Love it or hate it, Call of Duty is gaming’s most successful series to date. With over millions of copies sold every year, there is no stopping the shooter juggernaut that has made a huge name for itself in mainstream entertainment.
Its popularity has blown up so much, it has become a source of reference in movies, tv series, comics, and in other video games as well.
It always holds the record for being the best-selling game of the year and has always been highly praised by mainstream gaming media such as IGN and Gamespot.
Activision, the publisher of Call of Duty, gets the majority of its revenue from this IP. According to Statista.com, it has sold over more than 252 million copies for the last 15 years since its debut in 2003.
That makes Call of Duty the best-selling video game franchise and it seems like it won’t be stopping there.
With Call of Duty Black Ops 4 arriving soon with refreshing new game modes, new class-based team system as well as the much-anticipated Blackout mode—the CoD version of battle royale, it doesn’t seem like Activision will have a run for its money.
Whether you’ve been a fan since the first game or just started playing the series, we’ll be going through the best CoD titles that diehard fanboys consider the greatest hits in the last 15 years.
Before we begin jotting down the best titles in the series, let’s take a look back at how it became so popular and how it made first-person shooter games the most mainstream genre in video games.
The rise of the FPS genre
While the late 90s was the start of the FPS genre as well as arena shooters, the early 2000s was the era where first-person shooter games began to take shape as story-driven narratives as well as high-skilled competitive gaming.
In 2001, the world witnessed some of the most amazing and ground-breaking first-person shooter games that defined the genre: Counter-Strike, Medal of Honor: Allied Assault, Return to Castle Wolfenstein, and most of all, Halo: Combat Evolved.
MoH: AA was one of EA’s most triumphant IPs at the time due to its pulse-pounding gameplay and total immersion of what it was like fighting in the beaches of Normandy during World War II. Some fans called it Saving Private Ryan: The Video Game as it was as believable and terrifying as the movie’s action scenes.
Return to Castle Wolfenstein, on the other hand, was id Software’s comeback that stayed true to its fantasy-WWII roots. Gamers praised it for its fast and thrilling gameplay as well as generally making them feel like a real bad-ass.
But the most notable FPS games of that year were two distant yet equally successful titles: Counter-Strike and Halo: Combat Evolved.
Counter-Strike was a PC-only game that helped shape the world of competitive gaming and popularize esports. CS was a modern shooter that innovated skilled gameplay, team cooperation, and tactical combat.
Halo: Combat Evolved proved the world that FPS on console is possible and having both a remarkable story-driven campaign as well as implementing a very addictive online multiplayer was a reality. It was also the first FPS game that added regenerating health and NPCs that actually help you in battle against enemies in a very non-linear way.
When these titles became instant hits, many game developers sought to do what they did, creating an overly saturated genre of a one-man-army protagonist saving the world from the bad guys in an FPS game format.
Gamers soon became tired of all the one-man army stuff in single player games and wanted to feel vulnerable to the point where they needed the aid of other allies on-screen.
2003: The year that started it all
What the world didn’t know at the time was that the developers of Medal of Honor: Allied Assault, 2015 (which later became Infinity Ward and acquired by Activision), would soon transform the FPS genre with their 2003 debut, Call of Duty.
The world never saw CoD coming as it raised the bar in war games—much more believable set-pieces that put MoH:AA’s D-Day campaign to shame, smart AI teammates that were relevant and helped you from beginning to end, becoming more prone to death if you go one-man-army against a battalion of Nazis, gun recoil, iron sights, and the most immersive combat sounds to ever hear at the time.
It blew the critics’ minds with its wonderfully-executed theaters of war. It came to show that video games can be as impactful as any good action movie.
While they weren’t known for good multiplayer that time (Battlefield 1942 was the reigning class-based WWII multiplayer shooter during that era), the first game did lay the foundation of what CoD is known for these days: loud, explosive cutscenes, and just generally crazy gunfights.
Since then, Activision has been putting out a Call of Duty game every year, starting from games set in World War II, to the modern era, and to the future beyond planet Earth.
Whatever Activision’s theme for Call of Duty is ever year, it always seems to surpass their target sales.
What makes the best Call of Duty game?
