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What only true fans know about Call of Duty

When the original game came out in 2003, it was just another World War II shooter in a crowded marketplace from an unknown developer. But over the years, Call of Duty has grown into the biggest action franchise in all of gaming, and arguably, all of entertainment. It's gone from the beaches of Normandy, to the jungles of Vietnam, to the far reaches of the solar system. But did you know the mission that kicked the whole thing off didn't have a gun at all? Or that Captain Price is a whole lot older than he looks? Here are a few things you might not have known about Call of Duty.

The original developers came from Medal of Honor

In the early years of the millennium, Medal of Honor owned the burgeoning World War II subgenre. The original game, published by EA in 1999, introduced a realistic take on the conflict, and its success made it an instant franchise. The third game, Allied Assault, is often cited as the highlight of the series. The two guys in charge of Medal of Honor's finest hour were Jason West and Vince Zampella. Sound familiar? 

Immediately after Allied Assault's release, the two of them formed a brand-new studio: Infinity Ward. EA's chief rival, Activision, saw an opportunity to compete in the World War II space, and bought a 30 percent stake in the new company right away. In other words, EA lost their best shooter talent straight to their competitor. Infinity Ward got straight to work on their first game, called Call of Duty. Call of Duty and Medal of Honor would go head-to-head against each other for the next ten years, though in the end, only one would emerge victorious.

The series was supposed to be modern from the start

Allied Assault was the third game in the Medal of Honor series, and EA had no intentions of stopping there. Sequels were already in development, and they had also just acquired Battlefield 1942. Meanwhile, rival studios were hard at work making their own World War II games to jump in on the craze. It seemed like the Second World War was getting really crowded, really fast. 

Because of that, the Infinity Ward team initially wanted to jump off the bandwagon and make a game set in the modern day. A modern-era game would allow them to explore contemporary themes, such as how warfare had changed in a post-9/11 world. However, their new owners at Activision wanted a repeat of Allied Assault's success. So it was back to the European theater as the team's first game, Call of Duty, became yet another World War II shooter. But on release, that first Call of Duty became the crown jewel of the subgenre, making full use of scripted sequences to craft a cinematic feel that no other game could touch. Infinity Ward might have been forced into World War II again, but they proved they were still the masters of the period.

One of the series' best missions gives you no gun at all

Where Medal of Honor was always focused on the American experience, the original Call of Duty in 2003 opened up World War II to other nations. This included the Soviet Union, and in the very first Russian level, the designers crafted a bold limitation: the player never gets a gun at all. Playing as a Russian conscript just entering into the Battle of Stalingrad, the level starts with the gamer sitting in a boat, dodging German strafing runs. Even once the boat finally makes it to the opposite shore of the Volga River, the player is only handed… an ammunition clip. No rifle, no pistol, no nothing, just a clip. 

And indeed, for the entire rest of that mission, the player is merely running around, hoping that a German artillery shell doesn't get too close. This was a reference to the fact that, early in the war, the Soviet Union had more soldiers than guns to arm them with. Few other war games have ever dared to have a mission where the player is so helpless, and yet, of all the many single-player missions in the Call of Duty franchise, this first Stalingrad mission remains one of the best-remembered and most-beloved of them all.

The multiplayer is secretly an RPG

Games within the RPG genre are usually marked by their science-fiction or fantasy settings, reflecting their Dungeons & Dragons heritage. They also typically involved a deep story with rich characters set in a broad, explorable world. None of this has anything to do with the multiplayer of a shooter game, in which players, well, just run around and shoot each other. But when the Call of Duty series jumped into the current era with 2007's Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, it was, secretly, an RPG. Not in its single-player campaign, which was linear, short, and devoid of deep characterization, but in its multiplayer. That's because RPGs had one other defining feature: upgrades based on experience, loot, and abilities. 

The Modern Warfare team took the heart of the RPG upgrade path and translated it into shooter games for the first time with levels (experience), unlockable weapons (loot), and a series of 'perks' (abilities). Yes, it involved soldiers with rifles, and there weren't any dragons in sight, but in this key respect, Modern Warfare was inspired by games like World of Warcraft as much as Medal of Honor.

Captain Price is the grandson of… Captain Price

One of the best-known characters from the Modern Warfare sub-series of Call of Duty games is Captain Price, the no-nonsense SAS team leader. Gruff, tough, and possessed of a near-bulletproof mustache, Price remains a standout of the entire franchise. But did you know he was originally introduced in the very first Call of Duty, which was set in World War II? 

We first meet him in the very first British mission, when a team of paratroopers drops into Normandy on D-Day to take Pegasus Bridge. And in fact, in Call of Duty 2, Price appears even earlier, during the North African campaign. So how, then, does that mustache survive all the way to the modern era? Infinity Ward has never offered an official explanation, but the common consensus is that Captain Price is the grandson of, uh, Captain Price. Of course, it's also possible that the developers just liked the character, and brought him back for their modern-era games. Or who knows? Maybe Captain Price really is immortal. And never, ever gets promoted.

