Activision’s military shooter series is a perennial powerhouse that has taken players back in time and into the future over the years.
Activision’s Call of Duty series is among the biggest, most popular, and best-known gaming franchises of all time. The franchise has dominated the sales charts in recent years, and this will likely continue when the next Call of Duty game inevitably launches this holiday season. We took a look back at the shooter series and ranked the top 10 best Call of Duty games. With Activision releasing a new game every year since 2003 (with the exception of 2004), we’re only calling out the top 10 games we believe are the best and not ranking the entire series overall. With that caveat out of the way, let’s dive in.
10. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3
2011’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 is perhaps best known for what happened behind the scenes to bring the game to market. In the middle of the game’s development, Activision fired Infinity Ward founders Jason West and Vince Zampella for insubordination. A team of developers left with West and Zampella (who would go on to establish Respawn Entertainment and create the much-loved Titanfall series), and Activision had to find another way to finish the game and launch it on time–and it turned to Sledgehammer to co-develop and finish the game. This proved to be an especially notable move because Sledgehammer at the time was working on a more experimental third-person Call of Duty game set in the Vietnam War. The game has never seen the light of day, and Activision has never made a third-person Call of Duty game aside from a limited multiplayer mode.
As for Modern Warfare 3 itself, the game was received positively by critics and fans alike and went on to sell many millions of copies, despite the behind-the-scenes drama. The game is remembered for its gripping campaign that continued the popular Modern Warfare storyline of members of Task Force 141 and also for its Horde-style Survival mode and for its integration with the since-shuttered Call of Duty: Elite stat-tracking and social app.
9. Call of Duty: Vanguard
The most recent entry in the Call of Duty franchise, Call of Duty: Vanguard took players back to the era where the series built its foundation: WWII. While Vanguard didn’t reach the same heights as some other modern entries in the franchise, it did provide a welcome reprieve to the “modern” and futuristic entries we’ve seen in recent years. Vanguard was a well-rounded Call of Duty package, with moments of genuine brilliance in all three of its core gameplay modes: campaign, competitive multiplayer, and Zombies.
Like most Call of Duty games nowadays, the campaign was a brief but action-packed tour of combat told through multiple perspectives. Though not the strongest from a story perspective, Vanguard’s missions were varied and consistently entertaining. The multiplayer, which continues to expand, features an impressive mix of maps and game variants, which makes for an experience that has been fun since launch and will likely remain popular until the next Call of Duty game releases. The Zombies mode removed some of the clever puzzle aspects from the formula, but it’s nonetheless an enjoyable cooperative experience. Overall, Vanguard is a solid entry in the Call of Duty franchise, even if it feels a tad safe.
8. Call of Duty: Black Ops 4
2018’s Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 from developer Treyarch marked a massive shift for the Call of Duty series, as it was the first in the entire franchise to not have a campaign mode. Despite that, the future-set military shooter impressed fans and is one of the best games in the series to date. Despite not having a campaign, we found the game’s three main modes–Zombies, Multiplayer, and Blackout–to offer substantial pathways to having a good time. Multiplayer was as good as ever, introducing new weapons and mechanics to take advantage of the game’s futuristic setting (but not forcing you to use them), while Zombies offered up a deep, memorable experience full of secrets to uncover as you lay waste to hordes of the undead.
But perhaps the biggest and most exciting innovation in Black Ops 4 was its battle royale mode, Blackout. A precursor to Warzone, which would come two years later, Blackout was Activision’s first step into the battle royale genre that it wanted to have a piece of after Fortnite and PUBG‘s success. Critics and fans alike enjoyed Blackout, even if it wasn’t perfect, and Activision would go on to take the learnings from Blackout and apply them to Warzone with great success.
7. Call of Duty: WWII
Released in 2017 from developer Sledgehammer Games, Call of Duty: WWII marked the franchise’s first return to the historical setting of WWII in many years. No more super-abilities, no wall-running, no drones. This was back-to-basics Call of Duty meant to hearken back to the earliest days of the franchise–and it was a formula that fans enjoyed and embraced. With Glen Schofield and Michael Condrey as the co-directors, WWII told a story set throughout the European Theatre, covering well-known battles and events like the Normandy landings. The game’s campaign was praised for its Band of Brothers-style narrative, following the stories of a group of soldiers trying to survive in harsh conditions, with their bonds growing closer over time. The campaign was also notable for not having automatic health regeneration.
On the multiplayer side, WWII mixed things up by casting out the create-a-class system in favor of letting players join one of a handful of Divisions, each with its own set of skills and abilities. Multiplayer also adopted a Destiny Tower-style social space called Headquarters, where players could meet up and hang out, collect and complete challenges, and take part in 1v1 matches. Sledgehammer is now continuing its WWII series with Vanguard, which launches in November.
6. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2
An Infinity Ward-developed Call of Duty game makes the list again, showcasing the studio’s impressive track record. 2009’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 followed up the massively popular Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare two years prior, continuing the story of Task Force 141 in another globe-trotting campaign to stop a terrorist threat. The campaign drew sharp and swift criticism for its infamous “No Russian” mission, in which the player takes part in an airport massacre and can choose to engage in the bloodshed.
