With the first game being released in 2003, we have had almost 20 years of Call of Duty games, with a wide range of settings and plots. Here are some of the best from that sizeable roster.
Call of Duty
The game that started it all. Released in 2003 and set in World War II, Call of Duty showcased developer Infinity Ward’s signature military shooter formula. Unlike many other shooters of the time, which cast the player as a lone wolf super-soldier, Call of Duty adopted a squad-based approach. This made the player feel like a single unit in a much larger army, evoking a visceral feeling of realism and immersing players in the game’s historic World War II battlefields.
Over the course of the game’s campaign, players take on the roles of soldiers in the American, British, and Soviet armies, allowing them to experience the conflict across several fronts and from a variety of perspectives.
While the multiplayer aspect of the series would have a long way to go before reaching the peaks of the later Modern Warfare 2, the original game set the basic framework for the franchise’s run and gun multiplayer battles that remains foundational in even the most recent Call of Duty games.
The game was lauded at the time for its sound design and musical composition and got several game of the year nods.
Call of Duty 2
After the original Call of Duty set the basic formula for Call of Duty games going forward, Call of Duty 2 refined it to near perfection in 2005. Activision published the game as a launch title for the Xbox 360, the new hardware gave Infinity Ward the chance to make the game shine with updated graphics and upped the ante in terms of action and variety in gameplay.
Call of Duty 2 dropped the health bar system of the original game, instead favoring health regeneration after a period of avoiding damage much like a similar shift that had happened between Halo and Halo 2. This is one of the most important updates to the Call of Duty formula in the franchise’s history and persists to this day. With regenerating health, players can spend less time scouring the levels for health items and more quickly get back into the combat loop.
Of the original trilogy of Call of Duty games set during World War II, the second game sets the high watermark, striking a great balance and variety between the different gameplay modes and missions.
Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare
2007’s Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare marks a watershed moment for the Call of Duty franchise. The fourth entry in the main series is the first to step outside of the original’s World War II setting and into the modern era. This change of scenery opened the door for the franchise to become more than just a World War II shooter and paved the way for future games to explore a multitude of different settings and eras past, present and future.
Modern Warfare included a significant update to the franchise’s multiplayer progression system with new items, killstreaks and weapons attachments to unlock as players level up, giving players a reason to stay invested over the long term that was lacking in previous entries.
Stepping out of the Second World War offers players the chance to experiment with an entirely new arsenal of weapons and gadgets like modern night vision goggles and holographic scopes that simply wouldn’t be possible in a game set in the 1940s.
Modern Warfare also boasted arguably the best narrative in a Call of Duty game to date, exploring themes like the fear of nuclear proliferation in the modern era and the aftermath of the cold war.
Call of Duty: World at War
Call of Duty: World At War is the second Call of Duty developed by Treyarch after Call of Duty 3 and returned players to the World War II era, while exploring fronts in the war previous entries had stayed away from. Though much of the game takes place on the eastern front like the original trilogy, World At War also explores the war against Japan in the Pacific.
World At War transplants the multiplayer progression system from Modern Warfare that helped to make that game such a massive success, but the biggest innovation came in the form of the new Zombies mode, which pitted players against endless waves of zombies as they struggled to see how long they could survive.
After the original Nacht Der Untoten, new map packs came with a new zombies level in which players could test their mettle, each more intricate and rich with paranormal lore than the last. The Zombies mode has since become a staple of the Call of Duty franchise with even the other major Call of Duty developers trying their hands at the survival mode in later entries.
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2
After the success of the first Modern Warfare, Infinity Ward took the franchise to new levels, continuing the original’s storyline of a global conflict in the modern era, and introducing a new spec ops mode where players could take on missions cooperatively.
Modern Warfare 2 is most notable for its multiplayer mode, with a wide variety of fun and interesting maps, as well as wild killstreaks (rewards for consecutive kills) like the nuke which can only be attained after 25 consecutive kills. Modern Warfare 2 perfected the multiplayer formula the franchise is known for and kept players coming back years after its release and many new additions to the franchise. It’s no wonder it had the biggest video game launch of all time upon its release.
Call of Duty: Black Ops
Call of Duty Black Ops was the second game to take the franchise into a new era and the first time Treyarch developed a Call of Duty game outside of World War II. Black Ops’ story follows the events of World at War and takes place during the cold war with many of the missions in Vietnam.
As the title suggests, players take on top-secret missions throughout the campaign and for the first time in franchise history, the protagonist speaks at different points during gameplay over the course of the story. Black Ops was met with such a great reception that it spawned four subsequent entries in the Black Ops saga, with the most recent being 2020’s Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War.
Treyarch also built on the runaway success of World At War’s Zombies mode taking the survival gameplay in whacky new directions. Players can control Richard Nixon, John F. Kennedy, Fidel Castro and Robert McNamara on the Zombies map “Five”, celebrities like Danny Trejo and Sarah Michelle Gellar in “Call of the Dead” or fight zombies in space on the “Moon Base” level.
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare (2019)
Perhaps the greatest indicator of the original Modern Warfare’s impact on the Call of Duty franchise is that Infinity Ward released another game with the same title in 2019. While Call of Duty: Modern Warfare may not live up to the highs of the 2007 classic, it’s mainly notable for the advent of the new Warzone battle royale mode.
Treyarch made an unsuccessful attempt at battle royale in Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 with the game’s Blackout mode, but the franchise didn’t really gain a foothold in the new genre until Infinity Ward perfected the formula with Modern Warfare.
Warzone has met great success since its release with all of the franchise’s developers working on the game mode and regularly updating the map with new tweaks and additions. Warzone boasts over 100 million players since its launch, marking Call of Duty’s foray into the free to play, “games as service” model that has taken the video game industry by storm in recent years.
Call of Duty is a consistent powerhouse of a franchise that continues to shift the landscape of the first-person shooter genre, only time will tell where they go next.