Few video game franchises are as influential and successful as Call of Duty. What began as a polished World War II shooter has morphed into something else entirely over the last 15-plus years, with games going everywhere from the Vietnam War to the far reaches of space.
No matter the location or story, Call of Duty games usually deliver heart-pounding single-player campaigns and an intense competitive multiplayer mode. Even when 2018’s entry, Call of Duty: Black Ops 4, switched it up and ditched the campaign, it brought another thrilling experience into the fold with its new battle royale mode, Blackout. But not all Call of Duty games are created equal. Some were simply better than others, and we’re going to rank them from best to the worst.
For this list, we’ll stick to the main entries in the Call of Duty series. This means excluding spinoff titles, as well as simplified games released for previous-generation systems like World at War – Final Fronts. Sixteen games were eligible, and we had them battle it out.
1. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2
Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare almost single-handedly redefined the modern first-person shooter with its thrilling campaign and endlessly customizable multiplayer component, so the bar was sky-high for Modern Warfare 2 when it released two years later. Somehow, Infinity Ward managed to outdo itself, delivering another campaign filled with twists, betrayals, and action-packed set pieces while also building on what made the first game’s multiplayer so successful.
The kill-streak concept was expanded to allow for even more ways to eliminate your enemies, and the progression system remained one of the most satisfying in all of gaming. Even a decade later, there’s just something about Modern Warfare 2’s pacing and map design that makes it a classic — it’s one of those games you could put in your Xbox 360 for months and never get tired of it. You can play a remastered version of its single-player campaign on modern consoles now.
2. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare
Where were you when you first played Crew Expendable in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare? In just minutes, Infinity Ward proved to players that the move from World War II to a contemporary conflict was worthwhile, as Captain Price and Soap MacTavish make their way through a hostile ship and eliminate targets with pinpoint precision. Not a second of time was wasted, and over the course of the legendary Call of Duty 4 campaign, that would still be true. All Ghillied Up is arguably the best mission in any first-person shooter, and it looks even better in the remastered version for modern consoles.
Modern Warfare’s competitive multiplayer put a renewed emphasis on personal performance rather than winning individual matches, with players now carefully eyeing their kill-to-death ratio as they modified their weapons with custom sights and grips. Call of Duty would no longer play second fiddle to any other series, and its reign would last for the next decade.
3. Call of Duty 2
The first Call of Duty game for many current fans — and a launch title for the Xbox 360 — Call of Duty 2 was the ultimate World War II shooter for those interested in the fall of Nazi Germany. Split across missions focused on Russian, British, and American soldiers, Call of Duty 2 took players everywhere from the beaches of Normandy to the deserts of North Africa, and its open-ended approach often gave you more than one way to approach a mission. Its scale was mind-blowing at the time, and the most cinematic moments still hold up today.
Call of Duty 2’s approach to multiplayer was more laid-back than some of the later games, and it wasn’t interested in throwing a million statistics at you upon completing a match. Despite this, the map design was unparalleled, and sniping an unsuspecting enemy from a window was incredibly satisfying.
4. Call of Duty: Black Ops
Treyarch was finally able to get out of Infinity Ward’s shadow and establish itself as a premier Call of Duty studio with 2010’s Black Ops. A thrilling mystery set during the Cold War and partially taking place in Vietnam, its ambitious story dealt with conspiracy theories and the role the United States could have played in the JFK assassination, along with the failed Bay of Pigs operation.
It even called back to characters and scenes from World at War, blending elements from the World War II shooter into the newer game. Top-notch voice performances from actors like Sam Worthington and Gary Oldman helped sell the whole thing, and we still yell about “the numbers” regularly.
Though it didn’t drastically reinvent the Call of Duty formula, Black Ops nonetheless delivered well-balanced combat across a variety of maps, ranging from the jungles of Vietnam to the famous Nuketown. The map was so beloved that it has been released in every Treyarch game to date, and they’d feel downright incomplete without it.
5. Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare
After assisting with the development of Modern Warfare 3, Sledgehammer Games was given the chance to lead its own project for 2014’s Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare. Taking the series further into the future than it had gone to date, its exo-suit gameplay and high-tech weapons promoted verticality and constant movement, making it difficult to master but incredibly rewarding. No longer were your enemies just coming from the left or the right, but possibly directly above your head.
