Did you know that Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare’s release in November was the 13th main release in the Call of Duty franchise? And whilst people (mainly console players, admittedly) have been waxing lyrical since 2007 about the franchise’s multiplayer chops, it can be easy to forget that Call of Duty started out as a primarily single player experience. And crikey, now we have 13 of those to look back on. With Infinite Warfare’s campaign garnering generally positive buzz, how exactly does it stack up against the Modern Warfares and the Black Opses (Black Opsii?) of the world? Join me as I use science to objectively tell you the definitive ranking of Call of Duty campaigns.
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13 – Call of Duty 3
High point: The last stand in Chambois
Unfortunately for Treyarch, their first entry in the main series came towards the peak of apathy towards shooters set during either World War. Whilst the campaign is perfectly acceptable and the tank sections in particular are a lot of fun to play, it’s all just a bit forgettable. Only a desperate defence of the town of Chambois that forces you to use improvise regularly proves to be a stand-out moment. It’s worth playing, if only for the sake of completion, but don’t expect to be raving about it afterwards.
12 – Call of Duty: Ghosts
High point: That cliffhanger ending
Ok, hear me out. Yes, I’m aware that Ghosts might very well be regarded as the worst Call of Duty, certainly in recent years, but that’s primarily down to average multiplayer and a poor man’s Zombies mode in Extinction. In retrospect, the campaign in Ghosts has been unfairly labelled guilty by association. Set in an alternate reality where a new world order is established after the Middle East has been decimated by nuclear war, Ghosts tells a functional story with some highlights that elevate it above Call of Duty 3, including a mission that serves as a precursor to the direction this year’s Infinite Warfare would take, a couple of surprising twists, a cliffhanger ending that actually deserves a resolution and, most importantly, a mo-capped dog that sits in your tank during one mission. Sorry, COD 3, but you just can’t compete with that.
11 – Call of Duty
High point: Storming the Reichstag
The game that started it all, Call of Duty feels very much a product of its time, from its lack of exposition (not always a bad thing, to be honest) down to certain game mechanics – for instance, this is the only COD in the main series not to feature regenerating health. However, this somehow works in its favour, as it feels very much in keeping with the action taking place. By being as straight-laced and matter-of-fact as it is, it’s a pure streamlined affair. In fact, Call of Duty would possibly have been higher on this list, but for the fact that the assault on the Reichstag that represents the game’s climax is actually revisited – for the better, I might add – in 2008’s World at War.
10 – Call of Duty: Black Ops II
High point: The drone attack on Los Angeles
Marking Call of Duty’s first foray into proper near-future warfare, Black Ops II does a couple of things that elevate it above the three games below it on this list. It produces a few lovely moments of fan service that serve as a nice callback to the first Black Ops, and it also introduces a first for the COD franchise in the form of a branching story – at certain key points throughout the campaign, the choices you make as David Mason (son of Alex from the first game) will determine not just those moments directly, but also which of four possible endings you get. It was a unique selling point that raised another fairly bland campaign in other respects to something worth experiencing at least once.
9 – Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare
High point: Holy ****, it’s Kevin Spacey!
I did contemplate just leaving it at my statement above, and his performance is a big part of why Advanced Warfare sits above three games (even if his character model does look freakishly dead behind the eyes). However, it also does a lot of other little things right that add up to a more-than-decent whole. Traversal is a highlight with the exosuit allowing all kinds of experimentation on the battlefield, and Advanced Warfare not only utilises its near-future setting better than most, but isn’t afraid to subvert it at times too. The best example of this comes late in the game when, having had access to all manner of abilities throughout, all of them are abruptly removed, forcing you to revert to relying on your own reflexes and instincts. It’s a shame that most of the non-Spacey characters you encounter are instantly forgettable, but it remains an enjoyable ride.
8 – Call of Duty: World at War
High point: The Makin Island raid
The fifth game in the main series timeline features a campaign that is on par with many of the campaigns below it. Nothing more, nothing less. However, World at War is elevated above them, thanks to a couple of outstanding set-pieces that sit amongst the best in the series. In one, you’re tasked with launching a raid on Japanese stronghold Makin Island to rescue some American servicemen. Set at night, it seems to be a fairly straightforward stealth mission, but that’s quickly thrown into disarray when the enemy is alerted to your presence and white flares are launched. It’s a lovely looking moment, but you have no time to admire it as things very quickly go sideways. And the last mission of the game sees the assault on Reichstag from the first Call of Duty revisited with added Gary Oldman as Viktor Reznov. It was great in 2005 and even better in 2008, thanks to Treyarch squeezing a substantial amount of horsepower out of the hardware.
7 – Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3
High point: Escaping the diamond mine
Modern Warfare 3 ladles on set-piece after set-piece in a truly bombastic finale to the Modern Warfare trilogy. There’s a gravity-defying gunfight in a rapidly plummeting jumbo jet. A frantic and explosive escape from a collapsing diamond mine. And, not to forget, the final climactic showdown with series protagonist Vladimir Makarov (finally putting you into the boots of Captain Price after three games of him gruffly shouting in your ear). It pretty much abandons the introspection and restraint of the first game, but doesn’t suffer hugely for doing so. This is helped by having the best voice cast for any game in the series with regulars Billy Murray, Kevin McKidd and Craig Fairbrass joined by the likes of William Fichtner, Timothy Olyphant and Idris Elba, who all deliver excellent vocal performances to lend this send-off just that little bit of emotional gravitas.
