Franchise Festival #63: Call of Duty

Welcome back to Franchise Festival, where we explore and discuss noteworthy video game series from the last four decades. Older entries can be found here.

This week we’ll be taking cover from an onslaught of facts about Call of Duty. Cover art, unless otherwise noted, is from MobyGames. Please consider supporting that website, as its volunteers tirelessly catalog key information and art assets for an often ephemeral medium.

While I carried out quite a bit of research on the series using numerous sources cited in the text below, the most significant sources for my article are Noah Caldwell-Gervais’ definitive video essays of Call of Duty: “The Complete Call of Duty Single Player Campaign Critique (For PC)” and “How’s Call of Duty‘s Single-Player Been Lately?” As proud as I am of my own work, it is a pale shadow of Caldwell-Gervais’ extraordinary analysis. If you have any interest in Call of Duty – and maybe even if you don’t – give the aforementioned videos a watch.

Table of Contents

Background
Call of Duty
Call of Duty 2
Call of Duty 3
Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare
Call of Duty: World at War
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2
Call of Duty: Black Ops
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3
Call of Duty: Black Ops 2
Call of Duty: Ghosts
Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare
Call of Duty: Black Ops 3
Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare
Call of Duty: World War II
Call of Duty: Black Ops 4
Spinoffs and Cancelled Games

Background

Video games studio 2015 Inc. was established in the late 1990s by a team of first-person shooter (FPS) hobbyists who had connected with one another online. Led by Tom Kudirka, the team initially made a name for itself developing a free mod for Quake (1996) before being contracted to produce an expansion for Ritual Entertainment’s SiN (1998). Its reputation was so strong by the turn of the millennium that 2015 Inc. was asked by Electronic Arts (EA) to develop the third entry in Steven Spielberg’s video game series of World War II shooters, Medal of Honor: Allied Assault. The resulting PC title was roundly celebrated as a new benchmark for cinematic war games in 2002.

mohnormandy
2015 Inc.’s Medal of Honor: Allied Assault was among the first video games to seriously tackle the D-Day beach invasion of World War II. Source: eBabble

2015 Inc. soon closed, however, and 22 members of its staff (including Vince Zampella, Grant Collier, and Jason West) founded a new studio called Infinity Ward. Activision made an investment in the new company, buying 30% of its equity and speculating publicly about acquiring the remaining 70%; in a detail that will take on more significant implications below, Activision simultaneously bought Treyarch Inventions, LLC, and Gray Matter Interactive Studios. Infinity Ward was now poised to capitalize on its reputation with one of the decade’s most commercially successful new properties.

26583-call-of-duty-windows-front-cover

Call of Duty (2003)

Over a span of about a year and a half, Infinity Ward’s 27 employees built Call of Duty using a modified version of Return to Castle Wolfenstein‘s id Tech 3 game engine and the working title MOH [Medal of Honor] Killer. They layered a unique proprietary skeletal system called Ares onto id Tech 3 to enhance the verisimilitude of the game’s World War II-era soldier models. The team directed a great amount of attention to the development of an AI system called Conduit, as squad-based navigation was intended to be one of their game’s core features.

squad
The player almost always works closely with a squad of allied troops as they attempt to take enemy positions. Source: Noah Caldwell-Gervais

Call of Duty was published for Windows PC in October 2003 and for Macintosh operating systems the following year. Critical reception was instantly positive, and by year’s end the game was the recipient of 70 Game of the Year awards. The degree to which Call of Duty revolutionized the FPS genre – and more specifically the historical FPS sub-genre – is difficult to overstate.

enemyatthegates
Though much of the game recalls HBO’s Band of Brothers (2001) miniseries, this sniper battle in a train yard instead echoes Enemy at the Gates (2001). Source: Noah Caldwell-Gervais

Though the original build of the game was based on a “James Bond-like character who undertook a secret mission to stop the Nazis during World War II” to separate it from the highly popular Medal of Honor series, Infinity Ward was inspired by spinoff developer Spark Unlimited to instead depict the war from the perspective of three ordinary soldiers: American Private Martin, British Sergeant Evans, and Soviet Corporal Veronin. Each experiences different facets of the war, though all are on the Allied side and face off against the Nazis in Europe. Scripted sequences, like a tutorial set in an American training camp or the raising of a victory flag atop the German Reichstag, set a cinematic tone even as the game’s most effective moments are the result of impressively complex gameplay systems.

ironsight
It’s hard to imagine the FPS genre without iron sights in the 2010s, but Call of Duty is the source of that now-ubiquitous trend. Source: Noah Caldwell-Gervais

Medal of Honor, after all, had already received accolades for its epic scale and powerful set-pieces. Call of Duty became known instead for its attention to the grim details of World War II combat, as players work within squads of fully voiced soldiers who can be cut down indiscriminately by enemy fire through no fault of their own. Players must likewise take time to line up shots using their characters’ iron sights rather than firing from the hip as they had in most earlier FPS titles. A so-called shell shock mechanic, in which the player character suffers from ringing ears and is unable to move quickly after shells explode nearby, further enhances the impression among players and critics that this represented a truer look into the past than contemporary World War II games had done

839109-call-of-duty-n-gage-screenshot-aiming-through-the-iron-sights.png
OmegaSoft’s N-Gage adaptation is a valiant effort. Source: Mobygames

An expansion pack titled Call of Duty: United Offensive was developed by recently-acquired Activision subsidiary Gray Matter Interactive and released in 2004 for PC. A Nokia N-Gage adaptation of the game, which ambitiously if unsuccessfully attempts to reproduce squad-based FPS mechanics on a handheld device, was also published in 2004. The game’s enduring popularity and the ongoing success of its franchise over the following years produced a console release with updated graphics on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 in 2009.

54287-call-of-duty-2-xbox-360-front-cover

Call of Duty 2 (2005)

Infinity Ward was fully bought out by Activision following the commercial success of their first game and quickly got to work on a sequel. Call of Duty 2 was released less than two years after its predecessor, yet represents a noticeable step forward in terms of art design and mechanics. It was also the first series entry available on home consoles: a high-definition port was published as a launch title for the Xbox 360 less than one month after the Windows version was released.

137976-call-of-duty-2-windows-screenshot-ruined-city-of-stalingrad
The scale of Call of Duty 2 is an instantly recognizable enhancement. Source: Mobygames

The intervening period had seen at least one major innovation within the FPS genre that was adopted by Infinity Ward. Halo 2 (2004) popularized regenerating health within the shooter genre, though the concept had existed prior to its inclusion in Bungie’s seminal Xbox release. The inclusion of regenerating health in the Call of Duty franchise – replacing the medkits of the series debut – would have a significant impact on how levels were designed.

gettocover
An on-screen prompt reminds player to get to cover when wounded, as if the loud noises and red haze weren’t strong enough suggestions. Source: Noah Caldwell-Gervais

Call of Duty 2‘s four campaigns echo the first game, insofar as three focus on claustrophobic corridor-shooting throughout World War II’s European theater, but also introduce a handful of new elements. Regenerating health alters the flow of battle, forcing the player to consider whether he or she should retreat behind a newly introduced abundance of cover as his or her AI allies fall to enemy gunfire. Seeking out medkits had prioritized constant momentum where regenerating health inspires an inherently more conservative set of strategies.

