Out of all the non-Nintendo franchises to exist, Call of Duty stakes a claim as one of the greatest dynasties in gaming. The franchise has been going rather strong since its debut in 2003, beginning with a few single player titles that were big hits on the market before crossing over into the multiplayer sector a handful of years later, and never looking back. In all, at the time of writing, eighteen Call of Duty games have been released.
That said, which of these games have left the most relative impact on the franchise’s history? Today we will just about cut the selection in half and present a top ten list. This will predictably only include main series releases; though fan made games and mods are usually quite fun, this list will not consider them. It will go in order of worst to best, starting from #10
Call of Duty Ghosts was a leap of faith — per Activision, they projected the game to set franchise records for both peak player base and revenue generated. Sadly, it accomplished neither of these things, but it was still a solid game.
Extinction was the main innovation Ghosts offered. Following a few games which saw the Zombies mode really turn into a household name, this was Activision’s attempt to recreate the magic with a new theme. Extinction wasn’t really on par with Zombies, but it was good fun as a standalone mode. It struck a nice balance between being accessible to the casual player while not being so easy that the more dedicated, serious ones would get bored. Action was more fast-paced than Zombies and the player constantly had fun objectives in front of them until the game was over.
The campaign had a solid story. However, it left off on a big cliffhanger that, to this day, has yet to be continued off of as Ghosts hasn’t had a sequel yet.
9. Black Ops 4
This selection may be a bit controversial. In truth, Black Ops 4 isn’t a bad game years after it launched. However, it suffers as a result of having had the single worst Day 1 launch in franchise history, and is infamous in general because of it.
Black Ops 4 is ultimately viewed as Treyarch biting off way more than they could chew and getting too ambitious, while also not being given enough time due to being rushed into releasing the game by Activision. The Zombies mode had a whopping four maps immediately available at launch. That’s good and fine, but the actual quality was mired by awful glitches and bugs. It was so bad that the main quest or, Easter Egg of the map Classified was literally impossible to achieve for a few weeks because it would crash the game.
This awful launch experience, combined with poor marketing, drove many players away and the genuinely good qualities Black Ops 4 brought to the table were sadly swept under the rug for the majority of the player base. In truth, most Zombies maps in Black Ops 4 were solid experiences. Ancient Evil, Dead of the Night, the aforementioned Classified, IX and even the widely loathed Blood of the Dead all offered fun, challenging experiences that could be enjoyed by mostly anyone.
The main innovation Black Ops 4 brought to the table was the Blackout mode. This was Call of Duty’s first taste of Battle Royale action, and though it was rough around the edges in some aspects, it was a fun time mode definitely added a lot of positives to the game as a whole.
The game’s defining drawback, apart from the launch day malady, is the total lack of a campaign mode. This was directly due to the extreme time crunch Treyarch was clearly under, as they essentially had to cut the mode in order to try and finish Zombies and Blackout for launch day. Their endeavors ultimately weren’t successful, so we lost out on a campaign mode with little to show for it.
Were it not for the horrendous launch day experience, Black Ops 4 would likely have ended up higher on this list.
8. Modern Warfare 2
An all-time classic, this is the game where boys and girls turned their mics on, headed into chat lobbies, and became men and women. Jokes aside, Modern Warfare 2 was a touch on the barebones side, but it still serves as an important game in franchise history. It was here that balance patches began seeing use in the middle of a Call of Duty game’s lifecycle for the first time. Upon release, numerous weapons such as the Model 1887 were overpowered to the max, necessitating Activision’s attention with one of the aforementioned balance patches to tone it down.
Beyond that, the multiplayer experience was far more refined here than prior releases. Multiple exciting game modes such as Search & Destroy and Domination were refined and mastered here, setting the blueprint for years to come. Leveling weapons up and prestiging one’s personal level were also streamlined and, again, set as a general process for future games to follow.
The game’s campaign mode was nothing short of masterful, playing off as a sequel to the first Modern Warfare. It brought the great villain Makarov back into the limelight and developed a generally-compelling storyline with fun gameplay.
7. Cold War
Cold War was the fifth Black Ops game to be released. It brought forth a number of innovations that Modern Warfare 2019 introduced, such as a battle pass, free DLC as well as adding its arsenal of weapons and operators to the Warzone spinoff game.
There really isn’t anything too negative to be said about Cold War. The campaign experience was arguably the best in franchise history, with a thrilling interactive narrative, fun characters, good gameplay and multiple different endings that could change the overall experience considerably. The Zombies mode was more casual than previous titles this time around, but was also well-designed and good for when the player was in the mood for some mindless fun. Finally, multiplayer was well-designed with fun game mode, the expected return of Nuketown, as well as introducing enormous game modes where as many as 50 players at a time could take part in the same game, causing chaos around every corner.
Cold War’s main innovation was its Outbreak mode. This was the franchise’s first attempt at an open world Zombies experience. Overall, it was a bit one dimensional but was otherwise decent fun. The mode also gave rise to arguably the hardest Zombies boss fight in franchise history, making it quite memorable.
6. World at War
A household name, this game was the reason that players were begging for a return to the World War II era for nine years until WWII came out.
Simply put, World at War is a treasure. Campaign mode is brilliant, with fun gameplay, a good storyline and the ability to play the campaign mode with others online for the first time in franchise history. Multiplayer was quite fun albeit on the primitive side, as maps were somewhat bland and the level up process was on the simplistic, barren side as well. Still a fun experience for sure.
World at War is possibly best known for being the first Call of Duty game ever with an alternate mode from campaign and multiplayer — Zombies mode. This is where the magic all started, with simple barebones maps that would serve as a springboard for the mode to be improved upon in even decades later.