Advanced Warfare’s techno-political thriller campaign addressed the public’s growing fear of private military contractors and the role they’ll play in society going forward. It was completely absurd, but Sledgehammer has a knack for blockbusters and the closing moment is quite satisfying. Despite its critical success, Advanced Warfare didn’t light the sales charts on fire, so a direct follow-up is unlikely.
Read our full Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare review
6. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare
Confused by a game called Call of Duty: Modern Warfare appearing on our list alongside Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare? It gets even more confusing when you discover that the games share characters but are not narratively connected aside from the mention of a few events. Regardless of the naming conventions, the rebooted 2019 Call of Duty: Modern Warfare nails the atmosphere and tense first-person action of the older games’ campaigns, complete with several set-piece moments and a generous sprinkling of stealth.
Modern Warfare doesn’t disappoint as a multiplayer game, either, building on the foundation of its predecessors while adding new mechanics, such as reloading while aiming down the sights. Its straightforward progression system emphasizes continued play and doesn’t include microtransactions for unlocking any weapons. The new massive mode Ground War is a fantastic addition to its multiplayer offerings that should satisfy those left in the cold by DICE’s decision to skip a 2019 Battlefield release.
Read our full Call of Duty: Modern Warfare review
7. Call of Duty: Warzone
One of the world’s biggest video game series has gone free-t0-play, just months after releasing one of it’s strongest and more generous titles yet. Call of Duty: Warzone is, by and large, an extension of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare that uses its assets to build the sprawling Verdansk map. Capable of holding 150 players at a time, it’s the home of Call of Duty‘s second attempt to capture the hearts of the Battle Royale crowd.
With an interesting approach to mid-match respawns and plenty of familiar map sections from across the years, Warzone builds upon the foundation of the Call of Duty franchise to spit out a PUBG/Apex Legends competitor that shouldn’t be ignored. And with Plunder, a hectic “Grab the Cash” mode thrown on top, you get two modes for the price of none. We even have a couple of tips to get you started on this one.
8. Call of Duty: Black Ops 4
Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 could have been the game to kill the franchise. For the first time ever in the main series, Black Ops 4 opted to leave the campaign mode out completely, offering competitive multiplayer, Zombies, and the battle royale mode Blackout instead. Treyarch’s over-the-top approach to storytelling was missed, but the studio managed to deliver one of the best multiplayer modes in the series’ history, along with plenty of Zombies content for fans.
It was Blackout that sealed the deal, however. The series’s first crack at battle royale was a huge success, blending classic Call of Duty shooting mechanics with the slow and methodical gameplay from PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds. The mode even mixed in classic settings from the earlier games, as well as a section filled with Zombies ready to tear you limb from limb.
Read our full Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 review
9. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3
By 2011, Call of Duty had already cemented its legacy with several stellar first-person shooters, but franchise fatigue had also begun. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 wrapped up the groundbreaking trilogy with another action-packed campaign and tight multiplayer mode, but without much of the original Infinity Ward team on the project, it felt like the developers were tracing a drawing rather than creating something on their own.
This isn’t to say that Modern Warfare 3 isn’t worthy of the Call of Duty name. Its multiplayer was as addictive and fast-paced as ever, and there were plenty of set-piece moments, but without the passion behind it, the game never escaped the shadow of its older siblings.
10. Call of Duty: WWII
After nearly a decade in modern warfare and the future, Call of Duty returned to where it began in 2017 with Call of Duty: WWII. Set in the European theater and featuring the famous Normandy invasion, it felt like Call of Duty 2 has been remade for the next generation of players. This came with some feeling of déjà vu, but the better characterization and an emotional conclusion helped it from feeling like a basic nostalgia-grab.
The multiplayer also shifted away from the excess of its predecessors, focusing on pure boots on the ground combat without compromising the strides the series had made. Its convoluted progression system, however, didn’t work as well, and the Zombie mode felt out of place in an otherwise serious game.
