Like a zipline descending into Verdansk, the quality curve of the Call of Duty campaign trends ever downward, year-on-year. Or so a casual observer might assume. But this is Task Force 141, soldier: we don’t do casual observation. Take my binoculars and you’ll soon see that the real story is far more complicated and compelling.
For every Ghosts in the graveyard of CODs past, there’s an unlikely space adventure to rival Titanfall. And no matter how many times Captain Price tells you to let ‘em pass, there’s always an experimental RTS mechanic or Hitman-lite stealth mission waiting around the next corner. Call of Duty has been far more brave and changeable than it’s given credit for, and while the best ideas haven’t always stuck, they’re still very much playable. What’s more, they rarely outlast a weekend - which counts for a lot in an age of life-consuming AAA releases.
Over 20 years of service, I’ve played every single COD campaign, and can share my intel freely with allies like you. So hop in for a ride through the ups and downs of the series. Just don’t take the helicopter - those things never land softly around here.
You’ll find every annualised entry of the series accounted for - bar Call Of Duty 3, which never came to PC, and probably never will. I’ve also made room among the rank and file for United Offensive, COD’s sole expansion pack. Both because it’s excellent, and because this is a safe place where you’re allowed to feel nostalgia for defunct PC gaming release formats.
In terms of criteria, I’m looking at the size of the explosions, the storytelling chops, and whether the spectacle is matched by sufficient agency to ground you in those big lacy boots that soldiers wear. There’s also a certain amount of gut feeling - intellectual hipfire in the spirit of a game that never asks you to think too hard. It’s the latter that’s going to get me into trouble in the comments.
19. Black Ops 3
“There’s never just one route,” a comrade claims in Black Ops 3’s opening. “High, low, left, right, different paths yield different advantages.” It’s an extraordinary mis-sell. Rarely has a game with a jetpack enabled less freedom. Play in co-op and you’ll be jerked around, thrust into cutscenes you haven’t triggered, in order to absorb a weaksauce sci-fi plot put together by the creatively bankrupt.
By the end, Treyarch is lobbing in bits of zombie defence and an excerpt from the Battle of the Bulge, setting be damned. It’s the distinct vibe of a team that longs to be left alone to tinker with its multiplayer maps. The studio got its wish: it launched Black Ops 4 without a campaign, and hasn’t made another one since.
This is not the Call Of Duty game with ‘offensive’ in the title, but it is the one that truly deserves it. Adrift after the departure of Jason West and Vince Zampella, Infinity Ward decides to concoct a near-future where South America has banded together to subjugate the US. Given North America’s history of the reverse, it’s an insensitive fantasy to say the least.
There are flashes of the coming brilliance of Infinite Warfare here - namely in the flash flood that crashes through Caracas as a dam bursts and leaves you gasping for higher ground. But when your chief inspiration and namesake is the Modern Warfare character whose personality consists of a skull-patterned balaclava? Well, there’s not much drama to wring out of a headsock.
17. Advanced Warfare
A rare COD with a clear purpose - which is to warn about the danger of private armies with private interests that diverge from the states that fund them. This is a confidently told story from the creative leads of Dead Space. Unfortunately, its message is much too tightly controlled. Advanced Warfare is linear the way a tightrope is: one step to the left or right of your objective and you’re punished with death.
You get a brief, beautiful holiday in Santorini, but pay for it in quick-time events. Plus: the villain is Kevin Spacey, and there are many who would now justifiably object to rendering his face on their screen.
16. Black Ops 2
How would you choose to soundtrack a shootout in a club full of civilians? Not dubstep? Then you have a stronger grasp of tone than Treyarch. Black Ops 2 is a mishmash of bizarre juxtapositions - real-time strategy, branched storytelling, romanticised revenge rampages - and you have to credit the ambition, despite its deeply unpleasant character.
It’s interested in the generations of pain America’s secret wars leave behind - and how that legacy backfires on the West. Trouble is, one of those generations inhabits the far flung future of 2025 - a setting Treyarch brings to life with a rather embarrassing focus on bleepy-bloopy gadgetry. It’s less Goldeneye, more Mark Zuckerberg’s metaverse.