northafrica
The North African campaign cuts a stark contrast with the de-saturated hues of war-torn Europe. Source: Noah Caldwell-Gervais

The second critical evolution of Call of Duty 2 over its predecessor is the inclusion of a campaign set in North Africa. Though it was briefly highlighted in 2004’s console-exclusive Call of Duty: Finest Hour, battles between the Allies and Axis across the Maghreb are a comparatively under-emphasized theater of the war and emphasizing this theater helps to distinguish Call of Duty 2 among the early-2000s glut of World War II FPS titles (at least 30 produced between 1999 and 2005, by my count). Setting a campaign in the desert also helps to promote Infinity Ward’s atmospheric improvements to their id Tech 3-based IW Engine, including dust storms and other particle-based weather effects.

atmospheric
An increased emphasis on smoke bombs is no coincidence, as these serve to highlight Infinity Ward’s new game engine. Source: Noah Caldwell-Gervais

A handful of other updates, like a greater variety of soldier chatter, serves to make Call of Duty 2 a clear improvement on its predecessor. Launching alongside the Xbox 360 helped cement Call of Duty 2 as the preeminent interactive depiction of World War II at the time of its release. No expansion packs were produced, though a 2D top-down adaptation for mobile phones was developed and published by MFORMA.

mforma
It’s hard to tell, given the lack of depth, but MFORMA’s mobile adaptation is largely based on cover shooting. Source: JAVA Mobile Games

The game would leave an enduring footprint online through player participation in multiplayer modes. Up to 64 individuals on PC or eight individuals on Xbox 360 can take part in solo or team-based competitive game types, while a map editor published for PC players in 2006 further lengthened the replayability of the software and fostered a strong sense of ownership among community members. Multiplayer was not Infinity Ward’s focus at this time, but Call of Duty 2‘s successful implementation of the feature was later recalled as a sign of how the series would evolve over the following years.

394275-call-of-duty-3-playstation-2-front-cover

Call of Duty 3 (2006)

Though Activision subsidiary Treyarch had developed a previous-generation console spinoff titled Call of Duty 2: Big Red One in 2005, the California-based team would get its first opportunity to produce a core Call of Duty game the following year. Call of Duty 3 was built in less than nine months using Treyarch’s NGL game engine and published on the Wii, Xbox, Xbox 360, PlayStation 2, and PlayStation 3 in 2006. For the first time in the series’ history, no PC version was released.

achievementunlocked
Oh yeah, it’s an Xbox 360 title alright – achievement unlocked. Source: AFGuidesHD

Very little changed between Call of Duty‘s second and third core installments. Players take on one of four roles in the British, American, Polish, and Canadian armies and embark on a journey through the European theater of World War II. The most noticeable update is the introduction of quick-time events (QTEs), scripted sequences in which the player must rapidly input button combinations to engage in contextual actions like close combat. Level design is also more open than it had been in preceding Call of Duty titles.

qte
QTEs are not a central feature, but they are pretty exciting when they happen. Source: AFGuidesHD

Critically, Call of Duty 3 marks the point when Activision opted to have its developers focus more closely on online multiplayer modes. Where Call of Duty 2 featured an engaging if rudimentary online matchmaking system, where players could group together with up to seven others on the Xbox 360 or 64 on PC, Call of Duty 3 divides these players into Player and Ranked categories. The former is more directed to casual fans while the latter sees players accumulating leaderboard rankings and playing against an increasingly challenging set of opponents. Catering to a wider set of audiences ensured that Call of Duty 3 could be enjoyed by more players seeking unique experiences, further entrenching the franchise as a favorite among online shooter fans.

98959-call-of-duty-4-modern-warfare-playstation-3-front-cover

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (2007)

Three consistently strong FPS titles would suggest to observers that Activision might continue rotating Infinity Ward’s World War II shooter template among its various subsidiaries for years to come. It came as a surprise, then, when Call of Duty left World War II behind with its fourth entry. Fans would soon discover that surprise was the defining feature of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare.

lighting
The updates to the IW Engine produce startlingly lifelike lighting and smoke. Chasing realism is often a fool’s errand in visual media, but this technical expertise does create a particularly potent evocation of the Iraq War. Source: Noah Caldwell-Gervais

Developed by Infinity Ward using a new version of their IW Engine, Modern Warfare represents a major step forward mechanically and thematically from its predecessors. The team comprised a core group of 20-25 which had remained consistent since Medal of Honor: Allied Assault augmented by a massive group of new staffers hired for the project. To explore a new perspective on war, Infinity Ward opted to research and build its game around a fictional conflict set in 2011. Developers visited a live-fire exercise at a Marine training facility in California to get a feel for modern military tactics and even had US military veterans supervise their motion-capture sessions in the pursuit of accuracy.

zakhaev
The sheer breadth of mission objectives and mechanics in Call of Duty 4 is remarkable. One entire mission is a nerve-wracking attempted assassination of Russian Ultranationalist Zakhaev played through the barrel of a sniper rifle. Source: Noah Caldwell-Gervais

Two years of effort paid off, resulting in one of the most culturally significant video games released in the 2000s. Modern Warfare was published by Activision on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and Windows PC in North America on November 7, 2007. In spite of a tepid player response to a demo made accessible to PC owners a month earlier, the full release was an instant critical and commercial success.

president2
The final moments of overthrown US-backed leader Yasir Al-Fulani. Source: Noah Caldwell-Gervais

In the spirit of earlier Call of Duty games, players switch between multiple characters over the course of the game’s 18 missions, especially in the opening hours. The story centers on two soldiers – British Special Air Service (SAS) Sergeant John “Soap” McTavish and American Marine Corps Sergeant Paul Jackson – but players briefly experience events from the perspective of four additional characters. Switching between characters with more varied situations than in previous games opens up the potential for impressively avant-garde storytelling. In one mission, the player briefly controls a deposed president as he is imprisoned and then led to his grisly execution at the hands of a conquering rebel army; in another, the player aims and fires on the ghostly images of enemy soldiers from the chillingly detached perspective of a gunship operator. Squad-based tactical combat remains a core part of Call of Duty‘s mechanical pallette but takes a backseat to highly cinematic scripted sequences in the series’ fourth entry.

kaboom
One of the medium’s most harrowing and unexpected events. Source: Noah Caldwell-Gervais

The most iconic set-piece is a doomed attempt to escape from the heart of the game’s fictional Middle Eastern city. As Sergeant Jackson, the player has helped a downed helicopter pilot in accordance with the United States military’s “no man left behind” code but is consequently unable to avoid being caught up in the fallout of a nearby nuclear detonation. His helicopter crashes, he attempts to crawl through the city’s burned out streets, and he expires ignominiously on a children’s playground. All of this is experienced from a first-person perspective, creating one of the most harrowing depictions of nuclear devastation in the medium.

playground
Watching the burned-out city crumble as you crawl through the wreckage is perhaps Call of Duty: Modern Warfare‘s defining moment. Source: Noah Caldwell-Gervais

In contrast to the series’ ongoing reputation, episodes like the detached gunship assault and the player character’s unceremonious death by radiation poisoning place Call of Duty 4 squarely within the broader corpus of anti-war Western fiction. The latter portion of the campaign, in which the player character takes revenge on a breakaway Russian military faction, is comparatively less reflective and likewise less emotionally affecting. Even this section includes memorable sequences like an eerie sneaking mission through Pripyat, however.