6 – Call of Duty: Black Ops III
High point: The Frozen Forest
On the surface, the last game in the Black Ops trilogy can initially seem like a disappointment, what with it being the fourth consecutive Call of Duty to have a near-future setting. It’s also surprising that the game has next-to-nothing to link it to the two previous entries in the Black Ops trilogy – no fan service here. However, Black Ops III redeems itself with the introduction of the DNI – Direct Neural Interface – which initially serves as a simple gameplay mechanic, allowing you to hack machinery, download data and disrupt enemies in combat, but quickly becomes the main focus of the story. This leads to the Frozen Forest, a mind-bending and nightmarish mission that proves to be the game’s best. Black Ops III also benefits from strong vocal performances from the likes of Christopher Meloni and Katie Sackhoff. Lastly, it was the first (and, to date, only) Call of Duty campaign to offer the choice of a female protagonist – long-overdue, but progress.
5 – Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare
High point: Offensive on the Olympus Mons
The game that actually inspired this list. General consensus is that the campaign is actually the strongest part of Infinity Ward’s latest, and it’s not difficult to see why. Eschewing the near-future motif and fully embracing a move into space combat, Infinite Warfare decides to have a little fun with its setting. Zero gravity, grappling hooks, future weapons, spaceship dogfighting, over-the-top villains – it’s all in there, but Infinite Warfare’s real ace in the hole is its characterisation. Too often in the past, Call of Duty campaigns have framed the deaths of secondary characters as huge emotional events, without ever actually providing the justification for why we should care. No such issue here, as many of your crew are given the kind of character development that means their (spoilers) demise is often affecting in a way you don’t normally associate with a mainstream FPS. And in robot AI running buddy E3N, Infinity Ward have created one of the best new characters to feature in any game released this year.
4 – Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2
High point: No Russian
As any movie fan can attest to, the second part of a trilogy is often the most difficult to nail. And whereas Black Ops II did little to bridge the games either side of it, 2009’s Modern Warfare 2 did an excellent job of calling back to the first one, whilst also laying the groundwork for Modern Warfare 3’s closing stanza. It’s best known for “No Russian”, the mission which set the tone for the franchise’s ability to create discussion-worthy controversy, but the campaign produces several other moments that stick in the memory. The snowmobile section is the right kind of dumb movie-style action, the sieges at Burger Town and Makarov’s safehouse result in testing and tense firefights, and the events that lead to the end-game sequence are genuinely shocking.
3 – Call of Duty 2
High point: The assault on Pointe Du Hoc
If Infinite Warfare’s main selling point was its characterisation, then Call of Duty 2’s is all down to its depiction of history. Yes, that sounds ridiculous to say about a game in which you’re tasked with essentially winning huge battles as a one-man killing machine, but it still seeks to tell a story about the Second World War. Nowhere is that tone struck better than in the first mission of the American portion of the campaign – the D-Day assault on Pointe Du Hoc. Even if you’ve never played the game, you probably know this scene from Saving Private Ryan and whilst PCs of 2005 couldn’t hope to match that level of cinematography, the level of immersion at the time was remarkable. With other standout moments including the Soviet offensive to reclaim Stalingrad and an extended close-quarters firefight in El Alamein, Call of Duty 2 represents the best World War 2 campaign of the entire franchise.
2 – Call of Duty: Black Ops
High point: Viktor Reznov = Tyler Durden
Treyarch may be responsible for the least memorable campaign on this list, but there’s a reason they’re now considered the best studio working on the franchise these days, and that’s probably been the case since 2010’s Black Ops. Co-written by David S. Goyer, whose writing credits include the Blade and The Dark Knight trilogies, Black Ops tells an intriguing tale of war and espionage that marked a real departure for the series at the time. Perhaps unsurprisingly for a game co-written by a screenwriter, Black Ops contains a GTA-esque number of movie references – Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter being the most obvious – but doesn’t feel cheap as a result. And whilst the late-game twist is probably telegraphed a little more than Treyarch would have hoped, it’s delivered with aplomb and caps off a campaign that would have topped this list, but for…
1 – Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare
High point: All Ghillied Up
Representing not only the zenith of the Call of Duty single-player campaign, but possibly the first-person shooter campaign as a whole, Infinity Ward blasted away years of cobwebs accumulated by game after game set across both World Wars to deliver a campaign that felt fresh and modern. Perhaps even more surprisingly, it also delivered several narrative moments that struck an emotional tone not normally associated with a genre normally defined by how many faceless meatbags you can gun down. Never was that more prevalent than in All Ghillied Up, a beautifully paced masterclass in tension that the franchise has arguably been seeking to replicate ever since. Add in the moments of introspection and restraint that make you feel less super-soldier and more vulnerable human being, and Modern Warfare remains the best that Call of Duty has ever been. The fact that the Modern Warfare remaster was the main reason for many to rush out and buy the Legacy Edition of Infinite Warfare just proves how beloved it is. Even now, it’s an essential playthrough.