After release, game director Dave Anthony joined a Washington think tank dedicated to dreaming up non-traditional threats to America. You couldn’t make it up - unless, I suppose, it’s your job to make up the unimaginable.
15. Black Ops
If this was once your favourite Call Of Duty, I can say with some degree of certainty that you were a teenager in 2010. You loved Fight Club, and so, it’s clear, did Treyarch. But following in the immediate wake of Infinity Ward’s best efforts, Black Ops felt clumsily constructed and mean-spirited.
The Forrest Gump of war crimes, it places you at the scene of the Bay of Pigs invasion, the explosion of a Soviet spacecraft, the Vietnam War and Kennedy’s assassination. And it doesn’t give you a break between any of them: Black Ops is a constant cacophony of tinny machine gun fire. It sounds like the album Lou Reed made when he got sick of having fans.
Pacing problems aside, Black Ops did at least offer a refreshing anti-nationalist perspective: “The flag may be different,” muttered Gary Oldman’s Viktor Reznov, “but the methods are the same.”
14. Modern Warfare 3 (2023)
It was only a matter of time before the mechanics of Warzone 2, COD’s most dominant form in recent years, broke through the Gora Dam and soaked a single-player campaign in the conventions of battle royale. A majority of your time in Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 is spent creeping around open maps looking for caches of grenades and hidden killstreaks, while staving off the attention of the AI guarding your objectives.
Only in bursts does this become the lavish, tightly-paced FPS fans expected - perhaps because it was a rushed production, handed off to Sledgehammer rather than series originators Infinity Ward. Which, incidentally, is almost exactly what happened to Modern Warfare 3’s 2011 namesake. History really does repeat itself - particularly when your corporate paymasters fail to learn their lesson about greed.
13. Modern Warfare 3 (2011)
It’s remarkable that Modern Warfare 3 is as coherent and consistent as it is, given the circumstances of its creation - right after Infinity Ward’s core team packed up and headed for Respawn. This is a series treading water for the first time, however - settling for familiar kinds of spectacle as it bulldozes one European capital after another.
There’s some slick perspective-swapping, and several moments of laugh-out-loud wonder at the audacity of the setpieces - most notably the crash of a tube train stuffed with terrorists. But at its worst, Modern Warfare 3 is a shooting gallery played with pop guns. It can’t match later iterations for oomph, and fails to advance the surprising storytelling of its predecessors. And as COD taught us early on, if you’re not advancing, you’re a sitting duck.
Like a commando breaking your neck, Vanguard twists your head 180 degrees so that all you can see are flashbacks. Hope you like playing out tragic origin stories, because that’s all you’ll be doing, over and over - witnessing the untimely deaths of best mates and reminiscing about how formative they were for you.
There’s promise in the supposed premise of this campaign - a Marvel-like band of mismatched heroes with complementary abilities from all over the world - but they only spend a tiny fraction of the game working together. The rest they spend being threatened by Merry from The Lord Of The Rings, which is precisely as boot-quaking as it sounds.
11. Modern Warfare 2 (2022)
Taylor Kurosaki and Jacob Minkoff, the narrative and design directors behind Infinity Ward’s renaissance period, both left the studio in 2021 to set up a new venture. And their absence is already felt in the remixed Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, which unwisely hangs much of its storytelling off cardboard cutouts like Soap and Ghost, and fails to match its immediate predecessor for convincing character development or emotional heft.
That said, Minkoff’s former team offers up some of its best-ever levels in the course of this campaign. There’s a brilliantly silly car chase that has you hopping between the hoods of jeeps in motion, making full use of Warzone’s floaty-but-fun driving mechanics. And a Mexican mansion with a hidden armory and genuine stealth potential to reward careful planners. The very finest is Recon by Fire, which begins as a retread of All Ghilled Up, before blossoming into an impressively open-ended assault on a Spanish smuggling operation beneath the blades of slowly spinning wind turbines.
Unfortunately, all of these thrills are relegated to the back end of the journey, and the road there is forgettable and overfamiliar, leaning too hard on the model of 2019’s Clean House. The best singles here would absolutely feature on Infinity Ward’s greatest hits. But as an album, Modern Warfare II features too many songs we’ve heard before.