skymission
Some have accused Call of Duty 4‘s “Death from Above” mission of being jingoistic, but other critics have regarded it as a transgressive statement on the disturbing ease with which modern asymmetric warfare may be waged by technologically advanced powers. Source: Noah Caldwell-Gervais

While the highly scripted single-player campaign was the source of extensive critical praise, Infinity Ward also brought its increased resources to bear on a multiplayer component for the first time. A few key iterations on the relatively conservative Call of Duty 2 template set a standard for virtually all military shooters of the following decade. In particular, Infinity Ward implemented killstreaks: players who were particularly successful in an online battle could make use of special attacks like air strikes on enemy positions. Simultaneously, frequent play rewards players with new equipment and skills through a leveling system. These role-playing game (RPG) mechanics may seem like an odd fit for a tactical FPS, but they successfully reproduce that genre’s decades-old feedback loop and enhance the likelihood that players will log in, level up, and keep playing long after the dust has settled on the single-player campaign.

646853-call-of-duty-4-modern-warfare-nintendo-ds-screenshot-enemy.png
n-Space’s Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare is a genuinely impressive DS title, even though its challenging control scheme left something to be desired. Source: Mobygames

A port featuring scaled-back multiplayer options and incorporating motion controls was produced by Treyarch for the Wii console in 2009; this version supports a particularly silly bonus called Squadmate Mode in which a second player character rides the first player via splitscreen and can support him or her through the use of a second gun. During the same month, a port developed for the Nintendo DS by n-Space was published by Activision. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare is an exceptionally ambitious DS title which attempts to faithfully translate FPS mechanics to a portable device through the use of the DS’ touchscreen, even going so far as to include a local deathmatch mode for up to four players utilizing either individual cartridges or the DS’ download play feature. More recently, a higher-resolution update of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare was published across PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Windows PC in 2016-2017.

136214-call-of-duty-world-at-war-windows-front-cover

Call of Duty: World at War (2008)

World at War represents the codification of Activision’s two-studio rotation policy for the Call of Duty franchise. Treyarch had been heavily involved in the production of the series since spinoff Call of Duty 2: Big Red One, but their success at producing Call of Duty 3 in such a short period of time seems to have confirmed that they were ready to be an equal partner with Infinity Ward on the development of core entries. Expanding production to two studios would facilitate a steady two-year production cycle and make it possible to deliver consistently high production values without compromising Activision’s annual release schedule.

341162-call-of-duty-world-at-war-windows-screenshot-sgt-reznov
Viktor Reznov, played by Gary Oldman, would become a recurring character as the franchise increasingly looked to noteworthy individuals rather than collective groups as its heroes and villains. Source: Mobygames

Treyarch’s World at War otherwise represents something of a step back for the franchise, however, as it returns the action to World War II and abandons the more incisive cultural commentary of Modern Warfare in favor of brutal nihilism. The player engages with two separate campaigns – one as a Russian soldier in Eastern Europe and the other as an American infantryman in the Pacific. The former is an unexpected exercise in camp, as the series incorporates celebrity voice acting for the first time in the form of Gary Oldman’s overzealous Soviet Sergeant Viktor Reznov. The Pacific campaign is less successful, playing up the shocking brutality of the Japanese military and arguably wallowing in gratuitous violence; Keifer Sutherland is similarly unconvincing in his portrayal of Corporal Roebuck.

interrogation2
An early interrogation scene, in which the player takes the role of a prisoner of war held by the Japanese army, sets an especially bleak tone. Source: Noah Caldwell-Gervais

Fetishization of violence had not, to this point, been a calling card of the Call of Duty franchise. Early entries had entirely avoided depicting blood spilling from shot soldiers, opting to emphasize heroism in the face of combat’s impersonal destruction rather than battlefield gore. World at War instead pulls the player’s eye towards multiple acts of brutality and even requires that the player character participate in the summary execution of enemy captives. This fifth entry marks the beginning of a seemingly inexorable move towards increasingly bombastic acts of violence and away from thoughtful reflection, a move which would soon provoke controversy in the wider world.

405412-call-of-duty-world-at-war-xbox-360-screenshot-they-look-hungry
Nazi Zombies is an explicitly arcade action mode which sits perhaps uneasily in the franchise’s tradition of sober reflection on global conflict. On the other hand, it’s a hoot. Source: Mobygames

On a lighter note, World at War also introduces one of the series’ most enduringly odd multiplayer modes. Nazi Zombies is a fantastical take on the World War II setting as players cooperate with one another to defend against hordes of the undead. Windows and doors must be barricaded and repaired as they are broken down by powerful waves of enemies. Though only one map is included in the base game, the mode’s instant popularity ensured that new ones were included in downloadable map packs available through digital marketplaces on the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and PC.

gluWOW
Glu Mobile’s Call of Duty: World at War is charmingly quaint but little else. Source: mobilearcade

A host of ports to less powerful hardware followed World at War’s initial release. A DS version is reminiscent of developer n-space’s Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare for the same platform, though online multiplayer is added to the portable sub-series for the first time. A PlayStation 2 version titled Call of Duty: World at War: Final Fronts was developed by Rebellion Developments and hews as closely to its source material as possible in spite of technical limitations and several new missions set at the close of World War II; some stages have been modified to be on-rails, while no online multiplayer or zombie mode is present. A port developed for Apple iOS devices centers entirely on the popular zombie mode. Finally, a run-and-gun adaptation similar only in setting and name was developed by Glu Mobile for the Windows Mobile platform.

170514-call-of-duty-modern-warfare-2-windows-front-cover

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (2009)

With the exception of a revival in 2017, Treyarch’s World at War represents the conclusion of Call of Duty’s focus on World War II. Infinity Ward would instead forge ahead with the modern approach to combat they had seemingly perfected in 2007. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 was published by Activision across PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and PC on November 10, 2009, while a stripped-down Nintendo DS version titled Call of Duty: Modern Warfare: Mobilized was developed by n-space and released alongside the full-fat home console and PC version.

face
The traitorous General Shepherd is rendered using Steven Geisler’s impressive new facial motion-capture tech. Source: Noah Caldwell-Gervais

Though Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 is mechanically similar to its direct predecessor in single-player and multiplayer modes, a handful of major updates had occurred under the hood. Enhanced graphics are utilized to emphasize faces designed by Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001) alum Steven Geisler. An updated engine based on id Tech 4 facilitates improved enemy AI, allowing the developers to finally move away from the infinitely respawning enemy units which had characterized the franchise since its debut.

specops
Player One sure is doing better than Player Two in this bomb defusal cooperative Spec Ops mission. Source: AtrophyOfSoul Let’s Plays

A new cooperative campaign is offered for the first time here as well. Unlike World at War’s zombie missions, this suite of stages instead requires that two players cooperate and coordinate closely with one another to accomplish objectives on small maps. In an interview with Engadget, lead multiplayer designer Todd Alderman explained that this new mode was introduced to cater to players who were interested in multiplayer but were intimidated by the intensely competitive atmosphere of traditional online FPS deathmatches.

