Call of Duty: Ranking the Main Games

Den of Geek ranks the main Call of Duty games in celebration of the release of Call of Duty: Black Ops III.

Call of Duty: Black Ops III is proof that it’s impossible to go beyond the Call of Duty, though it is possible to go past individual nouns and Arabic numerals.

This technically makes the series uncountable. Which is believable now that its net rivals some real countries’ GDP. And if they ever connect controllers to drones, this game will have a larger standing army than the rest of the world put together. Well, sitting army.

Which is why we’re providing military intelligence by reviewing the series’ history and ranking the games from worst to best. Some might say that’s unfair. But including a weak soldier in your squad really would cause problems. And you have to expect problems if you insist on taking a Wii into a combat zone.

Note that this is a ranking of the MAIN games, which means that the handhelds and spin-offs, such as Big Red One, have been ommitted from the list. Okay, let’s get on with it:

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11. Call of Duty: Ghosts

2013 | Infinity Ward | XBO, X360, PS4, PS2, Wii U, PC

Call of Duty: Ghosts was the tenth game in the main series, and it knew it. And felt like it. Extra multiplayer modes gave people a few more excuses to shoot at each other, but it all felt like Activision knew you were going to buy Call of Duty anyway, so they might as well fill in a few blanks to make one. Ghosts is as close as Call of Duty has ever come to the Madden model of iterating the game with a few patch-level tweaks for a full-price release.People going through the same motions without any real spark of life: Ghosts was a lot of things, and one of them was “well-named.”

10. Call of Duty 3

2006 | Treyarch | X360, Xbox, PS3, PS2, Wii

Call of Duty 3 is from back in the olden days when a mere number was enough to tell the games apart. It was a harbinger of things to come as the first game with paid DLC—$10 per map pack. In fact, several maps were just remakes from earlier titles.

It was the final console-only entry in the main series, and its attempts to leave no console behind really hurt it, with the Wii’s score of 69 on Metacritic dragging an otherwise great game down the list. But since “Wii 69” may be the last joke left in that console’s name, at least it didn’t suffer in vain.

9. Call of Duty: Black Ops II

2012 | Treyarch | X360, PS3, Wii U, PC

Black Ops II is where the series boldly advanced past mere nouns and numbers into Roman numerals. At this rate, the series will soon be using hieroglyphics to tell the games apart. And have enough money to build a solid gold pyramid.

Black Ops II followed Modern Warfare into the future, though there were still plenty of historical missions. Because 80s conflicts now count as historical, and many of you now feel quite old. The game also offers multiple endings based on whether you kill people or not, an interesting angle in a game where “Kill people” has been most of the series’ primary mechanic, mission, and storyline.

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Another interesting stroy was real-life former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega suing Activision over use of his likeness. The suit was dismissed under free speech laws. Not only is Call of Duty a war franchise so big it’s being attacked by real-world dictators, it’s so badass, it’s beating them with the United States Constitution.

8. Call of Duty

2003 | Infinity Ward | X360, PS3, PC

There was once a time when Call of Duty was an entire game name. And it speaks to the power of originality that the first game still ranks so high among all its brothers. The game was incredibly popular, got an expansion pack in United Offensive, and won almost every Game of the Year award it was eligible for, but unless someone in Infinity Ward had a magic lantern, nobody could have known just how far it would go.

The original set up everything we still love best about the series: the interwoven stories and the trademark setpieces, from running and gunning to entire Soviet tank sections. The only common complaint at the time was that the game was too short. People said they wanted more Call of Duty, and one of them must have been holding that lantern because no one has ever got what they asked for so hard.

7. Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare

2014 | Sledgehammer Games | XBO, X360, PS4, PS3, PC

Advanced Warfare was an attempt to live up to its own name, to combine the freshness of the original Call of Duty with the temporal upgrade of previous masterpiece Modern Warfare. Drones and Exoframes added a true third dimension to the combat, with the y axis suddenly being used for even more fun things than aiming headshots.