Sledgehammer’s finest eight hours. There are lots of lovely mechanical touches to this soft reboot: the returning health kits that encourage caution and consideration; the squadmates who pass you grenades and ammo when requested; the now-customary slide replaced by a tumble to the prone position, leaving you face down in the mud.
The most aesthetically artful COD ever made, it’s also a broad success in the story department: putting you at the mercy of a sergeant who seems hellbent on getting you killed. It’s the eternally relatable tale of a bullying boss whose personal failings become so dominant in your life that your own problems take a backseat.
If there’s an issue, it’s the sheer familiarity of the French locales. These spaces seem to bypass memory, slipping straight out of your brain - as if there are no new connections left to form in Normandy.
9. United Offensive
A typically challenging batch of levels from Gray Matter, the team behind Return to Castle Wolfenstein - which, incidentally, lent COD the backbone of its original engine. This is a developer with one foot in the old school, leaving room in its Sicilian bunkers for you to backtrack and hunt for health kits. Progress isn’t a given; it’s won, by ensuring you’ve taken out the MG42 gunners first.
United Offensive is stuffed with standout scenes, but the very best takes place in a flying corridor - a Boeing bomber, or “damn yank rattletrap”. You hop between seats as enemy fighters punch holes in the Flying Fortress’s flank, exposing you to the dizzyingly distant Netherlands down below. The roar, and that rattle, stay with you forever.
8. World At War
Treyarch’s single-player efforts never got better than this. Folding Gray Matter’s Wolfenstein team into its ranks, the studio brought a horror sensibility to an ostensibly historical shooter, directing its firefights as Wes Craven might have. During the Pacific missions, that tendency goes awry - dehumanising the Japanese soldiers by casting them as kamikaze zombies. But there’s a theatrical quality to the Russian segment in particular that still stands up, like a well-constructed set. It has to be sturdy, since Gary Oldman gamely chews the scenery every chance he gets. His Viktor Reznov introduces some welcome uncertainty to your assault on Berlin - taking altogether too much pleasure in revenge for Stalingrad.
7. Modern Warfare (2019)
The original Modern Warfare trilogy ended with World War 3, maxing out the bombast and leaving the series with no room to escalate. For the reboot, Infinity Ward mercifully turned down the volume, introducing some much-needed dynamic range. The new Modern Warfare’s most successful moments are its most intimate - see the raid of a North London townhouse that finds you squinting at the hands of would-be targets to check if they’re armed before you go anywhere near the trigger.
That said, old mistakes are repeated: the demonisation of Russians; the lionisation of unaccountable special forces; the rewriting of real history in America’s favour. These are ugly blemishes on a story otherwise notable for its nuanced characterisation and critical take on Western-backed proxy warfare.
6. Call Of Duty 2
A worthy sequel, though not one that sets any new paradigms - to the point where it can be difficult to distinguish between memories of the first two games. A change in setting helps, the British segment taking in North Africa. And of course, this is the entry that does the D-Day landings - a remake of sorts, since Infinity Ward had originally tackled Omaha beach in Medal Of Honor: Allied Assault.
At its bravest, Infinity Ward dabbles in non-linear objectives - hinting at an alternate future where COD embraced Halo-style sandbox scenarios, rather than taking the path of ever tighter choreography. Call Of Duty 2 is also the last place you could pick a random squadmate and commit to seeing them through the fight - a minigame with no tangible prize, but deeply rewarding all the same.
5. Modern Warfare 2 (2009)
If you’re going to jump the shark, do it on a snowmobile. The swansong of the original COD team is a catalogue of brilliant Bond moments, so absurd that you don’t notice the cracks starting to show in the ice beneath your skis. The scale of its events severs any connection to the world we know, but the payoff is an electrifying sequence in which you fight house-to-house betwixt the picket fences and burger bars of idyllic America. It’s the incongruity that sells it.
No Russian’s airport attack understandably divides opinion to this day. Though it’s handled with an appropriate sense of distress, it’s arguably the moment that Infinity Ward lost the run of its own series - overestimating its tonal reach and burning its wings.
