On October 29th, 2003, the Call of Duty series will be 20 years old, which is mind-blowing to think about. A series which has consistently remained in the upper echelons of media franchises, throughout highs and lows in reception and discourse. Its unequaled endurance in the gaming space is impressive, and in the spirit of this, I’ve taken a look back through the mainline entries to create a list of every Call of Duty game ranked from worst to best.
This list will provide a comprehensive look at every mainline Call of Duty title released since its debut in 2003, and ranking them based on their quality of content, from their campaigns, to multiplayer experiences, and so on. Before we continue however, a couple of rules:
- These are mainline titles ONLY, so no inclusion of Call of Duty’s Battle Royale mode Warzone, Call of Duty 2: Big Red One, or – most controversially, I’m sure – no Black Ops: Declassified.
- These games are ranked as how they stand as a complete package today – If one Call of Duty has a stellar campaign but an underwhelming multiplayer component, then that will be taken into consideration.
With that out of the way, let’s answer the call.
19. Call of Duty 2 (2005, Infinity Ward)
While Call of Duty 2: Big Red One isn’t able to be included here, it would be remiss of me to not mention it as a fan favorite for many. Indeed, its laser-focused campaign based on one squadron’s efforts is a valiant showcase of World War 2. It’s also a release that makes the actual Call of Duty 2 look incredibly milquetoast by comparison.
Despite its bombastic showcasing as a WW2 documentary, the actual game part of Call of Duty 2 is insipid. Lacking any variety in its mission design or characterization – two elements which were heavily prominent in the original Call of Duty – even one of media’s more unique presentations of Omaha Beach can't save its completely barebones effort.
18. Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare (2014, Sledgehammer Games)
It’s both a sobering thought, and a descent into madness, when you consider the untold impact Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare had on the gaming industry, despite its current reception -- like the narrative’s continuing multi-game obsession of celebrity inclusions, the multiplayer introducing loot boxes in a form that would see endless controversy, even now, nine years later.
Despite some moments of self-aware writing and graphical improvements, Advanced Warfare is a truly cursed relic, even without its indictment of instilling toxic industry standards. The "revolutionary" movement system is one that was maimed when played with a controller, and its inclusion of an "Exo-Zombies" mode as DLC later down the line just felt like a kick in the teeth.
17. Call of Duty 3 (2006, Treyarch)
The method of studios taking turns to develop titles for the Call of Duty series was something that still had teething issues by the time Call of Duty 3 arrived. In an interview with VideoGamer in 2008, World at War producer Noah Heller revealed that the 2006 title had eight months in development, and it certainly shows at points.
The campaign has rather broad strokes of realism and endurance, amplified by ongoing technological advancements, yet it's still so numbing and dull in comparison to contemporaries. It seems a tighter eye was paying attention to the burgeoning rise of multiplayer, as progression systems would be experimented with. The result? Well, you’d have to wait until Call of Duty 4 for that.
16. Call of Duty: WWII (2017, Sledgehammer Games)
During the mid-to-late 2010s, Call of Duty found itself in a rather entertaining tail-spin, trying to figure out exactly what the series should represent. At its highest points, you’d have efforts fully realized, chasing trends like Battle Royale, or gritty realism seen in titles like Hell Let Loose or Insurgency: Sandstorm. At its lowest? Call of Duty: WWII.
A title looking to bring back that Band of Brothers-esque pacing and boots-on-the-ground gameplay seen in Call of Duty Classic, the result was rather unconfident. The revision to fan-favorite game modes like “War” saw pages copied from Battlefield’s book, and the campaign's most memorable moment resulted in one of the most tone-deaf finales of all time, somehow both controversial and nervously unsure.
15. Call of Duty: Vanguard (2021, Sledgehammer Games)
While it seems that Sledgehammer Games are one for easy pickings in this list, it’s just that they’ve always been the scapegoat when Call of Duty faces uncertainty with players. Vanguard is another example of such a case, deploying an Avengers-esque narrative in its campaign, while continuing to play into Battlefield’s destructive elements with its multiplayer component.
The result is competent, but the game being forced to tether itself to the continuing success of Warzone sees those new mechanics disregarded for the systems in place from two years ago, at release. It’s like trying to watch two different football matches at the same time, confusing yourself with different mindsets and tactics, with nothing allowing for Vanguard to flourish, unfortunately.
14. Call of Duty: Black Ops III (2015, Treyarch)
No other Call of Duty exemplifies both the best and worst qualities of the series quite like Black Ops III. Released just before the gaming space suddenly saw futuristic battlefields and possibilities with derision, what you have is a title placed rather inside an uncomfortable niche of surrealistic ultra-violence. “Awkward” doesn’t even begin to describe this game.