The game’s marketing was best summarized as “Kevin Spacey saturation bombardment.” Overbalancing the traditional movie-you-play fell into something that felt more like a traditional Hollywood blockbuster. In that you were supposed to just take it no matter how many plot holes appeared. But they made up for this by adding Bruce Campbell for the Exo Zombies mode. Because you can improve anything by adding Bruce Campbell.

6. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3

2011 | Infinity Ward | X360, PS3, Wii, PC

The least-loved entry in the best-loved arc. Modern Warfare 3 built on the escalating fame of its sub-series, but unfortunately its name is about all it inherited in terms of design and construction. Developers Infinity Ward were helped by Sledgehammer Games and Raven Software, because by that point “developers Infinity Ward” were just a collection of words Activision had the legal right to after extraordinarily bitter legal wrangling between publisher and developer.

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Which explains why MW3 was a return to iterating instead of the innovating, which had made Modern Warfare such a hit in the first place. It was still a great game. It’s just unfortunate it was the direct sequel to two better games.

5. Call of Duty: Black Ops

2010 | X360, PS3, Wii, PC, DS

Call of Duty: Black Ops, aka “Call of Duty: Sixth Sense”, the game where dead a Russian guides you! In this Cold War battle, Treyarch finally followed Infinity Ward by tearing themselves from the muddy trenches of World War II. Though they still included World War 2||as the setting for their Zombies mode. And getting to shoot Nazi Zombies is an override code for the question, “Am I having enormous amounts of fun?”

The Nintendo DS version does drag its overall position down a little, making this the first time that taking a portable beeping gadget into the combat zone doesn’t end up helping the action hero.

4. Call of Duty: World at War

2008 | Treyarch | X360, PS3, PS2, Wii, PC, DS

The fifth game simulated some of the most evocative emotions experienced by soldiers in World War II. Unfortunately, those emotions were “Dammit, I’m still stuck in World War II.” This was Treyarch’s turn after Activision’s entry the previous year, Modern Warfare, aka “Thank the undead ghosts of Montgomery and Patton, we’re finally out of World War II.”

Don’t get us wrong, it was a perfectly polished World War II shooter. And the ting of an ejected M1 Garand clip had never been so perfectly rendered. But even that period-perfect bell before the whistle of incoming bullets couldn’t distract from how the entry felt like a temporal step backwards. A step we took for months, but still.

3. Call of Duty 2

2005 | Infinity Ward | X360, PC

It didn’t have an interesting noun after its name, but it didn’t need one, because this is the game that gave us regenerating health. If you ever want to scare young gamers, tell them you lived in the days of health packs! They’ll scream. But that might be because they’re children on multiplayer team chat, and full volume screaming and cursing seems to be their only method of communication. 

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A spin-off, Big Red One, experimented with restricting the story to a single squad of characters. It was still the most popular Xbox 360 launch title, but thankfully later games would return to the true world-expanding effects of hopping from group to group like a gun-crazy ghost.

2. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare

2007 | X360, PS3, Wii, PC

Modern Warfare is to Call of Duty as Solid is to Metal Gear: the leap elevating a fairly famous franchise into an icon of its genre. By redefining that genre. Modern Warfare told an entire genre of games composed entirely of armed lunatics who play by their own rules exactly what those rules were going to be from now on. It redefined multiplayer shooting. It tightened the mechanics like they were an actual gun it was going to bring into combat. It moved the series out of endless brown mud to active modern theatres. If it had been any better at shooting, every other game would have surrendered.

1. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2

2009 | Infinity Ward | X360, PS3, PC

Modern Warfare 2 is the high point every series dreams of: taking the best game you’ve ever made and then making it better. This was what happened when Infinity Ward got lots more support after making a blockbuster, but before it got gutted by the demands of churning out blockbusters.

It also includes the most infamous setpiece in the series’ history. “No Russian” gives you a gun which can only shoot civilians, not the terrorists, in the exact opposite of almost every other video game ever made. Polished single-player, then-unparalleled multiplayer, everything everyone was expecting and a little bit more.