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From Military Sim to Pop Culture Icon: The Complete History of Call of Duty

Hey there! Have you ever wondered how Call of Duty became one of the most popular video game franchises ever created? As someone who has followed CoD since the beginning, let me walk you through the entire history of this iconic first-person shooter (FPS) series.

Humble Beginnings: Establishing the Call of Duty Formula

The first Call of Duty launched in 2003 for PC, published by Activision and developed by Infinity Ward. Set during World War 2, it put players into historic battles playing as American, British, and Soviet soldiers. Game Informer praised its intense action and great use of sound to create an immersive atmosphere. It sold over 250,000 copies in its first week – strong sales for the time.

An expansion called Call of Duty: United Offensive arrived in 2004 adding new maps and multiplayer modes. 2005 then saw the release of Call of Duty 2, also set in WWII. This iteration focused on large-scale battles and was praised for its excellent AI. It also introduced regenerating health, now a staple of the series. Selling over 250,000 copies on launch day alone, CoD2 became a smash hit and console launch title for the Xbox 360.

Call of Duty 3 in 2006 switched the setting to the battle of Normandy. While some felt Treyarch‘s first CoD felt too similar to past games, it still moved over 7 million copies. At this point, the series had established its formula – fast-paced, cinematic FPS action grounded in historical conflict.

Enter the Modern Era

2007 marked a major evolution for Call of Duty with Modern Warfare, developed by an inspired Infinity Ward team. Ditching World War II entirely, it was set in modern times with a fictional conflict in the Middle East. MW introduced fan-favorite characters like Captain Price and “Soap” MacTavish for the first time.

The campaign played out like an action movie, with more flexibile mission design over linear levels. Features like weapon loadouts, killstreaks, and the leveling system that became signature parts of multiplayer made their debut. Per Activision, Modern Warfare sold over 13 million copies worldwide across PC, Xbox 360, and PS3. It remains one of the most critically acclaimed entries in the series.

For 2008‘s World at War, Treyarch went back to World War II while innovating with 4-player online co-op and the revolutionary Nazi zombies mode. This let players battle endless hordes of the undead, a first for Call of Duty.

Then in 2009 came the greatly anticipated Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. It focused on controversial contemporary conflicts, drawing inspiration from the Russo-Georgian War. The infamous “No Russian” mission sparked debate in the media for letting players partake in a terrorist attack. But MW2 broke sales records on launch, selling 4.7 million in North America and the UK alone in its first day. It refined the CoD formula to near perfection, even as some criticized its short campaign.

2010 saw Treyarch release Black Ops, exploring Cold War era covert operations. Its story spanned locations like Cuba, Vietnam, and Siberia. Expanding on their zombie mode, Black Ops gained acclaim for its ambitious single-player. Multiplayer also shifted up the formula by adding currency for purchases and customization.

Becoming a Blockbuster Franchise

Entering the 2010s, Activision saw Call of Duty as more than just a video game – it was quickly becoming a blockbuster entertainment franchise. For 2011‘s Modern Warfare 3, infinity Ward delivered an epic conclusion to the original Modern Warfare trilogy with battles in iconic cities like New York, Paris, and London.

MW3 smashed sales records, earning $400 million in its first 24 hours in North America and the UK. It set the record for the biggest entertainment launch of all time across any medium. Critics praised the grand scale but felt the formula was getting repetitive.

Treyarch‘s 2012 entry, Black Ops II, returned to the Cold War era while innovating with near-futuristic settings in 2025 that included drones, robots, and branching storylines. Its sandbox-style Strike Force missions let players control squads strategically.

2013 saw Call of Duty: Ghosts, the first main entry not developed by Infinity Ward or Treyarch. Infinity Ward served as support studio instead for Ghosts, created by Sledgehammer Games. Set in a dystopian near-future, its campaign reacted to players’ actions for greater replayability. Extinction mode saw players fight off alien hives, replacing the usual Zombies.

2014’s Advanced Warfare from Sledgehammer Games added new mechanics like the Exosuit, boost jumps, and futuristic tech. The advanced movement created a faster pace of play that divided fans opinions. The game got strong reviews, but some felt the sci-fi elements strayed too far from CoD’s roots.

Treyarch returned in 2015 with Black Ops III, set in 2065 amid climate disaster and rising militarized robots. Building on Advanced Warfare’s mobility, BO3 added wall running and power slides. The trademark Zombies mode got a massive overhaul, becoming a wide open world instead of survival waves.

Branching Out as an Entertainment Empire

By 2015, Call of Duty had expanded far beyond just being the best-selling video game as Activision Blizzard made it the center of a multimedia empire. Advanced Warfare got a tie-in with the movie Avengers: Age of Ultron, adding superhero outfits and weapons like Captain America’s shield.

Call of Duty: World at War brought CoD to mobile phones for the first time in 2009. In reality, Activision’s merger with Candy Crush developer King allowed it to leverage mobile and social networks to expand the brand. Call of Duty games came to Facebook, toys and apparel hit store shelves, and Treyarch even developed a roller coaster at Six Flags theme parks.

Activision also doubled down on eSports with the establishment of the Call of Duty World League in 2016. Hosting global tournaments with millions in prize money, it cemented CoD as one of the most popular competitive shooting games.

The devoted fanbase kept sales strong, but critics argued Call of Duty had lost its identity in the quest for mass-market appeal and merchandising dollars.

Back to Basics

Likely seeing the criticism of over-complication and move into sci-fi, recent Call of Duty games have focused more on refining the core experience that made the series a hit.

2016’s Infinite Warfare from Infinity Ward continued the future tech and space battles. Despite positive reviews, fan response was poor, making it the lowest-selling CoD entry in nearly a decade.

Taking the feedback, 2017’s Call of Duty: WWII from Sledgehammer went back to the franchise‘s roots. Ditching future tech entirely, it returned to World War 2 and was praised as feeling like a “greatest hits” of the classic CoD formula.

Treyarch‘s 2018 entry, Black Ops 4, sparked debate by ditching the single-player campaign entirely to focus on multiplayer. It expanded modes like Zombies, while the new Blackout battle royale mode chased the popularity of Fortnite and PUBG.

Infinity Ward took the reigns again 2019 with the soft reboot Modern Warfare. Grounding the gameplay in realism, they stripped away mechanisms like jetpacks and wall running to emphasize tactical shooting. The campaign tackled difficult topics like terrorism and conflict in the Middle East.

The free-to-play Call of Duty: Warzone launched in 2020 as a standalone battle royale experience and quickly became massively popular with over 100 million players. Integration with paid CoD titles helped fuel its growth as a service game.

2020’s Black Ops Cold War brought back classic Black Ops characters to the 1980s setting. It integrated with Warzone and reacted to player choices in the campaign. Vanguard in 2021 from Sledgehammer continued the trend of more grounded gameplay in World War II settings.

The new Modern Warfare II releasing in 2022 seems to build on lessons learned to offer bombastic campaign missions while keeping multiplayer balanced and focused on skill-based gunplay. Early impressions are positive from hands-on previews.

An Unstoppable Juggernaut

Few franchises have dominated pop culture and influenced an entire game genre like Call of Duty. While it started life as a gritty simulation of soldier combat, CoD has evolved into Activision‘s crown jewel entertainment property.

Nearly 20 years after its start, Call of Duty continues to thrill tens of millions of players every year with its unmatched multiplayer mayhem and blockbuster campaigns. It has firmly cemented its place as one of the premier first-person shooter franchises in history.

So there you have it – the complete journey of Call of Duty from military sim to pop culture icon! Let me know which game in the legendary series is your personal favorite.