Read our full Call of Duty: WWII review
11. Call of Duty: World at War
Call of Duty: World at War was Treyarch’s first game in the series since the underwhelming Call of Duty 3, and it managed to deliver the grimmest and goriest game the series had ever — or has ever — seen. Focused on Americans in the Pacific as well as the Russians closing in on Berlin, World at War doesn’t shy away from the horrors of war. Limbs and heads are severed, and mountains of bodies pile up, though it does lay the pathos on a little bit thick in the American section.
Treyarch took the killstreaks and general structure of the Modern Warfare games and used it for World at War, but it didn’t work all that well. It had an unmemorable and less engaging competitive mode — the last Treyarch game to fail in this department.
12. Call of Duty: Black Ops II
The follow-up to the excellent Black Ops had expectations soaring, possibly out of any developer’s reach. Call of Duty: Black Ops II felt like a game that had been designed by two entirely different studios. Its multiplayer emphasized customization with its Pick 10 system and a mix of futuristic weaponry, but its campaign was a scattershot series of missions that struggled to find an identity.
It isn’t for Treyarch’s lack of effort, though. Real-time strategy elements were even mixed into certain missions, and while they were only mildly successful, it showed the studio’s commitment to always trying new things.
Read our full Call of Duty: Black Ops II review
13. Call of Duty
The original Call of Duty was something we don’t associate with the series today: An underdog. Developer Infinity Ward had been formed from former Medal of Honor developers, with Electronic Arts’ series still the king of war-themed shooters. It didn’t take long for Infinity Ward to show what it was capable of, however, with a campaign split across three different nations’ militaries and a competitive multiplayer mode that planted the seeds for its future. Even Captain Price made an appearance!
14. Call of Duty: Black Ops 3
Treyarch decided to double down on the futuristic elements of the Black Ops games with Call of Duty: Black Ops III, and it was the first time it failed to excite. Mind-controlled drones and weapons were not enough to overcome the sense that we had played all this before, and the studio seemed to have so little faith in its writing that it gave players the chance to play campaign missions in any order. That is, of course, unless they played on Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3, which omitted the mode altogether.
Read our full Call of Duty: Black Ops III review
15. Call of Duty: Ghosts
The first Call of Duty game released on Xbox One and PlayStation 4, Call of Duty: Ghosts had very little to differentiate itself from the series’s past games. Part of it was in space, part of it was in urban areas, and part of it was in the foliage, but it lacked a strong villain or the mystery we’ve come to expect from Call of Duty. Multiplayer also made no attempt to innovate, but it was, at the very least, well-designed. Getting a sniper headshot still felt amazing, even if you had done it all before.
Read our full Call of Duty: Ghosts review
16. Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare
It pains us to put Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare so low on our list because Infinity Ward had huge ambitions for its release (and so did we). The game’s campaign ditched the linear, mission-to-mission approach and instead let players pick and choose side objectives to complete. It even included some great spaceship combat segments. The bleak story was somehow understated despite featuring interplanetary travel. We loved that the characters felt like real people, and the freedom to select side objectives helped with development.
The problem was that the shooting just felt wrong. A substantial amount of flinching made combat a pain in single-player. Multiplayer wasn’t much better, thanks to the poor map design. The game’s potential only made the disappointment and frustration even harder to swallow in-game.
Read our full Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare review
17. Call of Duty 3
Call of Duty 2 helped make the Xbox 360 the console to get in 2005, but lightning didn’t strike twice. Released after a very short development, Call of Duty 3 saw Treyarch take control of the series for its first main entry. The game failed to impress, with a less-engaging multiplayer mode stuck between Call of Duty 2’s approach and the Call of Duty 4 formula. The campaign mode attempted to change things up by including a Canadian section and a struggle mechanic for melee combat. Still, it lacked the polish or characters to carry it forward. Call of Duty 3 is the rare Call of Duty game that you are better off avoiding.
It seems that the Call of Duty franchise has found the key to replicating a successful shooter game strategy. One of the things that makes the entire franchise successful is its consistency. Players know what to expect from the Call of Duty franchise and are rarely disappointed, so they go out and buy release after release. With each success, the franchise’s reputation grows, further solidifying its success with more money, time, and marketing invested in the next release.
No matter how much you love the Call of Duty franchise, you can’t argue that every iteration has been top-shelf. Instead of wasting your time testing out each game, take our advice on which to skip. Stick with the top picks on this list, and you can relish all the features that make the series a winner.
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