The Call of Duty franchise exists in a battleground between its eternal champions and its virulent critics. Some people love the games, some people hate them, and very few of us are caught in between. Where does one begin? How does one attempt to be right in the eyes of Call of Duty? With Advanced Warfare out tomorrow, I’ve compiled this handy ranking system for you in order to understand which games are worth playing and why. Note that I’ve cut out several retellings and side story games because, honestly, who cares?
10. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3
I honestly cannot remember a single thing about this game despite finishing it and playing dozens of hours in the multiplayer. It is the ultimate vanilla product, and it pushed me into a zone where I thought that I no longer cared about this franchise.
9. Call of Duty: Black Ops II
Here I will confess to believing that I have never played Black Ops II. However, a very good friend of mine claims that we played the game for hours and hours over one weekend when he was on a break from a trip abroad. We go back and forth about this—him with his strong memories, me with a total lack of them. What I can say is that this game was certainly a Call of Duty game.
8. Call of Duty: World At War
I played maybe fifteen minutes of World At War total. I was home from college and a thirteen year old challenged me to a one-on-one deathmatch. I thought that I would be able to win, and more than that I thought I could win quickly. He killed me over and over and over again from every angle and I left ashamed of myself. Also, you can apparently summon a horde of dogs to kill your enemies in multiplayer, which is a pretty weird design decision.
7. Call of Duty: Black Ops
Black Ops was the moment that the Call of Duty franchise really clicked into cruise control on both the single and multiplayer fronts. The former is largely forgettable outside of a few key moments (shooting a fake Fidel Casto; fantasizing about murdering JFK) and the latter steadfastly refused to progress in any way other than in the field of weapon customization. On top of its boring and static qualities, Black Ops might be the most cynical game in the series, featuring a scene where the “protagonist” puts a piece of glass in a prisoner’s mouth and then punches him in the face. It is not a game I ever want to revisit.
6. Call of Duty
I can’t think about this game without summoning up my memories of Medal of Honor: Frontline, a game that appeared on the Playstation 2 a year before Call of Duty was released on any platform. It’s been years since I’ve played it, but I remember thinking that it was a thin shadow of the game that I had spent months playing beforehand. A revisit might be necessary.
5. Call of Duty 3
This installation of the franchise could have been named Streamline of Duty because the separate campaigns that structured the previous games were stripped out entirely in order to suture all the different plots together. Instead of living each campaign through the eyes of a single soldier, you live the war itself through a truly synthetic worldview. Well, “truly synthetic” in the sense that you experience a lot of shooty mcwardude fighting. The rest of the games in the series are variations on that theme.
4. Call of Duty: Ghosts
This game takes place after an apocalypse caused by orbital weapons. In this horrible future, only American soldiers and their dog companions can fight off the horde of the allied Latin American nations attempting to invade and destroy the remainder of our glorious country. It’s typical chest-thumping dude-shooting, but with the strange Tom Clancy-style infusion of contemporary middle American anxieties. In other words, Ghosts is a symptom, just like every other Call of Duty game. It dives head over heels into its paranoia, and the game that comes out of that process is profoundly boring and predictable in its fear mongering. The multiplayer is polished to a sheen, though, and I’ve probably put 150 hours into its tight, fulfilling loops. We live in a strange, contradictory world.
3. Call of Duty 2
Call of Duty 2 continued the American media tradition of World War II shooters completely ripping off the D-Day sequence from Saving Private Ryan. While it needs to be said that this sequence had already been fully mined of all of its patriotic action potential, luckily this game was able to leverage the Call of Duty narrative of “war from multiple angles” to present a particularly great set of missions around Soviet warfare. I remember sitting on a hard chair during a particularly sweaty summer in a house that wasn’t my own and feeling a real, authentic anxiety when I watched my friends and compatriots swarm a city while I followed, firing wildly.
2. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare 2
I don’t think I ever completed the single-player campaign for this game. Honestly, I only remember three things about the game, period. The first is my experience of killing seemingly-infinite numbers of people who lived in a favela while being very confused about why we were fighting in the first place. The second is being attacked by a dog in that same favela and being forced to kill it. The third is the strange thrill of creating a melee-only multiplayer class and winning with massive scores for the first week after release. What a weird game.
1. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare
Released in 2007, Modern Warfare did what Medal of Honor: Frontline had done five years earlier: It set the exact parameters for a successful military first-person shooter. Contemporary videogaming has not recovered from Modern Warfare, and its presence is felt so much that playing games after it, like the relaunched Medal of Honor series, feels hollow because they don’t hit their gameplay and story beats in the way that Modern Warfare did. This game jumped the series from “games about war” to “games about action heroes.” Every game after it lives in its shadow, especially in regards to its online multiplayer component. No game since has quite captured the feel of firing an AK at an entire team of pinned-down enemies while your helicopter is attacking them from above. It was beautiful in its simplicity.
Cameron Kunzelman tweets at @ckunzelman and writes about games at thiscageisworms.com.