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Monday, December 19, 2011

Ranking the Call of Duty Games

It's been a month and a bit since Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 was released, and people have already devoted days and days worth of time to the game - almost more than people have devoted to Skyrim, in some cases. People play the wheels off of Call of Duty games but, more often than not, they don't bother to stop and think about how it stacks up to the games that came before it.

Well, I decided to take a crack at it. This here is a list of all of the major games of the Call of Duty franchise, ranked from best to worst. If you haven't had a chance to play them all - from original to the latest release - give it a read: you may be surprised at how things stack up.

1. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare

It’s undeniable that the original Modern Warfare was the high point of the Call of Duty franchise. After having spent years in the realm of World War II, alongside market-combatants Medal of Honor and the Battlefield franchise, Call of Duty was the first blockbuster FPS franchise to step into the modern day and capitalize on an untapped setting – the modern theatre of war – and managed to change the FPS genre because of it.

Everything about the first Modern Warfare was the best that the franchise has ever offered. The graphics, the mechanics; everything about the game was brilliant. Even the story, an aspect notorious for being overlooked in the franchise, provided enough intrigue, excitement and coherence to provide a truly entertaining and interesting experience. Modern Warfare was also the first time a separate development team was devoted to work on the multiplayer aspect of the game, which resulted in the birth of such multiplayer staples as the RPG-like Perk system and killstreak rewards, things very uncommon up to that point in the industry.

It’s easy to state that Modern Warfare is the best Call of Duty: both die-hard fans and casual gamers agree that it is the best title of the franchise. What becomes more controversial is where the other games stack up behind it.

2. Call of Duty

The original – the game that started it all. Together with Halo: Combat Evolved (which was released around the same time), Call of Duty helped innovate the world of the FPS. Both games featured less linear gameplay than their predecessors, allowing for a more open style to prevail throughout the game which was practically unheard of until that point. 

Before Halo and Call of Duty, the industry relied on linear hallways and key-finding objectives to progress throughout the game. Titles such as Duke Nukem 3D, Quake and Medal of Honor seemed to be stagnating with their own brand of gameplay and it took the original Call of Duty and Halo to question the status quo.

United Offensive was an expansion pack for the original Call of Duty that expanded on the success its parent game had achieved. UO featured new campaign missions and added more substance to the multiplayer aspects, including larger maps and enhancements to the vehicle gameplay. Adding all these things together merely proves how important the original Call of Duty was for the future of the FPS genre.

3. Call of Duty: World at War

The second full title game in the franchise to be developed by Treyarch had some fair amounts of innovation; after the rousing success of the first Modern Warfare, Treyarch took the engine that Infinity Ward had developed for the game and modified it, enhancing the water and lighting effects. This was a necessary step because of the choice of setting: the American portion of the game was focused on the Pacific Theatre of WWII.

Unlike past Call of Duty games, World at War went with a more brutal and gritty presentation, trying to present the Pacific Theatre of WWII – a portion of the war that, by all accounts, was fairly terrifying – as truthfully as possible. A handful of over-the-top set pieces were balanced by a realistic presentation of the war, all made more believable by a fairly open-ended map design that allowed players freedom to adopt a more open style of gameplay. Objectives could be accomplished in a number of ways and, though a handful of corridor-like segments were present, it was an ultimately more open game than any that followed.

World at War was also the only game in the Call of Duty franchise to feature up to four-player cooperative play, and was the first game to feature the much-loved Nazi Zombies mode that has become a staple of the Treyarch titles of the franchise.

4. Call of Duty 2

The second full title in the franchise capitalized on the successes of the original and helped address concerns players had, resulting in quite a large amount of innovation in the gameplay. Gone were the health packs that required backtracking, replaced with regenerative health, the first time it was ever seen in the Call of Duty franchise (and only pre-empted by Halo: Combat Evolved).

Likewise, Call of Duty 2 further expanded on the open style of gameplay, allowing players to complete multiple objectives in whatever order they so wished and including larger-scale maps that players could wander at their own leisure. It was even the first Call of Duty game to be produced on console, launching alongside the Xbox 360 – an occurrence that marked the end of the PC domination of the franchise.

5. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3

The latest title in the Call of Duty franchise is equally disappointing and rewarding. The singleplayer portion of the game is nothing short of insulting, offering little more than five hours of gameplay that takes place in short maps that are centered around the biggest set piece the developers could think of. A collapsing building, exploding ships, a sandstorm, numerous crashed helicopters and a collapsing Eiffel Tower; all these things certainly look pretty enough and are impressively diverse, but they don’t provide enough substance to create a lasting experience. Wrap all this in a ridiculous and contrived storyline that’s only marginally better than Modern Warfare 2 and the singleplayer comes out as only barely worth the time.

