The History of Call of Duty

Learn the story behind the undisputed champion of war games.

November 6, 2009 -
At a glance, Call of Duty is much like every other game out there; almost extraordinarily ordinary. To the uninitiated, it looks like another "me too" tale of heroic army men, told from a first-person perspective. But it's Call of Duty's ability to rise above the competition – and without the need for attention-grabbing gimmicks – that makes it so exceptional, even with six proper games in as many years, and just as many spin-offs. Call of Duty snatched the annual World War II franchise crown from the industry's largest publisher, and helped pave the way for Activision's world conquest. With Modern Warfare 2 just around the corner, it shows no signs of slowing down.

The EA Empire

One of the true ironies of Infinity Ward is that they helped to build the very brand name they would spend subsequent years competing with. Electronic Arts had a surprise hit with Medal of Honor on PlayStation, a game that delivered an immersive, credible first-person shooter experience on a system that had long struggled with the genre. A successful sequel followed, but for the third game in the series, EA wanted to take on the big guns with a Medal of Honor game that would appear exclusively on computers.

Not fond of internal PC development at the time, EA employed the computer-savvy 2015 Inc. to develop their game. EA was preparing Medal of Honor: Frontline for a console launch not long after, freeing 2015 to be as PC-centric as they wanted. That meant no auto-aim, no compromises for the limited RAM of the PS2, and a robust online mode. Allied Assault was a new beginning for the now famous series of World War II shooters. Allied Assault set the tone for the series' future. The earlier games featured lone protagonists on unlikely infiltration missions, Allied Assault portrayed a believable snapshot of a war, based on historic battles rather than spy fiction.

That isn't to say it was ever truly realistic. Part of the brilliance of the Call of Duty series and its Medal of Honor precursor was their ability to convey a believable reality through a cinematic filter. Scripted events made it so players would experience a dramatic view of the action every time. The game was still largely linear, but it was able to fool players into feeling like they were a part of a war with large outdoor environments, lots of soldiers, and incredible production values.

They were hardly the only World War II game in town. Medal of Honor: Allied Assault found itself on shelves beside the recently released Return to Castle Wolfenstein, and a few months ahead of EA's own Battlefield 1942. Literally dozens of WWII games shipped that year, including Deadly Dozen and Hidden & Dangerous. Luckily, the Medal of Honor name carried some clout, and the impressive review scores confirmed that Allied Assault was something special.

The developers at 2015 knew they were onto something, but they also knew it would never truly be theirs. The Allied Assault team packed up and left, not because they wanted to escape the work they were contracted to do, but because they wanted to continue it. Even better, they would continue it on their own terms.

Turnabout is Fair Play

Infinity Ward was founded in 2002 by 22 members of the team behind Medal of Honor: Allied Assault – nearly the entire crew. They knew their game was good, and they were confident they could do even better. But they had already created a monster. Medal of Honor was making the transition from a small, esteemed series to a full-blown franchise that would be invading as many platforms as possible at least once a year.

Yet it was precisely this desire to take on the Goliath that paved the way for their opportunity. The rest of the industry had noticed the success EA was having with their history-themed shooters, and all wanted a piece. The chance to strike back with the very team that helped to build one of their competition's defining moments was too much to pass up. Activision shared Infinity Ward's desire to take on Medal of Honor, and in the spring of 2003, they announced Call of Duty.

Call of Duty was not unveiled as a game, but as a brand. While most series grow organically from a single game, Activision had bigger plans right from the beginning. Luckily for them, Infinity Ward did not disappoint. Shortly before Call of Duty shipped, Activision acquired the developer and placed them in charge of the series. Infinity Ward seemed to have a degree of control they lacked at EA.

Call of Duty's premiere was met by rave reviews and strong sales. Although it didn't reinvent the wheel – the gameplay was still very similar to Allied Assault – it brought an unprecedented level of polish to the genre. It was a perfect exercise in quality over quantity. Like a Hollywood film, Call of Duty packed the war's most exhilarating moments without any of the slower stuff no one wants to see. It wasn't a long game, but what was there was memorable and exciting.