The mission came with a warning, and it allowed players to skip it entirely, but Modern Warfare 2 will always be remembered for its No Russian mission. The campaign is short and sweet, coming in at around five hours, but what is there is memorable and action-packed–one of the finest Call of Duty campaigns to date. On the multiplayer side, Infinity Ward mixed things up with a restructured loadout system, while the perk system was overhauled as well, much to the enjoyment of players. The game proved to be so popular that Activision decided to remaster its campaign mode in 2020.
5. Call of Duty 2
2005’s Call of Duty 2 from Infinity Ward was the second-ever Call of Duty game (not counting console-only spin-offs), and it told its story from multiple perspectives across different combatants in World War II. Its graphics and overall presentation style might look dated by today’s standards, but it was a market leader at the time, which shows just how much games have grown and evolved in 15 years. One of the game’s biggest changes over its predecessor was that it featured regenerating health, a system that would be featured in basically all future Call of Duty games in some capacity or another.
The game also introduced a grenade danger indicator, which was new at the time. Fans generally enjoyed the game’s head-to-head multiplayer mode, and here at GameSpot, we said Call of Duty 2’s “varied campaign, excellent sound and gameplay design, and generally good AI make it a worthy successor to the original.”
4. Call of Duty: Black Ops
2010’s Call of Duty: Black Ops, developed by Treyarch, is among the most popular games in the franchise–and for good reason. The game features Avatar actor Sam Worthington as Alex Mason, with a supporting cast that included Ed Helms, James C. Burns, Ice Cube, and Gary Oldman in the memorable role of Viktor Reznov. Set in the ’60s during the Cold War and Vietnam War, Black Ops marked the franchise’s first steps into the murky waters of the “what if?” scenarios and conspiracy theories that many people love to entertain.
The game also featured cameos from real historical figures like JFK, Fidel Castro, and Robert McNamara. The multiplayer moved the franchise forward by giving players the freedom to better express themselves and customize their characters with unique cosmetics. And the fan-favorite Zombies mode that debuted in World at War was featured in Black Ops, letting fans fight against the undead in new environments with new abilities and features for the series. Black Ops was a tremendous success, and multiple sequels followed.
3. Call of Duty: Warzone
Call of Duty: Warzone was not Activision’s first stab at a battle royale experience, as that came from Black Ops 4’s Blackout mode. But Blackout took the first steps so Warzone could run. Released in March 2020 at the onset of the real-world pandemic, Warzone aimed to earn its place in the increasingly busy battle royale space by offering something no other game could. Call of Duty’s trademark gunplay, weapons, and the “feel” that the game provides is unmatched, and applied to a battle royale setting, the game thrived.
For years, Call of Duty fans called on Activision to create a large-scale, Battlefield-style Call of Duty experience, and Warzone delivered in spades, offering a gigantic map in Verdansk full of secrets, Easter eggs, and locations taken from memorable maps of Call of Duty’s past. Warzone is the game many Call of Duty fans could only dream of, and it is also free–lowering the barrier of entry and giving players who, for years, asked for a multiplayer-only Call of Duty (outside of the since-shuttered Call of Duty Online for Asia), exactly what they wanted. The game was not without its issues–cheating and the integration of Black Ops Cold War‘s weapons are among the issues players have called out–but the overall package is a bonafide hit.
2. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare
Activision rebooted its massively popular Modern Warfare series in 2019. Again, Infinity Ward took the reins of development, but the studio had changed since 2007’s Modern Warfare. Top bosses Jason West and Vince Zampella were fired years prior (the two then co-founded Respawn), with Naughty Dog veterans Jacob Minkoff and Taylor Kurosaki leading the team–and to great success. 2019’s Modern Warfare reboot was not only a sales juggernaut, but it scored with fans who enjoyed its return to the modern-day setting after 2018’s Black Ops 4 went further into the future. Modern Warfare, like the 2007 game, followed a world-traveling story of soldiers fighting against a common enemy.
The campaign had many striking, Zero Dark Thirty-style missions and sequences, and in one memorable sequence, you play as a little girl scrambling through a home as an enemy seeks to find her. It was a harrowing, controversial mission that, if nothing else, stands out as memorable. The multiplayer in Modern Warfare was celebrated for its great diversity of maps and modes, and for introducing large-scale warfare with vehicles and bigger maps. The gunplay was once again excellent, and the bones of the game–the proprietary Modern Warfare engine–tied things together in a cohesive way. Modern Warfare also paved the way for 2020’s Call of Duty: Warzone, which ended up being the biggest expansion to Call of Duty in years.
1. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare
Infinity Ward’s 2007 shooter sits at the top of our list and earned its place there for good reason. The game took the series out of World War II and moved it to a modern-day setting to tell a gripping, globe-trotting story with many twists and turns as players battled against a terrorist threat on a global scale. The game was praised for its cinematic, Hollywood-style campaign mode, while its quieter moments drew praise, too–the All Ghillied Up sniper mission remains iconic for the series.
But the game’s bigger impact came from its multiplayer. The game popularized now-common multiplayer elements like killstreaks and earning experience to unlock new weapons to create user-specific loadouts. After reaching level 55, players could elect to unlock “Prestige,” restart from 0, and grind all the way back up again to earn special designations. A lot of popular multiplayer conventions were established with Modern Warfare, many of which continue today in new forms. Activision remastered the game in 2016 and rebooted it with Modern Warfare in 2019, signaling its ongoing strength as a series.