4. Black Ops: Cold War
If you’re fond of a spy story, you’ll find plenty to love about the debut campaign from Raven, the custodians of Warzone. Rooted in a Berlin safehouse during the early ‘80s, it taps into the Stasis surveillance and atom bomb paranoia of the era to terrific effect - leaving you straining to hear the muffled conversations behind the office door of your handler, lest they reveal something about what’s coming to you. Rarely has performance capture been so subtly deployed as in the hub where you observe your peers and sift through intel to locate targets.
Away from your temporary home, you’re treated to fantastic mission variety: a mountaintop zipwire adventure; a scrap in a Spetsnaz simulation of an American high street; the Dishonored-lite infiltration of KGB headquarters. These levels are all elevated by a new body shield mechanic, which allows you to escape death by closing the distance with your enemies, evoking Doom Eternal. The only mark against Cold War is that it’s over in a flash - precisely the eventuality your nuke-fearing superiors are prepared to do anything to avoid.
3. Call Of Duty
Before Call Of Duty, first-person shooters largely concerned superheroes. Infinity Ward’s trick was to make you vulnerable - a face in a crowd that was rapidly reducing in number, whittled down by machine gun fire and mortar shells that flattened you prone, as if knocking the wind from your body.
This is the game that establishes COD’s cadence - flitting between dug-in American squads and moustachioed British commandos. But it’s the Russian campaign that sticks with you. In Stalingrad, survival is a matter of keeping your head below the parapet, listening to your orders, and enacting the desperate hail marys that might just stop the slaughter. The whistling rattle of an encroaching tank still makes me cringe in fear - a pitiful mortal hoping to pass unscathed between the caterpillar tracks of an unforgiving god.
2. Call Of Duty 4: Modern Warfare
Infinity Ward had long cast us as multiple protagonists in Call Of Duty; its stroke of genius with Modern Warfare was in realising they were all disposable. Each playable character in its defining campaign is merely a roving camera, an impossible perspective on events you could never experience firsthand and live to recount. Ground zero of a nuclear attack; the victim’s eye view of a presidential execution; this is tornado chasing at its most extreme and alluring. As a storytelling device, it remains incredibly powerful - a shocking and unpredictable form of first-person cinema. It turned Call Of Duty into COD, the pop cultural phenomenon.
The title was a statement of intent. Leaving behind the relative straightfowardness of WW2, Infinity Ward determined that modern conflict was defined by ambiguity and unease. Those themes run through All Ghillied Up and Death From Above - missions that continue to echo through COD campaigns as a new generation of developers attempts to recapture the magic. What distinguishes the originals is their clarity of message, and a developer at the height of its powers.
1. Infinite Warfare
A portion of the Call Of Duty audience dismissed Infinite Warfare long before it came out, downvoting its debut trailer into oblivion. That’s their loss, and a terrible one. This is not the floaty, unimaginative futurism that plagued Black Ops. Instead, it’s a hard science fiction story that lashes itself firmly to terra firma, even as its cast breaches the exosphere and leaves gravity behind.
Its Martians are not green, nor do their eyes grow on stalks. They are human beings, colonists descended from colonists with no experience of life on Earth and, consequently, no allegiance to it either. They think we are soft and pampered, an ungrateful drain on their mining resources, and they hate us for it. They’re probably not wrong to. Even Ethan, the combat robot programmed for bants, makes a kind of sense - his one-liners endearing him to his fellow Marines, improving their efficiency as a unit.
In fact, all of Infinite Warfare’s characters are designed to endear themselves to you. Ahead of this game, Infinity Ward rebuilt itself around an influx of senior staff from nearby Naughty Dog, and it shows. This is top-notch storytelling, with a thematic throughline as satisfying as any in the FPS genre. You learn to love your crew, and then learn how to live with steering them to their deaths - a chewy lesson that Infinite Warfare tackles seriously and with both hands.
All the while, the action shifts breathlessly between outer space dogfights and zero-g ambushes. Even the simplest encounters leave room for vertical motion, stealth and, as a treat, bot hijacking - another shift of perspective from the studio that first mastered the art. It’s the decade’s worth of invention that had been missing in the years since Modern Warfare, and a wonderful redemption story for a developer that had lost its way.