whitehouse_bright
A major turn in the story sees the American homeland invaded by Russia, and the player character eventually takes the fight to the Oval Office. Source: Noah Caldwell-Gervais

In the single-player campaign, as in every Call of Duty campaign before it, the player takes on multiple roles. The overarching narrative is focused on a conflict between the United States and Russia set in the near future. The Russian Ultranationalists of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare successfully overthrow their nation’s government and launch a series of covert attacks on the West over a span of five years, culminating in Russia framing the United States for an act of terrorism and using this pretext to invade North America. The Ultranationalists are led by Vladimir Makarov, a sinister mastermind behind the events of the previous game, and aided by an American general bitter over losses sustained in the prior game’s nuclear explosion.

iss
A brief but memorable non-combat mission involves an ISS astronaut observing a nuclear attack on the United States’ East Coast. Source: Noah Caldwell-Gervais

Though five characters are playable, including Modern Warfare fan-favorite “Soap” McTavish, three are largely relegated to noteworthy set-pieces rather than lengthy combat sequences. These brief interludes include stepping into the shoes of an astronaut on the International Space Station and engaging in a Moscow airport massacre as undercover American soldier Joseph Allen. The latter mission, titled “No Russian,” would form the basis for ongoing controversy associated with the game and the series more generally.

norussian
The calm before the “No Russian” storm. Yes, the sequence is as gross as it sounds. Source: Noah Caldwell-Gervais

In “No Russian,” players are asked to gun down a host of unarmed civilians to maintain their cover with the Russian Ultranationalist syndicate. The player can choose to have their character comply with the order or not, but the mission was still heavily censored in certain territories: an instant fail state when the player character fires on the civilians is included in Australian and German versions while the mission is omitted entirely in Russia. Widespread hand-wringing in territories even in the territories where it was released uncut prompted Infinity Ward to patch in a screen offering players the opportunity to skip the scene post-launch. It became hard not to wonder if Treyarch’s more nihilistic depiction of war had begun to seep into Infinity Ward’s design ethic. This wider cultural conversation, though, would do little to halt the ascent of the series as it shattered previous video game sales records by selling nearly 30 million copies before the year’s end.

301397-call-of-duty-black-ops-wii-front-cover

Call of Duty: Black Ops (2010)

Treyarch’s follow-up to World at War lacked an immediately recognizable connection to its predecessor, but it was indeed a direct sequel. Keifer Sutherland and Gary Oldman had lent their voices to World at War and the latter would reprise his role as Viktor Reznov in Black Ops despite decades having passed in-game. A number of other Hollywood actors, including Sam Worthington and Ice Cube, also appear as heavily motion-captured characters. Interviews with American and Russian special forces served to further ground the series in realism.

interrogation2
Interrogation sequences begin horrifying but grow downright unhinged as the plot progresses. Source: Noah Caldwell-Gervais

In a series first, Black Ops is set during the Cold War and details the exploits of American operatives engaging in unconventional worldwide warfare against communism during the 1960s. The story is framed as a flashback from the perspective of Alex Mason as he undergoes an interrogation in 1968, growing increasingly unreliable as it unravels. Critic Noah Caldwell-Gervais makes a compelling case that this reflects the era’s decreasing faith in authority figures and traditional structures of national identity.

nam_choppers
Black Ops wears its influences on its sleeve, from Deer Hunter (1978) to Apocalypse Now (1979). Source: Noah Caldwell-Gervais

Black Ops includes the now-standard popular online multiplayer mode, but also foregrounds the zombie mode more prominently than ever before. Up to four players – online or in person on a single console – can take part in a relatively lengthy campaign in which they must defend the Pentagon and other locations from waves of the undead. Some maps feature unique characters, including historical figures John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Robert McNamara, and Fidel Castro as well as Hollywood icons Sarah Michelle Gellar, Danny Trejo, Robert Englund, Michael Rooker, and George Romero. Naturally, this mode concludes with Earth’s annihilation via missiles fired from a lunar base.

history_brighten
If you’ve wanted to right the wrongs of 1960s US foreign policy via zombie combat, this game’s for you. Source: Mobygames

At the same time as the core game’s release on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Windows PC, and Wii, a portable version developed by n-Space was released on the DS. This was similar to earlier DS series entries, though a new control scheme was introduced to mitigate complaints about preceding releases. A contemporary side-scrolling mobile adaptation by Glu, on the other hand, is related to the original game only insofar as it is also set during the Cold War.

234611-call-of-duty-mw3-playstation-3-front-cover

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 (2011)

In March 2010, Infinity Ward co-founders Jason West and Vince Zampella were dismissed from the studio by parent company Activision for unspecified “breaches of contract and insubordination.” The two sued Activision and were counter-sued in turn, leading to numerous recriminations, including allegations of poor management within Activision’s corporate structure and suggestions that Infinity Ward had been conspiring with rival publisher Electronic Arts. Infinity Ward lost more than 30 employees in the aftermath of the suit, including all of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2‘s lead designers. There would be no way forward for the Modern Warfare sub-series without an infusion of new talent and new ideas.

scale
Behind-the-scenes struggles didn’t keep Modern Warfare 3 from being the largest-scale release in the franchise’s history. Source: Noah Caldwell-Gervais

Activision still managed to deliver on its annual release schedule by integrating two new studios. California’s Sledgehammer Games spearheaded work on the single-player campaign while Wisconsin’s Raven Software, still suffering from the poor performance of its 2009 entry in the Wolfenstein franchise and 2010’s Singularity, was tapped to develop the online multiplayer mode. Both would go on to play a pivotal role in the Call of Duty series.

office
Banal environments like office complexes remain a core part of Modern Warfare‘s visual vocabulary. Source: Noah Caldwell-Gervais

The highly collaborative Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 was released on the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Wii, and PC in November 2011. A Wii port was developed by Treyarch while a DS adaptation featuring an entirely distinct campaign was produced by n-Space. All versions sold well, demonstrating that not even extensive internal turmoil could disrupt the franchise’s status as a commercial juggernaut.

vignette2
One particularly horrifying alternate sequence is a brief chapter depicting a terrorist attack on London from the perspective of a tourist family. Source: Noah Caldwell-Gervais

Players return to the roles of John Price and “Soap” McTavish for the third time as they partner with Russian loyalist Yuri and pursue the villainous Makarov once again. His American ally General Shepherd having died at the player character’s hand during the conclusion of Modern Warfare 2, Makarov is now focused on destabilizing and invading Western Europe. A handful of additional playable characters are present, including some used for brief non-combat interludes in the tradition of earlier series entries, but Modern Warfare 3‘s emphasis on elite transnational warriors marks a clear separation with the past.

eiffeltower
Set-pieces grow more and more bombastic, culminating in the obliteration of the Eiffel Tower in Paris. Source: Noah Caldwell-Gervais

The franchise had intentionally been created as a corrective against the freewheeling exploits of overpowered super-soldiers in contemporary war shooters. Squad-based tactical combat characterized the first four Call of Duty titles, but had begun to fade in importance as early as 2008’s Call of Duty: World at War. As the Modern Warfare sub-series shifted from focusing on the delicate peace between nation-states and instead narrowed its scope to the conflict between specific actors – Price, McTavish, Makarov, Shepherd, and others – its mechanics similarly reflected powerful individuals overcoming overwhelming odds in quests of personal vengeance. The backdrop remained large-scale conflict but the stakes had grown increasingly personal. This shift in emphasis is perhaps best exemplified by Yuri’s remark at the start of Modern Warfare 3‘s final mission that “this one’s for Soap.”

makarov
A gratuitous (if mercifully dim) late-game scene sees the player character finally taking revenge on Makarov. Source: Noah Caldwell-Gervais

Having seemingly influenced the single-player campaign’s enhanced focus on personal heroics, the multiplayer campaign remains a key piece of the series’ identity in its eighth core entry. Raven Software updated the killstreak system by offering points for accomplishing mission objectives, rather than basing access to special attacks exclusively on the number of opponents killed. Fans initially criticized the game for its lack of innovation over Modern Warfare 2. Whether in reaction to this negative response or the complexities of its development process – or perhaps for no other reason than Activision’s desire to explore new ideas and settings – Modern Warfare 3 represents the last entry in this sub-series at the time of writing.

