War
Taking the franchise into darker places, World at War’s campaign was unflinchingly gory in its depictions of the American invasion of the Pacific and the USSR’s bloody push into Germany, but it lost a lot of the series’ character at the same time. What really harms it though is the pedestrian gameplay, with the Pacific levels in particular being a dull slog. The Russian side of the campaign is markedly better, but even then a lot of its missions — especially the interminable tank level — end up feeling like needless filler.
Best Mission: The final attack on the Reichstag is great, but ‘Vendetta’ is a fantastic introduction to the Russian campaign, with an unforgettable combination of sniping and stealth in Stalingrad.
Celebrity Rating: Gary Oldman does great as Victor Reznov, but Kiefer Sutherland’s part as an American sergeant sees him mostly shouting “Miller!” in a cool voice. At least it’s better than his Metal Gear Solid 5 performance [you’re fired – Ed]. 5/10
11. Call of Duty
I wouldn’t claim that the gameplay of Call of Duty holds up too well so many years later, but the game that kicked the series off is still a great example of a WW2 campaign done right. Technological restraints mean that big moments like the storming of the Reichstag can feel a little underwhelming, but the SAS campaign’s low-key, lone-wolf approach to missions creates a wonderfully tense, backs-against-the-wall feeling when you play them.
Best Mission: Sabotaging the ‘Battleship Tirpitz’ is a fun romp across a German battleship, seeing you dash through corridors shooting sailors up as you plant bombs everywhere.
Celebrity Rating: Jason Statham’s in it. Jason Statham! 10/10
10. Modern Warfare 2
Modern Warfare 2’s campaign is beautifully chaotic at times, set during a Russian invasion of America after nationalists stage an airport shooting (which the player takes part in) that’s blamed on the CIA. Fighting to take back the White House as the marines is absurd fun, while digging into a conspiracy as part of Task Force 141 is more clandestine. And the game’s thrilling climax as you hunt down rogue General Shepard is one of the best endings in the series. But this also marks a shift from Modern Warfare‘s gritty vision of contemporary warfare, towards more of a Clancy-esque storyline.
Best Mission: ‘The Hornet’s Nest’ is a desperate dash through the favelas as you jump from rooftop to rooftop with helicopters and gangsters chasing you. That sounds familiar…
Celebrity Rating: Keith David provides a wonderfully Keith David performance. Also, apparently Will Arnett’s in this, but no one knows where. 7/10
9. Call of Duty: Ghosts
Ghosts got a lot of flack when it released, thanks to the introduction of attack dog Riley and its early-game space mission, but look past the self-serious parts and you’ll find a thrilling campaign. Infinity Ward isn’t afraid to change-up the basics here, with gunfights in space mixing with stealth missions and seaborne landings, and the action set-pieces really come into their own as the campaign progresses. It gets ridiculous at times — at one point the dog takes down a helicopter — but it’s still great fun.
Best Mission: ‘Legends Never Die’ sets up the game’s villain, Rorke, very well. It’s also got a great set-piece, the city of Caracas flooding after the military destroys a dam overlooking it.
Celebrity Rating: Not much on offer here, although former Superman Brandon Routh is on the cast. How the mighty have fallen. 3/10
8. Advanced Warfare
Some derided Advanced Warfare as a step away from the grounded sci-fi of the series, but you have to give it to Sledgehammer Games: depicting a world slowly turning against Kevin Spacey turned out to be a lot more prescient than anyone imagined. Advanced Warfare’s introduction of the exosuit makes for a thrilling twist on the shooter gameplay too, as you bound around the open environments taking down terrorists. This even manages to squeeze in some pretty good commentary on private military companies too.
Best Mission: ‘Traffic’ is a fantastic journey of a mission, as you go from a tense hostage rescue to a town square shootout to a frantic car chase in Lagos, Nigeria.
Celebrity Rating: Erm… 0/10
7. Modern Warfare 3
A thrilling conclusion to the Modern Warfare trilogy, MW3 is a globe-trotting adventure where Task Force 141 tries to take down series villain Makarov while Delta Force defends America from Russian attack. It’s chaotic in a great way and, while the climax is a little underwhelming, the campaign as a whole is the closer this trilogy deserved.
Best Mission: ‘Blood Brothers’ has it all in terms of gameplay, but the reveal of how Makarov pulled the strings behind so many events is genuinely shocking. Props too for the brilliant idea of a gunfight set on a rapidly descending and out-of-control plane, where every participant is being tossed around the interior like a ragdoll.