It wasn't just the scripted events and giant explosions that made Call of Duty so credible. It was the fine-brush details – the music overheard on a radio, the game of checkers played between enemy soldiers, the chatter between your squad mates. Unlike most of the Medal of Honor games, you didn't play a lone gunman, but a member of a squad of infantrymen that supported each other. Although you couldn't issue orders like in more tactically-oriented shooters, it helped to make players feel connected to something larger, while still preserving the arcade action that the developer was known for.

Call of Duty also made the bold decision to abandon a single narrative. While the Medal of Honor games followed lone soldiers for the entire game, Call of Duty took a more honest approach to its portrayal of war. The men who fought in World War II were heroes, but not supermen. There were millions who fought – and died – and this was just a collection of their greatest moments, not some idealized fantasy of a single man who won the war. This also freed the developers to portray multiple perspectives and different theaters, covering the American's battle through France, the British, encroaching on Germany from another path, and the Russians, fighting the Nazis on the Eastern front. Although the gameplay was still focused on arcade shooting, the variety and diversity of missions was greater than anything in the genre, ranging from urban warfare, to a fight on a battleship, to a full-on Soviet tank assault.

Activision had a hit, but of course that was just the beginning. More Call of Duty was soon underway. An expansion pack, United Offensive, launched the following year with a new campaign and some notable improvements, including the ability to run, "cook" grenades by holding onto them before tossing, and the ability to sprint for a short time. In addition, it added three new multiplayer modes, Domination, Base Assault, and Capture the Flag.

The series' console debut wasn't far behind. Call of Duty: Finest Hour shipped on Xbox, PS2, and GameCube in November, 2004. It brought the three-pronged campaign and AI allies with it, and looked and controlled much like its PC brethren, but it didn't fare nearly as well with fans or critics.

The campaign was bloated with filler, and the lack of quicksaves and checkpoints made for a somewhat frustrating experience. Call of Duty, while not a wildly original game, was a very tough game to follow, and Finest Hour's struggles affirmed just how integral Infinity Ward was to the series.

The Second Generation

Activision had a good start for the new franchise, but to ensure its long term success they had to make sure it could also be a series. Infinity Ward was given two years to work on a true follow-up – a cycle that would soon become familiar to the studio. It was a pivotal time for the series, with a new generation of consoles barely on the horizon. Infinity Ward wouldn't let the opportunity slip by them. They decided to aim for cutting edge.

While Call of Duty and Medal of Honor: Allied Assault had both used a modified Quake III engine, Call of Duty 2 used a brand new, proprietary engine (with a few residual bits of Doom 3 technology). Call of Duty 2's major selling point would be its more immersive environments, and technology that could realistically convey the fog, dirt, dust, and smoke of the battlefield was absolutely imperative. This wasn't superficial, either, as visibility played a real part in the gameplay and AI, especially with the introduction of smoke grenades.

A great deal of effort was paid to making Call of Duty 2 a more believable experience. Once again, believability proves distinct from actual realism, as Call of Duty intentionally diverges from reality in many ways. It isn't a simulation, but rather a kind of storytelling, conveying the drama and tension of the battlefield. This time, the ally AI was overhauled so that squad mates would actually react to events and shouting out information about the enemy's position, incoming grenades, or other dangers, rather than just reading a script. They were also more capable of organizing and executing squad tactics, even though the action was still arcade-savvy.

Infinity Ward also made the bold decision to eliminate health packs from their latest games. Instead, they took a page from Halo 2 and introduced an auto-healing system that allowed players to recover health over time, rather than searching for medical supplies. Scavenging the battlefield for magic healing items didn't lend itself much to realism, so the abstraction seemed like a wash, and it allowed Infinity Ward to put the focus on the combat itself – shooting, finding cover, and tracking enemies – rather than encouraging players to look at the ground.

The implementation was influential as well. Call of Duty 2 did away with the visible health bar. Instead, taking damage would affect your vision, forcing players to try to be aware of their condition. While Halo 2 may have kicked off the regenerating health trend, Call of Duty 2 made it fashionable, and many other games soon followed suit. Today, this has even reached beyond the shooter genre, and has helped to distinguish this generation's action games from those of the last.

Arriving on Xbox 360 in time for launch day, Call of Duty 2 kicked off a new generation of consoles with completely uncompromised PC experience. This put the series in a great position. While the previous generation of console saw a watered down product, the Xbox 360 version of Call of Duty 2 earned even better reviews than its PC counterpart, and went on to sell 2 million copies.