262721-call-of-duty-black-ops-ii-wii-u-front-cover

Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 (2012)

Treyarch was soon back on deck with a direct sequel to its Call of Duty: Black Ops (2010). The single-player campaign picks up in 1986 at the close of the Cold War, though a second story is set in 2025. Characters and voice actors from Black Ops return, including Victor Reznov (Gary Oldman) and Alex Mason (Sam Worthington), while new characters feature Hollywood talent like Michael Rooker and Erin Cahill; bizarrely, disgraced United States General Oliver North cameos as himself.

olivernorth
Sad but true – Activision actually paid Oliver North for an appearance in this game. Source: Noah Caldwell-Gervais

Both time periods concern arms dealer Raul Menendez. After having been wronged by US business concerns and the CIA, Menendez sets out on a long-term path of vengeance. This leads him to pit NATO and China against one another in a second Cold War as the leader of populist military organization Cordis Die. Menendez is opposed in the earlier time period by returning protagonists Alex Mason and Frank Woods while the 2025 missions feature Mason’s son David as the player’s avatar.

sniping
The de rigueur sniper mission is this time a pivotal point that determines whether a major character lives or dies. Source: Noah Caldwell-Gervais

Branching storylines lead to multiple endings for the first time in the franchise’s history. These range from a relatively happy conclusion in which the player characters avert global catastrophe to tragic outcomes in which all main characters are killed. In the spirit of Silent Hill, Treyarch even included a joke ending in which the protagonists and antagonists join one another in an on-stage appearance at an Avenged Sevenfold concert.

avenged7fold2
The bonus ending is deliriously stupid in all the best ways. Source: Noah Caldwell-Gervais

A new mode called Strike Force represents a similarly major overhaul to the series’ traditional single-player structure. Once play shifts to the 2025 campaign, the player is free to take part in a series of brief objective-oriented skirmishes where they control a vehicle or piece of smart technology during the war between NATO and China. These missions feature permanent death and cannot be reloaded if failed within a given player account. Additionally, the player’s success or failure has a direct impact on the ending of the single-player campaign.

futuristic
Call of Duty leaps – quite literally – into futurstic combat with its weapons and flying suits. Source: Noah Caldwell-Gervais

Multiplayer represents less of a break with series tradition. Some mechanical updates have been made to how the player upgrades their arsenal and skills, called the Pick Ten system, but the overall structure is similar to Call of Duty games since 2007’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. The Zombies mode returns and includes a surreal narrative campaign in the style of the preceding Black Ops.

640055-call-of-duty-black-ops-ii-wii-u-screenshot-modifying-a-loadout
Here’s an example of the “You Pick Two”, er, “Pick Ten” class customization system from Call of Duty: Black Ops 2‘s online multiplayer. Source: Mobygames

While the core game was released on the franchise’s now-typical platforms – PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and PC – a version released for Nintendo’s idiosyncratic Wii U features slightly pared-down performance but integrates the unique capacity for two players to play together on two separate screens using a single copy of the game (television and GamePad). No DS version was produced for the first time since Call of Duty 3, but a rough adaptation set between Black Ops and Black Ops 2 was developed by Nihilistic Software for the PlayStation Vita. The resulting game, Call of Duty: Black Ops Declassified, suffers from extensive technical issues and was widely pilloried by critics.

295121-call-of-duty-ghosts-xbox-360-front-cover

Call of Duty: Ghosts (2013)

Call of Duty: Ghosts was developed by a reconstituted Infinity Ward and published by Activision for the PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One, Wii U, and PC in 2013. All versions are roughly identical aside from graphical fidelity and performance. For the first time since 2008, a new Call of Duty was not followed by the announcement that it represented the year’s most commercially successful entertainment launch; Kotaku‘s Owen Good speculatively attributed this fall from grace to either the release of Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto V (2013) or the new suite of home consoles from Sony and Microsoft.

657524-call-of-duty-ghosts-wii-u-screenshot-fort-santa-monica-and
Riley is a good boy. Source: Mobygames

The game itself was more broadly a critical disappointment, as it abandons the thrilling futuristic weapons and gritty branching narrative of Black Ops 2 in favor of an over-the-top single-player campaign focused on an elite group of US Special Forces called Ghosts. The story is set in the near future and concerns the Ghosts’ attempt to defend the US homeland following a devastating attack by the belligerent South America-based Federation of the Americas. A few interesting set-pieces, including a gun battle in space and sequences where the player controls a German Shepard ally named Riley, are not enough to mask the game’s overall sense of diminished ambition.

Female_against_aliens_Extinction_CoDG
Cryptids are as dangerous as they look. Source: Call of Duty Fandom

Unlike recent entries in the series, though, Call of Duty: Ghost‘s greatest innovations are its changes to multiplayer gameplay. Zombies mode has been replaced by Extinction, a colorful series of cooperative team-based missions in which small groups of players work together to defeat ancient cryptids which emerge from beneath the Earth’s crust; these enemies are more coordinated and mobile than zombies, and were created by Infinity Ward to enhance the dynamism of combat. Another new mode, Squads, lets players online or in-person engage in team-based multiplayer in groups of up to ten. AI units can be used to populate enemy squads, making this another comparatively low-impact multiplayer mode accessible to less competitive Call of Duty fans.

309072-call-of-duty-advanced-warfare-xbox-one-front-cover

Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare (2014)

Before they were asked to collaborate with Infinity Ward and Raven Software on Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, Sledgehammer Games had been developing a third-person Call of Duty set in the Vietnam War and based on the developers’ experience working on survival horror cult classic Dead Space (2008). This project was canceled in 2010, but rumors of its revival began to circulate when fans discovered that the next core entry in the Call of Duty series had been assigned to Sledgehammer Games. These rumors were sadly quashed in a 2014 Game Informer interview – the Vietnam War’s unpopularity to worldwide audiences was cited by studio founders Glen Schofield and Michael Condrey as the main reason for the project remaining on ice – but leaving the past behind allowed Sledgehammer to focus on making the eleventh Call of Duty title the most forward-looking one so far.