In our Call of Duty game list, we’ll be counting down three major parts that make a memorable CoD title: Single Player, Multiplayer, and Innovation.
CoD was always known for Michael Bay-esque narratives but it’s not always the explosions and over-the-top actions that made a particular title great. It had to have an engaging story, memorable missions and wonderful characters.
Take for example the All Ghillied Up mission in CoD 4 where you and your Captain were set out in a deserted Chernobyl in order to assassinate a high-priority target or the nerve-wracking Normandy Beach Landings where you had no idea how you were going to survive in the beaches of Pointe du Hoc filled with heavy enemy fire from the cliffs.
CoD became known for its multiplayer in 2007 with CoD 4: Modern Warfare. That title alone has set the bar really high for addictive competitive shootouts in which players up to this day came to know and love.
It has become CoD’s bread and butter for the series and the main feature of the game. They focused so much on multiplayer that they decided to remove the single player mode and added much more multiplayer modes for CoD: Black Ops 4—a risky move that could truly make or break the series.
We’ll be counting in the multiplayer that had the best maps, best guns, and best features like the Pick 10 system in CoD: Black Ops 2 and Zombies mode in CoD: World at War.
Last but not the least is innovation. While the gaming community may see CoD as a repetitive cash-grabbing annual shoot-fest, we’ll be focusing on the titles that made the game feel fresh from its stale predecessors.
Innovations include the perk and weapon mod systems in Cod 4: Modern Warfare, the cod points in CoD: Black Ops and the addition of double jumping in CoD: Advanced Warfare.
CoD at its best
With all that said, let’s finally dig down on the proudest moments for both CoD and its community.
These are the best Call of Duty games ranked 10 to 1.
Please take note this is based on our own picks.
It would be a massive disrespect if we never added the foundation that made CoD what it is today.
The original game from 2003 was the debut of the series, showing its gamers and its audience how capable a game dev can do in creating incredible war stories.
From the epic battle of Stalingrad where you see your unarmed comrades getting pierced by the MG42 as you all rush into the town square to the quiet raid with your fellow SAS squad on the night before D-Day, each mission was beautifully executed with a good mix of silent moments to explosive death-everywhere scenarios.
It did have a multiplayer but it was the usual stuff like Team Deathmatch and Capture the Flag. Not as exciting as the modern CoD games but it really was a nice starter for the series.
The original 2003 game is in our list simply because the amount of production and the then-new shooting mechanics were the identities that made CoD what it is today.
The iconic “Press F to Pay Respects” meme came from this game and while it wasn’t one of the most stand-out titles in the series, it did have quite a handful of good new features.
Not to mention the gorgeous Single Player campaign’s main characters were voiced by Kevin Spacey and Troy Baker as well as the Zombies DLC having John Malkovich in the scene.
While Black Ops 2 was set in the near future, Advanced Warfare paved the way for sci-fi shooting in the series as it is currently known today.
The campaign story may be wonderfully acted but its main plot was weak except the points where the first few missions were very good and the ending was such a shock and awe.
However, the combat in the campaign was awesome since it had lots of non-linear moments such as raiding a patrolling helicopter in the middle of a firefight and had some good change of pace that included stealth kills, making you feel like a really cool protagonist without having to explode stuff.
The multiplayer had some slight changes too.
This was the first in the series to feature double jumps, exosuits and much more verticality in multiplayer.
It also had the Pick 13 system—a more juiced-up version from Black Ops 2’s Pick 10 system.
This was also Sledgehammer Games’ very first CoD game and quite honestly, they really made a good first impression.
2005 was the birth of the Xbox 360 and brand-new graphics cards for PCs that were capable of running The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. This was the age of next-gen gaming and Infinity Ward’s Call of Duty 2 became one of the entry points for the 360 and PC.
It was, in so many ways, much bigger and louder than its 2003 predecessor.
This was the very first time CoD implemented regenerating health, secondary grenades, smarter AI on both teammates and enemies, better combat system and beefier sound design.
Many players were left wanting for more in the game due to its highly immersive campaigns from the bloody streets in Russia, the deserts of North Africa, the stormy nights in the Netherlands, and the terrifying beach landing in Pointe Du Hoc.