Of course, Activision wasn't ready to bail on the last generation just yet. Xbox 360 was the new kid and the older consoles still had a much larger installed base. This time, they gave the duties to Gray Matter Studios, who had developed the respected Call of Duty: United Offensive. They would be tasked with bringing the series to Xbox, PlayStation 2, and GameCube. Toward the end of development, Activision merged the team into Treyarch, and they have been the step-parents of the series ever since.

Call of Duty 2: Big Red One was a closer approximation of Infinity Ward's games than Finest Hour, but it still departed in a few ways. It no longer told three parallel stories, and instead focused on the eponymous "Big Red One," the 1st Infantry Division, and a handful of squad mates. Throughout the course of the game's battles, Treyarch tried to develop these characters, give them back stories, and even age them throughout the war, perhaps taking some inspiration from Samuel Fuller's film of the same name.

Big Red One didn't sell nearly as well as its flagship counterpart, but it earned respectable reviews, and Activision was happy to have found a quality second-string team to help support their franchise. Rather than split their base up with companion games released at the same time on different platforms, they decided to shift to a staggered development cycle, allowing Treyarch and Infinity Ward to trade off on alternate years.

Like Big Red One and Finest Hour, Treyarch's next game would be another Call of Duty for the console audience, but this time they would allow them to create the sole bearer of the title "Call of Duty 3." Treyarch's first crack at a proper sequel wasn't that different than their previous efforts. They followed Infinity Ward's lead admirably, but didn't change a great deal. The introduction of a tank-heavy Polish campaign turned a few heads, as did the multiplayer mode featuring different character classes like the competing Battlefield series, but it wasn't a true next generation Call of Duty. The absence of a PC port was telling.

Call of Duty 3 sold respectably and earned good reviews, but it failed to gain momentum for the series, and Activision was running the risk of diluting the brand. They had also unwittingly set up a clash of egos. Infinity Ward didn't mind that other teams got their crack at the franchise, but they didn't take kindly to seeing a numbered sequel in the hands of another developer. As far as they were concerned, their game was the real Call of Duty 3, and in 2007, everyone would find out why.

New and Old

Work on Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare began immediately following Call of Duty 2, but the development was shrouded in mystery. Infinity Ward was miffed that Activision would take the series they helped to create so lightly, and so they kept their cards close to their chest. If they were to make sure that Treyarch would always be chasing their lead, secrecy was imperative. Even within Activision, many had no idea what Infinity Ward had planned. By the time Call of Duty 2 was done, the World War II genre was sagging, with nearly every theater having been picked clean by the hundreds of games set during the war.

Call of Duty's hallmark had always been its realistic portrayal of historic battles, but if the series was to move forward rather than slowly wither, it would have to say goodbye to the history books. Infinity Ward had two options: move the series into the present or move it into the future.

They considered both, but eventually decided on the former. Interestingly, the developers of their competing series, Battlefield, found themselves at a similar crossroads and opted to take the futuristic approach. Either one could open up new possibilities for the gameplay thanks to a broader range of weaponry, as well as the chance to develop fictional scenarios without any accountability to historic accuracy.

Indeed, Call of Duty 4's campaign wasn't based on actual wars, but it was based on actual warfare, as well as real locations. Since this was no longer a full-scale, multi-front World War, Infinity Ward abandoned the idea of three parallel stories on different fronts. Instead they used the idea of telling a tale from multiple perspectives to construct a single story of espionage that could almost feel at home in the Metal Gear series (before it jumped off the deep end).

Despite appearing on the same generation of hardware as Call of Duty 2, Modern Warfare was a new generation of technology for the series. Infinity Ward's engine was cutting edge and made their previous effort look quaint. The first mission of the campaign following the training stage was the perfect showcase. Landing on a cargo ship in torrential rain, the players are exposed to realistic weather and lighting never possible in the earlier games. As they work their way through the ship's interiors, they soon realize that the entire level can move, as the ship is tossed by the waves. Realistic water effects soon reared their head, as players had to escape from the ship with their lives.