COD_Vietnam_2
Concept art from the abandoned Call of Duty: Vietnam. Source: Call of Duty Fandom

Set between 2054 and 2061, Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare picks up the futuristic elements of Call of Duty: Ghosts 2 and dramatically expands on them. The game imagines a highly globalized world in which the Atlas Corporation maintains the world’s largest standing army. As nations begin to buckle under the onslaught of a terrorist group called KVA, governments turn to Atlas to keep them safe. Protagonist “Jack” Mitchell, initially a US Marine and later a mechanically-enhanced soldier in the employ of Atlas, slowly unravels a conspiracy involving the company’s embittered CEO.

spacey
Atlas CEO Jonathan Irons is a highlight. Source: Noah Caldwell-Gervais

As the first Call of Duty built from the ground up for the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One (though also ported to the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 by High Moon Studios), Advanced Warfare features heavily improved visuals. This constitutes the first truly significant technical overhaul since the release of Call of Duty 4 in 2007. For the first time in the series’ history, major actors contributed both their voice and motion-captured likeness in the form of Kevin Spacey’s villainous Jonathan Irons and Troy Baker’s “Jack” Mitchell.

gamifyinggrief
An interactive funeral scene pushes the boundaries of traditional game settings, but is unsuccessful in gamifying grief. Source: Noah Caldwell-Gervais

Gameplay represents a similarly tangible step forward for the series. Weapons include conventional firearms, but also integrate powerful lasers and other weapons drawn from speculative fiction. The player character can also make use of an EXO suit, which permits highly mobile actions like running on walls and leaping long distances. Readouts on remaining ammunition and other environmental details are now relayed via diegetic holograms rather than as interface elements. Finally, the gameplay bucks series tradition by including only one playable protagonist; Sledgehammer made this decision in order to emphasize a single character’s growth over the campaign’s six-year narrative.

813839-call-of-duty-advanced-warfare-playstation-4-screenshot-exo
EXOs can be upgraded using points, enhancing which abilities they confer. Source: Mobygames

Aside from the new mobility introduced by EXO suits, Advanced Warfare‘s Raven Software-developed multiplayer offers little innovation on Call of Duty‘s reliable online experience. A wave-based survival mode, EXO Survival, replaces similar modes in prior series entries while a new Zombies campaign featuring actors John Malkovich, Rose McGowan, Jon Bernthal, and Bruce Campbell was introduced as downloadable content following the game’s release. The lack of multiplayer innovation did not keep the game from enjoying a positive critical and commercial reception, and it successfully set the tone for an increasingly experimental run of franchise entries.

544329-call-of-duty-black-ops-iii-playstation-4-front-cover

Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 (2015)

Though it was developed by Treyarch independently from Sledgehammer’s Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 is likewise set in a distinctly futuristic milieu. Its 2065 is less glamorous than Advanced Warfare‘s 2050s, though, as it focuses its attention on a world on the brink of collapse due to widespread climate change and constant combat. Conventional warfare has become near-impossible due to technological advances, being replaced by ongoing skirmishes and bloody covert attacks by operatives and AIs.

robot
A first-person experience of robot brutality certainly makes a strong case for AI anxiety. Source: Noah Caldwell-Gervais

The campaign, which features a four-player cooperative option for the first time, is largely nonlinear. Players choose between a male and female protagonist and then embark on a series of missions in the order they choose. Along with an extremely unreliable perspective, this non-linearity serves to foreground a pervasive sense of unease about human identity in an increasingly AI-driven society. A bonus mode called Nightmares marries the supernatural elements of the series’ fan-favorite Zombies mode with a single-player campaign for the first time.

surreal2
The narrative becomes intensely surreal at points in both its structure and moment-to-moment events. Source: Noah Caldwell-Gervais

Multiplayer is not appreciably different than what came before, though ports of this eighth-generation game for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 are notorious for being fully online. No single-player campaign is included in the version created for seventh-generation consoles due to Treyarch’s concerns over memory restrictions and their impact on four-person cooperative play. Even so, the unprecedented decision to integrate a story into Call of Duty‘s multiplayer for the first time ensures that Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 players still receive some form of narrative in an otherwise heavily compromised version of Black Ops 3.

372780-call-of-duty-infinite-warfare-windows-apps-front-cover

Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare (2016)

Infinity Ward followed the foundation laid down by Sledgehammer and Treyarch, setting their next Call of Duty entry in the distant future. In a classic case of one-upsmanship, though, Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare would move its combat from Earth to space. A handful of missions had been set off-world in earlier Call of Duty titles, including Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2‘s combat-free International Space Station interlude – but Infinite Warfare represents the franchise’s deepest dive into zero-gravity environments.

vistas
Some sequences look more like Mass Effect (2007) than traditional Call of Duty. Source: Noah Caldwell-Gervais

The single-player campaign finally fully jettisons the notion of international combat from the increasingly transnational franchise. The player takes on the role of a Commander in the Solar Associated Treaty Organization, the defense wing of the Earth’s United Nations Space Alliance (USNA). Player character Nick Reyes is tasked with battling the breakaway Settlement Defense Front, led by actor Kit Harrington’s Admiral Salen Kotch, across terrestrial and open outer space environments en route to their Martian base during an improbably brief in-game period of 24 hours.

SalenKotch_WantedPoster_IW
You can tell Kit Harrington’s playing the bad guy because he’s on a wanted poster. Source: Call of Duty Fandom

This articulates through a variety of new gameplay systems and mechanics. Commander Reyes has access to a hub world, in the form of USNA ship Retribution, where he can access main story missions or sidequests. Borrowing another system from the increasingly popular open-world RPG genre, Call of Duty uses these sidequests to offer gear and cosmetic upgrades while fleshing out Infinite Warfare‘s universe and cast. Commander Reyes also has the ability to make use of a personal ship called the Jackal while engaged in missions, transitioning seamlessly between on-foot and airborne vehicular combat. A grappling hook and other unique tools round out the player character’s verb set with new opportunities for stage traversal.

jackal
Vehicles have long been a part of the series fabric, but flight sequences with the Jackal are particularly robust implementations of the mechanic. Source: Noah Caldwell-Gervais

Infinite Warfare‘s multiplayer, as ever, hews more closely to the franchise’s traditional design elements than its single-player campaign. Still, Infinity Ward has updated loadouts and character progression to favor a more class-based approach to customization. The new Combat Rig system sees players choosing between six classes, each with their own strengths and roles to play in combat, and leveling up a set of skills and stats which contribute to that class’ specialization.

squad
Interactions with the crew of the Retribution are among the single player campaign’s highlights. Source: Noah Caldwell-Gervais

Given the level of innovation and craftsmanship that Infinity Ward had applied to a series which had grown increasingly stale from 2008-2014, it is disappointing to discover that sales fell short of Activision’s expectations. The game had been subject to an intensive fan-driven criticism campaign ahead of its release, perhaps due to Activision’s questionable choice to make a remastered version of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare exclusively an Infinite Warfare pre-order bonus, and its trailer gained ignominy as one of YouTube’s most disliked videos. Whatever the cause for Advanced Warfare‘s comparatively poor commercial performance, it’s hard not to view Activision’s following transition towards more traditional Call of Duty settings and mechanics as a conservative course-correction.