There were so many memorable set-pieces in the campaign that, for the first time in WWII shooters, had original storyboards on the action in both cutscenes and in-game narrative.
It wasn’t like Medal of Honor’s heavily-inspired Normandy beach landing from Saving Private Ryan or CoD 2003’s rush through Stalingrad like Enemy at the Gates.
Not to mention the multiplayer started taking shape here as players get to choose their loadout in any 16-player game modes.
It was time for Infinity Ward to conclude the trilogy that helped shape CoD for what it is today.
MW3 was quite frankly the weakest in the three games but it was a sweet farewell mostly to the cast of characters that made the Modern Warfare trilogy’s campaign one of the most beloved stories in the series.
The game didn’t change much at all as they pertained 90% of MW2—same graphics engine, same-looking menus, same controls, same HUDs, same old same old.
A lot of players didn’t like the recycling at all but it was more about putting an end to what Modern Warfare was known for—both for its stellar narrative and the modern time period.
The story took place just right after the events of MW2 and fans were delighted to see familiar faces like Capt. Price, Soap, Nikolai, and Makarov.
It was also quite a scary depiction of what World War 3 would look like through the vision of Infinity Ward’s game.
It did have its share of great missions like saving the Russian president from terrorists that made CoD 4’s Mile High Club bonus mission look weak, the mission in France where you get to see the Eiffel Tower crumble, the adrenaline-rushing final mission, and so many questions from the previous games being answered through flashback sequences.
On the multiplayer side, they stuck to the words “if it works, don’t fix it” and so they didn’t change the online mode at all except for some new stuff like Kill Confirmed, Call of Duty Elite, and the addition of Survival mode.
MW3 would later become the grounds for CoD esports.
Activision didn’t want Treyarch (the devs behind the Black Ops series) to end CoD’s futuristic setting after Sledgehammer Games’ Advanced Warfare from the previous year. The brand new Black Ops universe took place years after the events of the 2nd in the series.
It was, at its core, nothing related to the first two Black Ops games and instead focused on a storyline that involved issues of cybernetics and humanity as well as brainwashing and mental health.
A lot of long-time Black Ops fans were very skeptical about this move as they obviously saw Activision just using the name Black Ops to generate more leads into sales since it has been the second most dominant figure in the franchise since the Modern Warfare trilogy.
While the plot had totally nothing to do with the Mason family or even Menendez’ cause, it was still quite an enjoyable campaign—not for its story much but for the overall gameplay.
For the story, it was pretty predictable and at times, bland.
However, what made the Single player mode good was the different pacing of each mission.
Treyarch introduced skill trees and an upgrade system into the mix, making players wanting to replay the 6-hour campaign with different sets of perks.
It was a refreshing addition as you didn’t have to do the generic CoD stuff like shoot bad guys at point A and then follow the NPC to point B while shooting more bad guys.
This time around it had multiple ways to finish a level and paths to discover much like Call of Duty 3 or even Black Ops 2.
The variety in the single player gameplay made up for the otherwise flat storyline…that is until you experience Nightmare Mode.
Not to mention the horrifying Demon Within campaign.
On the multiplayer side, things did have some nice additions that complemented with the Pick 10 system from BO2:
- Players now get to play as Operators a la Rainbow Six: Siege with the tried and tested shooting mechanics of CoD
- Doubled the verticality from Advanced Warfare
- Swimming and shooting underwater
It was a change of pace that the now-repetitive multiplayer needed.
As for Zombies mode, this was highly regarded as the best in the series with its noir-esque 40’s era in Shadows of Evil. Also, Jeff Goldblum is there. Everyone loves Jeff Goldblum.
This was considered by a lot in the CoD community as the last true CoD game.
The campaign had an equivalently good narrative as the first BO but it was still much better than stories from 2013 to 2017.
The story is set in the near future where robotics and AI are now the main sources of warfare and a revolutionary seeks to take control of it in order to bring balance to the world.
We have to say that Menendez is one of the best-ever antagonists ever created in the franchise that you’ll think twice if he’s actually a real hero or just another villain according to your command.
Treyarch did a good job by including timeless characters from the first BO including Woods, Mason and Hudson and tie up the stories set in very different time periods. It even had a good number of plot twists too just like in the first BO.