The multiplayer did receive some changes from the preceding title, Black Ops. Spec Ops, which originally appeared in Modern Warfare 2, makes a triumphant return as easily the most impressive part of the game; with sixteen different Missions to choose from, as well as sixteen separate Survival maps (a mode similar to Horde from Gears of War or Firefight from Halo), Spec Ops fills the hole that co-op gamers have longed for in the Call of Duty franchise. Furthermore, the change to bundles of killstreak rewards, instead of individual selections, allows everyone to play competitive multiplayer how they want to.

Ultimately, however, Modern Warfare 3 has received little innovation from the preceding Infinity Ward game. Perhaps this is related to the lawsuit action taking place between Activision and former members of the Infinity Ward team, most of whom left the company after Modern Warfare 2 was released (which I’ll discuss later). But that’s only speculation; we can’t be sure of what might have been, so we can only go by what we can see.

6. Call of Duty 3

Call of Duty 3 marked the beginning of two cornerstones of the franchise: a focus on console over PC; and a focus on multiplayer over singleplayer.

CoD3 was the first full title in the franchise that was developed by Treyarch; it had a shortened development cycle to better facilitate Activision’s fiscal calendar and, because of that, did not receive the amount of attention it perhaps deserved. That being said, the product was ultimately lacklustre and has received much critical press over the years, often being listed as the least impressive title of the franchise.

What it did do properly, however, was help innovate the realm of multiplayer and helped promote console gaming. Most of the development time went into multiplayer, providing us with staple features such as class-based multiplayer and ranked and unranked matches. It was even the first Call of Duty game to be released on Wii and, while that console doesn’t necessarily lend itself well to FPS games, it was actually reasonably successful. There was no PC release for the title, however, which alienated some of the original fanbase, leaving only the 360 version to provide enough revenue for the title.

7. Call of Duty: Black Ops

It’s tough to say which Call of Duty is the worst: Black Ops or Modern Warfare 2. Both have convoluted and ridiculous storylines, both are too dependent on Michael Bay-esque spectacle, and both have very little in the way of innovation. In all honesty, they were both so ultimately disappointing that it’s hard to say which I dislike more.

To be fair, Black Ops did have some interesting changes on the multiplayer front. The introduction of Call of Duty points allowed players to decide how they wanted to rank up, giving them the freedom to buy what guns and what attachments they so desired. It also allowed the introduction of Wager Matches, fun gametypes that included One in the Chamber, Sticks and Stones and the Gun Game.

Other than that, however, the only selling point of the game was bigger and more over-the-top set pieces – something that ultimately detracted from how memorable the game was instead of adding to it – and a plethora of Hollywood voice acting talent, including the likes of Sam Worthington, Gary Oldman (a returnee to the franchise) and Ed Harris, a cast that any film director would be proud to have. Disappointingly, however, even the great cast couldn’t stop the game from squandering the Cold War-era setting or from the story becoming an endless mush of clichés and contrived writing. All in all, Black Ops was a disappointing game.

However, it wasn’t as disappointing as…

8. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2

While the first Modern Warfare is easily recognized as the best game of the franchise, the second Modern Warfare has no such luck. The Red Dawn-esque story, something so ridiculous and farcical now that we don’t live during the Cold War, became nothing more than an excuse to do battle in American urban centers. Beyond a few moments, such as the opening mission, the campaign was utterly forgettable, forcing characters down extremely linear corridor-like maps until they reached a ridiculous setpiece that either: A. exploded around them; or B. killed the character they were controlling. Where the first Modern Warfare unexpectedly killed one of the playable characters in a twist that showcased the brutality of war, the second one did it simply for no other reason than shock value.

(Speaking of shock value, how about the extremely controversial and ultimately unnecessary level “No Russian” where you participate in a terrorist attack on an airport? I’m all for controversial storytelling but that level was included, again, strictly for the purpose of attracting attention to the game. I’m not sure who made the decision to include that in the game but, whoever it was, I think they need to give their head a shake. Controversy sells, sure; but controversy for the sake of being controversial? Come on, people, we’re better than that.)

The multiplayer was equally forgettable, reusing old maps from the first Modern Warfare and changing very little from the way the multiplayer system worked, not to mention marking the beginning of the endless tide of overpriced "map packs" for the multiplayer. Admittedly, MW2 was the first time Spec Ops was included in a Call of Duty game and was legitimately entertaining – to a point. There was only so much replayability to be had and desperately needed the Survival mode that was added in MW3.  Add to this the fact that MW2 marked the disappearance of dedicated servers and custom gametypes from the Call of Duty franchise and the multiplayer is far below any of the other games of the franchise.

And let’s not forget the legal action fiasco that surrounded the title; when accusations were hurled between Infinity Ward and Activision, more than half of the Infinity Ward team left the company, including the founders and creators of the entire franchise. Modern Warfare 2 was a mess of uninspired gameplay and a lack of innovation, all surrounded by controversy, and ultimately deserves to be considered the worst of the series.

- Nick J.
Ranking the Call of Duty Games
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