5. Black Ops 1
Sometimes there really is beauty in simplicity, and Black Ops 1 serves as a means of proving that. It was overall a general expansion on what World at War did, with a still-simple Zombies experience that was nevertheless expanded on and had more general content, including an actual quest line in some of the maps. Multiplayer was a bit more well-defined, with a better level up system and better scaling on unlocked weapons and other utilities.
Black Ops 1’s main innovation would probably have to be the Combat Training side mode found in Multiplayer. The idea of this was pretty simple — the player, along with any friends they had with them, could have AI-controlled fighters appear in a multiplayer game mode and map to essentially simulate a ‘real game’ in a public lobby. Of course, it was mainly used as a means of making the multiplayer experience more casual, but it could also actually be used as a means to hone one’s skill if desired.
4. Infinite Warfare
Infinite Warfare was an Activision-led game. Activision has developed a reputation for making side modes which have been relatively mediocre compared to what Treyarch has came out with; while Ghosts’ Extinction mode and Modern Warfare 3’s Survival were quite fun, they didn’t quite stand up to Treyarch’s Zombies mode. Infinite Warfare serves as an anomaly in that regard. Activision developed the Zombies mode here, and with the exception of one particular map, they knocked it out of the park. Zombies in Spaceland is arguably a top 10 all time Zombies map, while Rave in the Redwoods was right up there with it. These were further made notable from celebrity cameos; the horror icon Elvira makes an appearance in Attack of the Radioactive Thing, while Kevin Spacey ends up being the boss fight found within Rave in the Redwoods.
For multiplayer, weapons are both fun to use and, for the most part, generally effective. Earning skins was streamlined in this game, as the player could earn camos playing Zombies mode, and then use them in multiplayer or vice versa.
Infinite Warfare didn’t really have a ‘main innovation’, but it didn’t need one. It expanded on previously-established traits so well that in doing so, it became very memorable and was an overall excellent experience.
3. Black Ops 2
Black Ops 2 is another fan favorite which has received a rash of pleas over the years for a remaster. Black Ops 2 was a very strong experience, with an interactive campaign mode, fun and fresh multiplayer and a riveting Zombies experience.
Black Ops 2’s Zombies experience built off of Black Ops 1’s by placing an individual map’s main quest, or, Easter Egg, under more of an emphasis. In doing so, it featured masterful maps in Origins, Mob of the Dead and Buried. For those who didn’t care for an Easter Egg and wanted a casual experience, you could do this on any of the game’s maps, but in particular, you might enjoy the classic multiplayer map Nuketown being developed as a Zombies map.
The reason Black Ops 2 doesn’t quite make it to the #2 spot is that it happens to have two of the worst Zombies maps ever within it — TranZit and Die Rise have essentially become a running joke in the community for how poorly they turned out. Otherwise, Black Ops 2 is a pretty much flawless experience.
2. Modern Warfare 3
This one will definitely be a controversial one. However, this has somewhat become a hidden gem of sorts throughout Call of Duty history, as it didn’t get as much attention as Modern Warfare 2 did while having mostly taken a backdrop to the Black Ops series as well.
Modern Warfare 3, bar none, boasted the single best multiplayer experience in any Call of Duty game. It had immaculately-crafted maps, an excellent balanced selection of weapons that made a very robust metagame, and it had creative game modes that mostly anyone could enjoy. A standard Team Deathmatch could be in order for a player entering a public lobby by themselves or with a friend. If you and your friend wanted to prove your collective skills, you could also hop in a 2v2 lobby on a small map and do battle with an opposing pair here. If you’d prefer a larger, fast paced experience, this game offered the best Domination and Search & Destroy experiences in franchise history thanks to its excellent selection of maps. This was, again, supplemented by pristine weapon balance that made just about anything viable. This gave credence to a diverse metagame where players could use just about anything they wanted and conceivably succeed.
Modern Warfare 3’s main innovation stemmed from within the Survival mode. This was a side mode of sorts where the player(s) selected a multiplayer map, spawned on it, and had to fight off endless waves of Russian soldiers until they finally fell to the onslaught. Essentially, it was as if Combat Training and Zombies had a brilliant baby. A series of upgrades and every weapon in the game were available to the player, leaving it up to their wits and general strategy to see how long they could survive against the progressively-strengthening army at their figurative doorstep.
1. Black Ops 3
Black Ops 3 is simply the greatest Call of Duty ever, and despite the greatness of quite a few others, this distinction isn’t particularly close.
Black Ops 3, for the first time, offered a campaign mode with level-based progression that gave the mode unprecedented replay value. There were quite a lot of fun in-game gadgets exclusive to this mode to be used, making it a fun experience.
The multiplayer was very solid. It had a nice weapons balance, brought back Nuketown, and didn’t really have any particular shortcomings. Operators were a new innovation, giving the player a particular, unique, power they could use depending on who they picked. For example, the Prophet occasionally allowed the player access to an infinite-damage dealing flamethrower. If they wanted more range, the Sparrow’s explosive bow and arrow set could be up their alley. And so on.
The Zombies mode was the most defining aspect of Black Ops 3. Not only did we get genuinely amazing maps such as Shadows of Evil, Der Eisendrache and Revelations, we also got a masterful storyline and incredible Easter Egg quests on every map, which all culminated into thrilling boss fights. On Gorod Krovi, the player got to do battle with a dragon followed up by a pissed off, drunk Nikolai operating a bipedal turret machine armed with mobile explosives. In Zetsubou No Shima, the player came face to face with a giant plant monster and its near endless minions. An immaculate experience to say the least.
That’s not all, though. Black Ops 3’s final innovation was the Nightmares mode, which was basically a campaign mode only with zombies in it. This was a fun but casual side mode of sorts that was an entertaining time with a well-woven story.
As a result, it is just about impossible to argue that any Call of Duty game stacks up to Black Ops 3.