The single player campaign featured a choice system like in any RPG that will affect the whole game including the ending—another take by Treyarch to flush out the repetitiveness of the campaign mode throughout the years of CoD.
But the game really shined the most on Multiplayer as this was the first time CoD had the Pick 10 system which balanced out the game very much. The weapons were very balanced too and not a broken weapon in-sight (like the Striker from MW3).
Oh, and also Nuketown 2025.
Pro CoD esports players hailed BO2’s online mode as the best in the franchise and the most enjoyable one.
As for Zombies mode, not so much. Tranzit was a new kind of story with brand new characters that opted out the original cast of Richtofen, Dempsey, Belinski and Masaki.
It was a change of pace with decent level design but the characters were forgettable.
The only exception in Zombies were the DLCs for it such as Mob of the Dead, Die Rise and Nuketown Zombies.
For us, this was the last Goat CoD game before it turned downhill for fans who saw the game becoming repetitive each year.
Black Ops was a fresh twist in the long-running franchise and had the most interesting time periods compared to other CoD games.
It wasn’t just another military man and his buddies just shooting baddies with the face—the story had full of conspiracies and what if’s.
Honestly, this was Call of Duty’s best narrative with a compelling plot and lots of surprising revelations that made fans go “Okay what the actual f*ck?”.
What’s most interesting about the story was how well-blended Treyarch did by connecting the 2008 game World at War to the whole narrative. No one saw that (nor the unexpected return of certain characters like Reznov—who was still voiced by Gary Oldman) coming.
And also Vorkuta—what an incredibly-designed mission that felt like a mix of Shawshank Redemption, The Great Escape, and Enemy at the Gates.
Multiplayer was such a blast too. This time the game featured a new currency called cod points in which you must grind for in order to purchase new killstreaks and weapon customizations.
Let’s not forget Nuketown was born in this game.
Now for Zombies mode, it was amazing how Treyarch managed to expand the story of Richtofen, Dempsey, Belinski, and Masaki. At this point, Zombies had a lore of its own, making it one of the most beloved spin-off chronicles in CoD.
Lastly, one of the main highlights here is you can play as either John F. Kennedy, Fidel Castro, Richard Nixon, and Robert McNamara. You don’t get humor from the CoD series like this anymore.
Everything good that was Modern Warfare became even better in its direct sequel 2 years later.
MW2 was the peak for Activision as this brought everything good about the first MW and made it even better.
The story takes off a few years after Imran Zakhaev’s death in which he becomes a martyred hero of Russia. His successor, Makarov, wants to fulfill Zakhaev’s dream of having Russia escape from the clutches of the West by starting a war.
What does he do? Set-up a cause for war, of course.
This is where the ever-controversial No Russian mission took place. And when he knew that one of his “comrades” was actually an American spy, he shoots him right before he flees, causing a turmoil that would eventually lead the world into war.
The story had amazing plot twists and memorable missions including battles in Washington DC and the epilogue that had a very satisfying kill on the main antagonist of the story.
The multiplayer got amped up too as all of what made MW’s multiplayer great became even better—more maps, more killstreak rewards and more game modes including the coop-heavy Spec Ops mode.
Let’s not forget that this is where the whole “MLG 420 NOSCOPE GET REKT FGT” and “1v1 Rust” memes started from since the multiplayer was so highly competitive.
It dawned a new kind of gamers into the community—the aspiring pro players. Sadly, most of them were just angry 12-year-olds who kept screaming on the mic.
This was also the golden age of YouTube montages and compilations such as “FUNNY MOMENTS” or “BEST KILLS”.
It outdid the sales of MW and to this day, majority of the community calls it the best multiplayer in the franchise.
Treyarch had big shoes to fill in as they had to make a CoD game that was as thrilling in both single player and multiplayer modes.
World at War went back to its original CoD roots: WWII.
This turned off a lot of fans, most of them saying they’re playing safe and that they didn’t want to innovate. They would be wrong.
Unlike the previous world war shooters, this one was darker, grittier, and more violent than ever before. MW was violent but this was a whole new level of violence.
In fact, this has to be the goriest CoD game ever with Black Ops 3 being the close second; soldiers drag their legless bodies, intestines fly out of the stomach when hit by a grenade, heads pop off, choking from a shot through the neck—it was terrifying but highly immersive.