549959-call-of-duty-wwii-playstation-4-front-cover

Call of Duty: World War II (2017)

Call of Duty: World War II sees the franchise finally return to the conflict on which its reputation was built in the early 2000s, representing a step back in subject matter if not quality. Almost a decade had passed since Activision published a World War II title and Sledgehammer’s development acumen was now brought to bear on the real world’s largest-scale war. The result is a beautiful game that captures the look of the era better than ever before while losing sight of what made early Call of Duty games so uniquely successful at depicting World War II.

927069-call-of-duty-wwii-playstation-4-screenshot-d-day-beach-landing
Sledgehammer takes their shot at the battle which Infinity Ward captured so well in Medal of Honor: Allied Assault. Source: Mobygames

Players step into the boots of Ronald “Red” Daniels, a soldier in the United States 1st Infantry Division. Outside of a stirring sequence in which the player controls a vengeful member of the French Resistance, the single-player campaign perspective is limited to one member of the US military. Major battles, including Normandy Beach and Hurtgen Forest, are reprised from earlier Call of Duty games in startlingly enhanced visual clarity.

927068-call-of-duty-wwii-playstation-4-screenshot-meeting-the-team
You wouldn’t want star power Josh Duhamel to be lost in the first mission, would you? Source: Mobygames

Unfortunately, Call of Duty: World War II‘s campaign features a controversial revision to earlier series entries’ approach to the war. Since every squadmate is heavily motion-captured and voice acted, the game does not allow them to be cut down indiscriminately by enemy fire as the player character moves through horrifying tableaus. This may seem a small alteration, and indeed allows for more fully fleshed-out character arcs, but renders the game unable to comment as incisively on the impersonality and brutality of the conflict as resonantly as Call of Duty or Call of Duty 2 had done.

927093-call-of-duty-wwii-playstation-4-screenshot-perfect-just-where
A tense espionage sequence in which the player infiltrates a German-occupied building as French Resistance fighter Rousseau is especially effective. Source: Mobygames

In a major improvement on the franchise’s earliest releases, though, Call of Duty: World War II does more seriously engage with horrors off the battlefield. Squad member Robert Zussman is imprisoned in a concentration camp while the player character directly witnesses racism directed at black soldiers in his own country’s military. These aspects of the historical reality were included as an attempt at respectfully depicting the period’s injustice, according to a GamesRadar interview with Sledgehammer co-founder Michael Condrey.

927083-call-of-duty-wwii-playstation-4-screenshot-urban-warfare
Urban combat is more densely constructed than earlier World War II-set Call of Duty games, but not fundamentally different. Source: Mobygames

With regard to gameplay, Call of Duty: World War II is a highly traditional experience. The futuristic trappings of the last few series entries have been stripped away, and Sledgehammer even reintroduces a non-regenerating health gauge for the first time since the series’ debut. Teammates may offer medical assistance when the player character is wounded, elegantly marrying the narrative’s focus on camaraderie with a gameplay system.

bunker
You’ve never seen 1940s bunkers and detritus look this good. Source: Noah Caldwell-Gervais

Call of Duty: World War II‘s multiplayer features some alterations to reflect its time period and return to the emphasis on collectivism. Character classes are now represented as divisions, dictating the role and skills that players have on the battlefield. New game mode War, developed by Raven Software, sees teams of six players competing with one another to accomplish objectives in recreations of specific World War II battles. An instanced hub area set on Omaha Beach allows up to 48 players to interact with one another outside of combat and, strangely, engage in one-on-one duels. Finally, the Nazi Zombies mode makes its return as a rather bold contrast to the single-player campaign’s serious tone.

928903-call-of-duty-wwii-playstation-4-screenshot-nazi-zombies-multiplayer
The Zombies campaign is as fun as ever, though its irreverant tone stands out a bit more here. Source: Mobygames

Critical reception to the game was largely positive. Reviews highlighted the multiplayer modes and Zombies as particularly engaging, while others were disappointed in Activision playing it safe after several innovative franchise entries. The presence of loot boxes in multiplayer – a highly controversial microtransaction design element which became the subject of intense scrutiny in 2017-2018 – was also a source of criticism. The game’s status as the bestselling title of 2017, though, confirms that the series had bounced back from its brief commercial decline by exploring what had worked in the past. Its next installment would be simultaneously more traditional and more experimental.

517702-call-of-duty-black-ops-iiii-playstation-4-front-cover

Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 (2018)

Thanks to an extensive investigative report by Kotaku‘s Jason Schreier in 2019, fans know much more about the development process for Treyarch’s Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 than they do about earlier series entries. The process of producing 2018’s annual Call of Duty release was beset by problems since its inception two years earlier. An ambitious two-on-two cooperative/competitive hybrid story campaign was scrapped in early 2018 after having been heavily worked up by the development team, prompting internal frustration matched only by later anger among the quality assurance staff that they were being poorly compensated for 70 hour weeks and treated as second-class employees while studio executives were receiving massive bonus payments. This poor work culture was hardly new to the industry – or indeed new to Treyarch, which had created 2005’s Call of Duty 3 in only eight months – but Schreier’s interviews with eleven current and former Treyarch staff members shone a disturbing light on the pressures associated with Activision’s blistering release schedule.

2018-10-12-product
The visuals are as meticulously crafted as ever even as the gameplay stagnates. Source: TechSpot

The game that resulted from these circumstances is among the strangest in the Call of Duty series. Opting to emphasize the multiplayer component following analytics that showed 90% of players focused on that mode during play, Treyarch released the game with no single-player campaign included. The Zombies mode offers a series of cooperative stages, while a loose narrative fills in the backstory of characters in multiplayer, but there is no traditional offline component on offer for the first time in series history. The studio had decided to strip out its most traditional element in favor of the game mode most popular with contemporary players.

call-of-duty-black-ops-blackout-2
Blackout was considered by critics to be more successful than its inspiration, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (2017). Source: Mobile Syrup

Lest it be considered the least feature-rich and most conservative series entry in years, though, Treyarch decided in early 2018 to include an entirely new game mode based on recent industry trends. A battle royale scenario called Blackout allows up to 100 players to compete with one another in an elimination competition on a sprawling map. This mode salvaged assets created for the abandoned single-player/cooperative campaign.

lootbox2
No online game developer could resist the siren song of the loot box, even after the approach to ongoing customer transactions began to come under fire by the European Union in 2018. Source: Eurogamer

Following its troubled development and well-publicized lack of a mode which fans had come to expect after 15 years of annual releases, Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 was a mixed commercial success; physical sales were the lowest in the series’ history while digital sales were the highest despite being unavailable on the PC’s ubiquitous Steam digital distribution platform. Most reviewers praised the Blackout mode, though Activision predictably received criticism for the absence of a story-driven single-player campaign and the slow release of predatory microtransactions following release. Though indictments of workplace distress make one wonder how sustainable the practice is, the series’ annual release schedule ensures that another opportunity for fans more interested in a compelling single-player narrative is just around the corner.

Call_of_Duty_Online_logo.png

Spinoffs and Canceled Games

Call of Duty has produced a wide variety of spinoffs throughout its history, leaving aside the portable adaptations of core series entries. These took the form of distinctive campaigns in the franchise’s earliest years but expanded to include peculiar genre exercises by the early 2010s. In addition, at least two major spinoffs were canceled before they could be released.