Celebrity Rating: Idris Elba and Prison Break’s William Fichtner both play Delta Force members, although neither are very recognisable in the roles. 4/10
6. Call of Duty: WWII
Despite going back to a safer historical setting, WWII also marked-out new directions for the series. The emphasis on squad-based play and some great writing makes WWII’s campaign feel a lot more Brothers in Arms than Call of Duty, but it works well. The characters — especially the protagonist, Red Daniels — are fleshed out and likeable, the relationships between them are complicated, and the campaign marries great basic gunplay with some awesome spectacle.
Best Mission: ‘Liberation’ has got to be one of the best missions in the series. You start off as an undercover spy, memorising your details and sabotaging a Nazi base, before switching to Daniels and leading an assault.
Celebrity Rating: Pretty poor – the only person of note is Brad Pitt doppelgänger Josh Duhamel, who was in four Transformers films. 2/10
5. Call of Duty: Black Ops 2
Making a huge leap into the unknown compared to the campaigns that had preceded it, Black Ops 2 is non-linear and has multiple endings. This could have been a complete disaster but picking your own way through events makes for a compelling and replayable experience that, thanks to the addition of the RTS-like Strikeforce missions, also has real variety. The scenery-chewing Raul Menendez is also a fantastic villain, and the constant switching between the 1980s and 2020s works brilliantly.
Best Mission: Defending a Mujahideen base on horseback in Afghanistan in ‘Old Wounds’ is amazing – chasing after a Soviet tank with an RPG and a donkey is every bit as fun as it sounds.
Celebrity Rating: Sam Worthington and Gary Oldman return from the first game, joined by the one and only Batman, Michael Keaton. But arguably the best cameo goes to Avenged Sevenfold, who play a concert at the end of the game with Menendez and Frank Woods. 10/10
4. Call of Duty 2
Spanning the campaigns in the USSR, North Africa, and Normandy, what Call of Duty 2 does better than perhaps any other game in the series is capture something of the spirit of the times. The Soviet missions are heavy with fighting, constantly filled with screaming soldiers and angry commissars, while the British forces in North Africa are constantly bantering — there’s a frantic jeep escape that feels like a Blackadder sketch. If there’s one thing this campaign has, it’s personality, and that counts for a lot.
Best Mission: ‘The Battle for Hill 400’ captures the desperation of the last-ditch defence of Bergstein perfectly.
Celebrity Rating: Nothing to see here, I couldn’t even dig up a decent B-lister. 0/10
3. Black Ops
Black Ops went into some pretty left-field territory — the first mission sees you sent out on the CIA’s onetime favourite mission, trying to kill Fidel Castro — but because of this its campaign is one of the series’ most interesting, full of twists and turns. The Vietnam missions in particular are dizzyingly chaotic, especially the defence of Khe Sanh military base, but it’s the morally grey, conspiracy-laden deep state story that makes Black Ops linger in the mind.
Best Mission: Breaking out of a labour camp in ‘Vorkuta’ is one of the series’ best missions thanks to the crazy atmosphere it builds.
Celebrity Rating: As well as the aforementioned Sam Worthington and Gary Oldman, Ice Cube is here, as well as a fantastic JFK impersonator. 8/10
2. Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare
Infinite Warfare’s embrace of far-future space combat breathed new life into the series’ campaigns, especially with the addition of space fighter missions. Taking Black Ops 2’s non-linear approach and stretching it across the solar system, Infinity Ward’s space romp has a great character-driven narrative and a refreshingly varied level design.
Best Mission: ‘Operation Blood Storm’ ends the campaign in a very satisfying way, resolving various character arcs and, of course, killing off a slew of them.
Celebrity Rating: Kit Harington is very boring as Admiral Salen Kotch, and bizarrely enough Conor McGregor and Lewis Hamilton turn up for cameos. 7/10
1. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare
I hate to be predictable: but of course it’s the best. A masterpiece of shooter design and storytelling, Modern Warfare was the series’ biggest leap to date. Its presentation of modern military hardware is cold and unblinkered, with the AC-130 gunship mission emblematic of how it found authentic ways to show the horror of contemporary capabilities. It begins with you in control of a former leader being led to his own execution and never lets up the pace: whether that’s shooting sleeping sailors in their bunks, a nuke detonating, or the unforgettable sniper mission in Chernobyl. It also introduced Captain Price and his brilliantly-written special forces squad, hard-bitten and cynical operators that do whatever needs doing rather than gung-ho heroes.
Best Mission: Very hard to choose, but ‘All Ghillied Up’ is a perfect example of how a mission can ratchet up the atmosphere and build itself entirely around the player firing one single shot.
Celebrity Rating: No one especially notable but, when the story is this good, who cares? 5/10
This post originally appeared on Kotaku UK, bringing you original reporting, game culture and humour from the British isles.