While the multiplayer would tweak its free-flying movement system to become the most exciting iteration in quite some time, the campaign would spin its wheels to serve a baffling overarching plot. It’s a method of storytelling that also infected the Zombies mode, the timeline spanning four games at that point, and continuing the worst traditions the game mode suffered from.
13. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II (2022, Infinity Ward)
Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare is a good game. It kick-started a new way to look at contemporary warfare, it was profound, and the trilogy it spawned is still a peak. Yet despite this legacy, the actual existence of a reboot that serves to rewrite its narrative with more relevant, but worse, pacing, speaks to a lack of confidence that’s more visible in 2022’s Modern Warfare II.
It’s simultaneously the most polished the series has ever been, while housing a core of glorified fan-fiction for its characters. The multiplayer’s strongest showcase of realistic combat, hosted in one of the worst UX’s modern gaming has to offer. It’s the cleanest mess in recent memory, and that’s impressive, if nothing else.
12. Call of Duty: Ghosts (2013, Infinity Ward)
The notion that “there’s no such thing as bad publicity” is one that has repeatedly been disproven, both in regards to recklessness being unrewarded and honest intent being obscured. In the wake of the eighth generation of gaming’s launch controversies like DRM and graphics over gameplay, it was somehow CoD: Ghosts, gaming’s funniest shorthand, that became the talk of the town.
Was it deserved? Yes, but not for the reasons you’d think. As it turns out, CoD: Ghosts actually hosts one of the more competent cores in the entire series, at least if you’re looking for an adrenaline rush. While the multiplayer is a wash, “Extinction” and its linearity is just so welcoming, while Zombies was turning to pixel hunts instead.
11. Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War (2020, Treyarch)
Like CoD: Ghosts, the console launch coinciding with the release of Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War leaves the game in a confusing spot, but for different reasons. The minimal steps made for advancing the tech were muted when compared to the jump from the seventh generation to the eighth, and from that angle, Black Ops Cold War suffers.
As a game however, Black Ops Cold War is largely fine! The campaign continues its layered offense on conspiracies and intertwining webs of obtuse transgressions, while its multiplayer efforts are fantastic. The Zombies game mode has some fantastic direction behind it, and the inclusion of new mode “Outbreak” is the best innovation the game mode has had in years.
10. Call of Duty (2003, Infinity Ward)
In the words of Jason Statham, “you can’t beat a classic,” and wouldn’t you know it, he plays a supporting character in the debut Call of Duty. While the Medal of Honor series would see its efforts styled in the form of Saving Private Ryan, Call of Duty would instead take a few lessons from the likes of Star Wars.
I’m not even kidding. This lighthearted, almost jovial affair that the first Call of Duty presents is a certain kind of breathtaking, even if its mission design finds itself limited by what was possible at the time. It’s not perfect – the driving mission with the aforementioned Statham is a nightmare on higher difficulties – but damnit, there’s vision here.
9. Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare (2016, Infinity Ward)
Similar to how CoD: Ghosts would be kicked out before it could even see the door, Infinite Warfare was placed in a cringe-inducing position between both Battlefield 1 and Titanfall 2 for all the wrong reasons. At one point, the launch trailer was infamous for being one of the most disliked videos on YouTube, which, as it turns out, is undeserved.
The campaign has Innovation! Free-flowing space battles! Similar to Ghosts, the multiplayer would be bogged down by unnecessary bulky map design, but to see Zombies painted with an identity and readable depth once more was glorious to see! It’s a bittersweet feeling to play Infinite Warfare, if only due to the reactionary dismissal it was given.
8. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare (2019, Infinity Ward)
On the one hand, the gritty renditions of red-tape warfare that Modern Warfare (2019) are made to serve a weird xenophobic narrative, one that has been spoken about before. On the other hand, there’s a cynicism that runs through Modern Warfare (2019) that doesn’t seek to entertain it, a paradoxical situation that sees the game stand on its multiplayer alone.
Mechanically sparse, but hitting where it counts, the actual feel of Modern Warfare (2019) is almost unequaled in the current gaming space. Responsible for spawning the now-definitive Battle Royale experience, Warzone, its relatively underseen game mode “Gunfight” speaks to a tactical opportunity that brings to mind the nostalgic days of GameBattles - a strange game of equals, fighting in different spaces.
7. Call of Duty: Black Ops IIII (2018, Treyarch)
While Warzone has become the Battle Royale that many are clamoring to, one must give Black Ops IIII the respect it deserves, not for its incredible cock-up of roman numerals, but for the fantastic “Blackout.” A meeting of the minds between the arcade stylings of Fortnite and the prolonged firefights of PUBG, it’s now in the shadow of bigger beasts.