Zombies came late to the series -- and from another developer

Call of Duty titles are really several games in one: a heavily-scripted, linear campaign; a competitive multiplayer experience; and a co-op zombie mode, in which players take the role of zany characters fighting the undead. But the latter wasn't always the case! In fact, the undead never rose until 2008's Call of Duty: World at War, which didn't come from Infinity Ward at all. 

To have a Call of Duty game every year, parent company Activision had tasked their studio Treyarch with making Call of Duty games between Infinity Ward's releases. At first, these Treyarch games didn't review or sell as well as the Infinity Ward releases. But for World at War, a small team within Treyarch decided to make a zombie mode, even though this was never approved or scheduled. Afraid that fans would hate it, Treyarch decided to make the mode an easter egg: a hidden feature only unlocked under certain conditions. But the zombie mode became a sensation, and it's been a staple of the Treyarch games, and indeed the entire franchise, ever since.

Treyarch made the series' top sellers, not Infinity Ward

Infinity Ward might have created the series and brought it to global dominance with Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. But it was the supporting act that ended up stealing the show. Since the release of 2012's Call of Duty: Black Ops II, the franchise's top-selling games have always come from Treyarch, not Infinity Ward. When it debuted, Black Ops II set new records for sales, as had every Call of Duty game since 2009's Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. Because of that year-over-year success, the best-selling trophy had ping-ponged back and forth between the two studios working on the series. 

But after Black Ops II, later Call of Duty games failed to break new records, even if they did remain immensely profitable. While Activision doesn't release raw unit sales numbers, no game has ever sold more in its first week than Black Ops II. The next closest game was 2015's follow-up, Black Ops III, which beat out the intervening games, Ghosts and Advanced Warfare, both from non-Treyarch studios. For the time being, Treyarch is the unquestioned ruler of the Call of Duty roost, their Black Ops sub-brand attracting the widest fanbase and the strongest loyalty.

The original developers were fired, and Infinity Ward has never been the same since

Call of Duty's utter dominance over the industry began with the massive success of 2009's Modern Warfare 2, made by the original developer, Infinity Ward. But in March of the following year, the studio founders, Jason West and Vince Zampella, were unceremoniously fired by parent company Activision. Various accusations have flown back and forth as to what happened, but it seems clear that the relationship between the duo and Activision had been fraying for a while. When they left, they founded a new company, Respawn, and took a significant number of Infinity Ward employees with them. 

The resulting chaos left the next Infinity Ward game, Modern Warfare 3, in deep trouble, forcing another studio called Sledgehammer to step in and help them finish the product. While Modern Warfare 3 continued the series' record-breaking streak, none of Infinity Ward's follow-up titles have met with the same success. Call of Duty: Ghosts in 2013 was a sales disappointment, and 2016's Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare significantly underperformed its expectations. Though Infinity Ward created the franchise altogether, taking it from initial concept to global juggernaut, it just hasn't been the same without its founders at the wheel. However, they continue to work on Call of Duty projects, so parent company Activision still has faith that the company can find its footing again.

Ghosts was originally supposed to have a sequel

When Jason West and Vince Zampella left Infinity Ward in 2010, Modern Warfare 3 was already in the early stages of production. So even though they left, the outlines of their vision were still baked into the game. Call of Duty: Ghosts in 2013 marked the first time that Infinity Ward created a game from scratch without their original leaders. The intention was that Ghosts would be a clean break from the Modern Warfare era and the controversy around the departures, and start a whole new sub-franchise in the Call of Duty lineup. There was only one problem: Ghosts turned out to be a critical flop, and outlets even called on Infinity Ward to drop it as a series. 

With a weak campaign and subpar multiplayer, Ghosts simply didn't measure up to the standards of the biggest action franchise in gaming. The game's comparatively low sales sealed its fate, and any hope of a Ghosts 2 was shelved. Infinity Ward instead went into space with 2016's Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare, which was also intended to start its own new sub-franchise. But again, low sales have probably scuppered those plans for good.

Call of Duty helps levels up real soldiers, too

The franchise had a major year in 2009, as Modern Warfare 2 released to massive sales and mainstream recognition. But in addition to all the play, the series got serious, too. That same year, parent company Activision founded the Call of Duty Endowment, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping real-world veterans find jobs. 

The mission of the endowment is to find and fund existing organizations that are best able to connect returning veterans to open jobs. While the Endowment is open to donations, the bulk of its money comes from Activision itself, as a portion of the franchise's sales. To date, the series has provided over $25 million to the Endowment, which has helped over 37,000 vets. It's a lot of fun blasting around fictional warzones without any actual danger to yourself. But turning that combat fantasy into actual help for real heroes is one of the best things Call of Duty has ever achieved. Now that's a perk.