The move to a fictionalized war meant unprecedented mission variety and freedom for Infinity Ward's designers, but not everyone was convinced it was the right move. Call of Duty had made its bones as a World War II shooter, and fans expected a game rooted in history. Despite what we now know, the big reveal was quite controversial.

The newly revamped multiplayer helped to win over fans both on the PC side and on the rapidly expanding online user base on the consoles. It wasn't so much the variety of modes or maps that sold it, but the polish and balance. Infinity Ward also introduced a new RPG-like level system that allowed players who invested enough time to earn a better loadout and the prestige of a higher rank. This wasn't enough to throw off the balance to where lower level players were useless, but it added an incentive for players to stick with the game, making it an enduring staple for the online shooter community.

Call of Duty 4 may have lost some of its hardcore fans, but it didn't matter. The new vision for the series was so popular it could have lost every fan that bought Call of Duty 2 and it still would have sold three times as much. All told, Modern Warfare has sold over 13 million copies, elevating it to that top tier of commercial success usually reserved only for Mario and Grand Theft Auto. Between Guitar Hero and Call of Duty, Activision had two of the industry's best selling franchises, and they soon overtook their rival EA as the world's biggest-selling publisher. The Medal of Honor series hasn't been heard from since.

Infinity Ward successfully established themselves as the alpha dogs of the franchise. As far as they were concerned, their game was the real Call of Duty 3, and nothing Treyarch did could take that away. The rap song played over the credits taunted their sister studio: "This is the third installment, Infinity Ward ****." Even the executable file of the PC version was named CALL3.EXE. With copies flying off the shelves, it was hard for anyone to argue.

Of course, Treyarch still had a job to do. They had been working on the next installment since they wrapped on Call of Duty 3. Like all internal Activision teams, they had access to Infinity Ward's engine and tools, but nothing else. They returned to World War II, not out of a conscious decision to question the new direction, but because they actually didn't know about it until shortly before the rest of the world found out. Months into their development and on a tight two-year cycle, they had no choice but to stay the course.

Initially announced as Call of Duty 5, the numeral was soon sacrificed on the altar of Infinity Ward, and the game renamed Call of Duty: World at War. As the title suggests, it covers a front not yet seen in the series: the Pacific theater. It also returned to the Eastern Front for the first time in a while, once again allowing players to control a Russian officer. The Pacific theater was something fresh, and allowed for new environments and combat scenarios left unexplored in the series. Treyarch even made some improvements to Infinity Ward's engine, returning flamethrowers to the series and adding fire propagation with it. A newly polished physics engine was implemented to allow for more realistic destruction of environments.

Alas, after the break out success of Call of Duty 4, the developers at Treyarch were still met as followers. Although reviews were overwhelmingly positive, World at War was widely criticized for adding very little to the Call of Duty formula. The story, once again rooted in World War II history, was fractured and broke little new ground, and the gameplay stayed close to the formula the series had been riding since the beginning.

World at War's defining moment, surprisingly enough, came from an experimental online mode thrown in fairly late in the game's development. Nazi Zombies was the first exclusively cooperative mode in the series, and it combined a survival horror vibe with the non-stop shooting action the series was known for. Countless zombies swarmed, forcing a handful of players to defend and hold their location for as long as possible. The mode, originally featuring only one map, became a fan favorite and was later expanded with downloadable content.

World at War was not as successful as its predecessor, but the Call of Duty name was so massive, it didn't much matter. Treyarch's game went on to sell over 11 million copies, placing it not far behind Call of Duty 4. The fact that they were left out of the loop when Infinity Ward jumped to modern times turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

Activision now had two successful franchises when once they had only one. The turf war between Infinity Ward and Treyarch had become a meaningful divide that allowed Activision to service an overlapping fan base with two games set in unique time periods. Infinity Ward's latest bears the name Modern Warfare 2, and the team that created the series can rest easy knowing that they now have at least one brand all to themselves. Meanwhile, Treyarch has a niche of their own, and they won't have to step on any toes.

Modern Warfare 2 is now waiting on our doorstep, and with record-breaking pre-order numbers, there's little doubt that it will be one of the year's best selling games. Call of Duty is something like a child of privilege, going from success to greater success and never looking back. Many years from now, the story might be fraught with bumps, turns, downfalls and comebacks, but for now it seems like a runaway train with no hope of ever slowing down.


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