At the time, many dismissed the multiplayer-only tendencies of Black Ops IIII, with the actual story of the Black Ops saga relegated to audio logs and cutscenes in its training mode. As it turns out, this was proven to be the right choice, as anything getting in the way of one of Call of Duty’s more exciting multiplayer modules would be nothing but a detriment.
6. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 (2011, Infinity Ward)
With it recently being announced that Modern Warfare III would be the Call of Duty entry for 2023, it’ll be interesting to see if it can live up to the same truly insane Modern Warfare 3 before it. Seeking to bounce off of Modern Warfare 2’s controversies and hype, the result is a series more goofy and reckless than ever before.
As always, it’s a game of brawn, and Modern Warfare 3 is the brawniest of them all, at the small sacrifice of balance. The game is jam-packed with no end of single player and multiplayer content, feeling bloated at points. You could consider Modern Warfare 3 a weak finale, but when the trilogy has highs that high? That’s not bad.
5. Call of Duty: World at War (2008, Treyarch)
In the wake of Call of Duty 4 setting the world on fire, anything afterwards was going to seem quaint in comparison. Would you want to try and one-up the finesse shown, and face potential mockery? Or would you play it safe and return back to basics? The answer, as it turns out, would be a mix of the two.
To compare World at War to previous WW2 titles in the Call of Duty series would be a disservice to the former. It was grittier, more interested in providing mud, guts, and heroism, while still keeping the same multiplayer mechanics as Call of Duty 4. It would be the introduction of the fantastic “Zombies,” however, that would make World at War a mainstay hit.
4. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (2009, Infinity Ward)
Similar to World at War’s position, Modern Warfare 2 had an uphill battle coming out of the gate. Modern Warfare 2 started its campaign as a trail-blazing blockbuster, before “No Russian” became Call of Duty’s watershed moment. It was a historic gamble that paid off, and the tales of Soap, Ghost, Roach & Co. are still memorable 14 years later.
The multiplayer, while unbalanced to the point of hilarity, is a nostalgic goldmine for many, whether you were “n00b-tubing,” quick-scoping, trickshotting, or otherwise. Props must also be given to Spec Ops, the Yin to Zombies’ Yang, which turned out to be a more-than-welcome companion piece for co-op fun and survival. A robust package that deserved the hype.
3. Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 (2012, Treyarch)
It’s tough to consider exactly what made the futuristic tendencies of Black Ops 2 work out when it showed signs of decay. Maybe it was the characters featured, like Menendez, who has become the series’ most sympathetic and well-written character in the entire 19-year franchise. The answer however, is down to how Treyarch and Infinity Ward fostered a community.
This was the dawn of internet sensations – something Black Ops 2 ironically touches upon – and the game's multiplayer and Zombies efforts wound up as ever-evolving, continuously balanced experiences. Whether you were in a CoD clan named something cool like “Death Eaters” or were really bloody good at “TranZit,” Black Ops 2 loves you. Power to the people – and the players.
2. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (2007, Infinity Ward)
Before a tactical nuke was a reward for being good at killing folk, there was an element of humanity in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare that was unseen. The mere act of showing a nuclear strike at ground zero was something unheard of, usually relegated to Cold War PSAs and “boring old” films like Threads and The Day After.
There’s not much else to be said that hasn’t already been said. Its campaign is a perfectly paced thrill ride of unequaled tension, and its multiplayer is polished to a mirror shine. As it stands, in a year with Bioshock, The Orange Box, Halo 3, Uncharted, Crysis, Mass Effect – hell, even Peggle – Call of Duty 4 came out on top.
1. Call of Duty: Black Ops (2010, Treyarch)
Honestly? Call of Duty 4 and Call of Duty: Black Ops could be joint first on this list, but while Call of Duty 4 offered a two-headed affair of fantastic single player and multiplayer gameplay, Black Ops offered three. It’s the perfect Call of Duty package, and as time goes by, it’s looking likely it’ll never be topped again.
A perfectly based campaign? Check. The most balanced multiplayer package in terms of gunplay and feel? Check. The most robust, straightforward, and accessible offering of Zombies yet? Check. It’s a modern miracle, one that manages excitement, intensity - even a unique slow burn at certain points - a perfect storm of synchronicity, and by Christ, it's paid off in the long run.
Is Call of Duty a joke at times? Maybe. Whether it's "Press F to pay respects," "fish AI," or the Avenged Sevenfold performance in Black Ops 2, it's a series which has played into both profound seriousness and childish endeavors. What's noble of Call of Duty however, is that even as it flip-flops between the two, it has remained a cultural icon since its inception, and for that? It's worthy.