508724-call-of-duty-finest-hour-gamecube-screenshot-the-story-is
Call of Duty: Finest Hour makes use of archival footage to tell its story between missions. Source: Mobygames

Call of Duty: Finest Hour was developed by Spark Unlimited and released in 2004 on the PlayStation 2 and Xbox while simultaneously being ported to the Gamecube by Exakt Entertainment. It represents the series’ debut on home consoles with a campaign broadly resembling the structure of Call of Duty (2003); players work their way through campaigns featuring British, American, and Soviet military units. A multiplayer mode is limited to Xbox and PlayStation 2 players making use of their hardware’s limited online components or connecting multiple consoles together via link cables. A planned sequel was canceled after Spark Unlimited exceeded their budget on Finest Hour and entered into a lengthy legal battle with Activision.

bigredone_bright
Big Red One has a lot going on for a seventh-generation game. Source: Mobygames

Call of Duty 2: Big Red One was developed primarily by Treyarch in their first role working with the series. Released on the PlayStation 2, Xbox, and Gamecube in 2005, it focuses almost exclusively on the experience of the US 1st Infantry Division’s Sergeant Roland Roger. Though a single mission lets the player see through an alternate perspective, this spinoff was the first time that the series would emphasize a single point of view. As with its console predecessor, multiplayer is only possible for PlayStation 2 and Xbox players using the internet or link cables.

219238-call-of-duty-roads-to-victory-psp-screenshot-in-some-missions
Mounted guns help to reduce the input challenges associated with playing an FPS on the PlayStation Portable. Source: Mobygames

Released in the midst of the core series’ portable adaptations detailed in the main body of the article, the PlayStation Portable’s Call of Duty: Roads to Victory (2007) stands out as something of an oddity. It ambitiously covers three World War II military campaigns in the European theater – American, British, and Canadian – and gives the player access to ten different playable protagonists. The scope suggests a home console release abandoned when Activision decided to pursue a modern setting with 2007’s Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare but I could find no evidence to support that. Whatever the case, Roads to Victory received mixed reviews and most future series entries would be either explicitly or implicitly tied into core titles.

248343-call-of-duty-black-ops-zombies-screenshot
Call of Duty: Black Ops – Zombies is certainly more colorful than its home console/PC cousin. Source: Mobygames

Call of Duty‘s next spinoffs consist of two Zombies-based mobile titles published for Apple iOS devices in 2009 and 2011. Developed by Ideaworks Game Studio, both are simplified top-down arcade shooters games which require the player character to defend an area against waves of the undead. The first directly references Call of Duty: World at War while the second ties into Call of Duty: Black Ops and was published on Android devices following its predecessor’s success on the Apple Store.

2_Cyborg_zombies_Dead_Rising_CODO
Egads, Cyber-Zombies! Source: Call of Duty Fandom

Activision then released a Raven Software-developed spinoff exclusive to China. Distributed by that country’s Tencent Holdings through a closed beta in January 2013 (and again in an open beta two years later), Call of Duty Online is a fully online entry released five years before a similar approach would be explored by the core series in the West. Assets are largely recycled from the Modern Warfare and Black Ops sub-series, along with Ghosts and Advanced Warfare, though additional personalization items for player avatars were designed to reflect the Chinese audience. The included Zombies mode replaces the undead with cyborgs, presumably to avoid complexities surrounding depictions of the supernatural in Chinese media. Surprisingly, Call of Duty Online also seems to have been used as a testing ground for a battle royale mode before that feature was included in the West’s Call of Duty: Black Ops 4.

21696-call-of-duty-strike-team-screenshot
The tactical overhead perspective in Call of Duty: Strike Team rather resembles XCOM: Enemy Unknown (2012). Source: Mobygames

Call of Duty: Strike Team, developed by The Blast Furnace, is a tactical shooter released on iOS and Android devices in 2013. Gameplay switches from a first-person perspective to an overhead perspective as the player character uses a aerial drone to observe battlefields and assign tasks to their squadmates in the style of a real-time strategy game. Though no multiplayer is present, Strike Team features a relatively lengthy single-player campaign and additional challenge maps.

753685-call-of-duty-heroes-android-screenshot-you-can-manually-control
Though the game is otherwise pretty derivative, Call of Duty: Heroes does offer the uniquely Call of Duty ability to manually fire on enemy bases from an attack helicopter. Source: Mobygames

Call of Duty: Heroes was developed by FaceRoll games and published on iOS and Android devices by Activision in 2014. Featuring a host of popular characters drawn from the series’ core entries, Heroes offers single-player and multiplayer real-time strategy gameplay reminiscent of other free-to-play mobile strategy titles. Players attempt to dominate an opponent by developing resources and military units but is hampered by timers which can be modified by paying microtransactions. The game was discontinued in 2018.

17isix09ra47kjpg
Call of Duty: Devil’s Brigade would have included third-person combat and, if the indicator in the lower-left corner is to be believed, the ability to issue general squad commands. Source: Kotaku

Though the disappearance of Call of Duty: Vietnam and the contentious shuttering of Spark Unlimited’s sequel to Call of Duty: Finest Hour are explained above, at least two other Call of Duty entries have been abandoned since the series began in 2003. The first is Call of Duty: Devil’s Brigade, a World War II-era title in development by Underground Entertainment as the series’ fourth core entry before that role was reassigned to Infinity Ward and Underground Entertainment was asked to produce Guitar Hero: Van Halen (2009). This game would have been set in Italy.

tactics2
It’s not entirely clear from the video whether battles in Call of Duty: Tactics would have been turn-based or real-time. Source: Game Informer

The second canceled Call of Duty franchise entry was a planned spinoff in development by Vicarious Visions circa 2012. Call of Duty Tactics seems to have been a tactical strategy game focusing on small-scale combat between squads of soldiers. The only source for this otherwise-mysterious abandoned spinoff is a prototype video found on animator Steve Nelson’s online portfolio, leaving fans to wonder what might have been.

Conclusion

Call of Duty is a vast, impossibly ambitious franchise subject to compelling arguments about its value and controversy over its production methods. Activision might be commended for producing a core series release every year since 2003, in addition to spinoffs, but recent evidence suggests that their strategies for doing so are unethical. Entries like Call of Duty 2, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, and Call of Duty: World War II offer impressively nuanced portrayals of the heroism and horror of past and present conflicts, while other titles wallow in gratuitous violence or promote uncritical nationalism. With controversial new entries on the horizon – a Call of Duty: Modern Warfare reboot and a Tencent-developed mobile spinoff are scheduled for late 2019 – these conversations are expected to continue. Whatever its status, be it a working class entry into the world of video games or occupying an uncomfortable role at the intersection of media and real-world conflicts, Call of Duty will be a major commercial player in the world of video games for the foreseeable future.


What do you think of Call of Duty? Do you prefer your combat historical or futuristic? Vehicular or hand-to-hand? Do you think Call of Duty is fun with friends or just on your own? Who would kill more zombies: Richard Nixon or John F. Kennedy? Let’s discuss below.

Be sure to visit Franchise Festival next week as we explore the sad tale of Legacy of Kain / Soul Reaver. The article goes live at 9:00 AM EST on Friday, August 2. Here is a list of upcoming topics (subject to change):

  • August 2: Legacy of Kain / Soul Reaver
  • August 9: Civilization
  • August 16: Danganronpa
  • August 23: Wario
  • August 30: Assassin’s Creed