It was also the first CoD game to have vulgar language so when long-time fans went back in the CoD universe to play this new game, they were shocked. You should see the look on the pre-teens’ face back then.
The loading screen cutscenes were as amazing as MW’s high-tech showcase by mixing good editing and real WWII footages.
Not to mention 2 of the main characters are well-voice-acted by Keiffer Sutherland and Gary Oldman as Barnes and Reznov respectively.
World at War had a huge message for its audience: The second world war wasn’t all glory and victory but death, destruction and despair.
In fact, there were no happy moments in this game at all. Sure, you and your fellow soldiers may be cheering URA on the Reichstag but have you seen what you and your men did to both the Nazis and your comrades? Not a great sight at all.
WaW came to show people that there were no good sides in war—whether you’re American, German, Russian, or Japanese. War was war and it wasn’t good on both sides.
As for the multiplayer, it played exactly like MW except with WWII swatches. You can call it MW: WWII mod if you will.
That’s not saying it’s bad at all—in fact, it was really good at the time even to this day.
It had the same fast pacing of MW set in the 2nd world war except the killstreaks were very cool replacements: Radars were swapped with Recon Planes, Airstrikes were replaced with Artillery and, our personal favorite, Attack Helicopters opted out for Attack Dogs.
Plus it was the first (and the only) CoD game with a tank in a multiplayer. It was a shame that tanks weren’t seen in future CoD games anymore.
But the biggest highlight in the game was the addition of Zombies—a mode in which no one expected but became the most beloved.
You’d think that after rolling the credits you can rest your eyes easy after so many killings but suddenly a new cutscene happens and now you’re in a brand-new game fighting off the living dead.
It was a simple wave-based defense game but it blended so well with the mechanics of CoD so much.
It would a few months later that the game would be introduced with new Zombies DLCs with its very own original characters: Richtofen, Dempsey, Belinski, and Masaki.
Finally, we made it this far. This may not be a surprise for you as this is really the obvious choice for the #1 spot.
Modern Warfare is the definitive game in the series that ultimately transformed the franchise into what it is today.
In fact, this is considered one of the perfect games that deserve every 10/10, 5/5 stars and 100% from critics and gamers alike.
This is one of those games where you just can’t find a single mistake at all.
This game was what redefined modern FPS games as a whole—mixing gaming skills with simplistic gun mechanics.
Infinity Ward took a very bold risk here by cutting off the traditional WWII era that the series has been known for in the past 5 years and transformed it into one of gaming’s greatest achievements.
MW is beautiful from top to bottom: the engrossing single player campaign and the culture-defining multiplayer.
The campaign mode had a very good story about saving the world from a tyrant who wishes to turn the tides of battle into the West as well as one of the best set of characters alongside Black Ops.
The story was scary in its own right—scary in a way that the visions of war and death in a modern era can be possible in real life and that such extremist leaders do exist in the world we live in.
It has one of the best bundles of stories ever made in a single player game—All Ghillied Up, Shock and Awe, Death from Above and Mile High Club are to name a few.
Captain Price, is of course, the number one protagonist in this game (Fact: He was based on the same Captain Price from Call of Duty 2).
But let’s talk about the real broth in the soup: the multiplayer.
The online multiplayer was what put the game into the spotlight and the main Goat of the series.
It was simple yet so addictive that players have spent day and night playing.
It was the first of many that made it the foundation of the now successful multiplayer section of any CoD game—perk system, weapon mods, tier unlockables, and killstreaks.
The online mode was highly competitive, the weapons were balanced, the maps were well-designed and the community was very active.
This brought both PC and console gaming to a whole new level that it attracted the mainstream audience too.
It was the ultimate love letter from Infinity Ward and Activision—a game where they put so much time and effort with and didn’t feel like a cash-grab at all.
Ever since its rise in population, other publishers sought to compete with it but the bar was so high, nobody could topple Call of Duty at all.
Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare will always be remembered as the holy grail of modern FPS games.
So what’s your favorite Call of Duty game? Was there a memorable moment in your days of playing CoD?
That concludes our article on one of gaming’s most commercially successful Intellectual Properties of all time.