Xbox 360 fans, let me hear you roar! I’m speaking directly, of course, to the incredibly noisy hardware in Microsoft’s machine. But there’s a reason we put up with the console’s quirks - it offered probably the best, and certainly most diverse, catalogue of its generation. Which means that a list of the very best Xbox 360 games is packed with absolute stonkers, from shooters, to simulation, and the names that introduced indie gaming to the mainstream.
Just don’t stand this article on its side when you’re reading it. It might take up less space, but you’ll scratch all the words.
Forza Motorsport 3
For many studios, the pursuit of realism only goes as far as recording the ping of an M1 Garand as its last round is expended. But for Turn 10, simulation was a calling.
Conveniently for the rest of us - and for Microsoft, pouring fuel into the series - that simulation turned out to have the structure of a great game: a deep, satisfying, and quite literal learning curve, as well as customisation that allowed for more build tweaking and optimisation than any RPG.
Turn 10’s masterstroke came in the third iteration - rewind. A gloriously game-like addition nabbed from Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, it enabled you to reverse a crash so that you could correct the critical moment of oversteer that caused it, ending the frustration of restarting the race and teaching you with each mistake. A quality Forza 3 has in common with…
Super Meat Boy
Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes’ precision platformer looks farcically difficult at first glance - its levels comprised of gigantic circular saws and tall piles of exposed needles, any one of which will kill you at a touch, over and over. But like Forza, Super Meat Boy introduced forgiveness to its genre.
Levels are tiny, and so no death sets you back more than 30 seconds - Meat Boy simply reassembling at the beginning of the challenge, like cheap ham. That means you’re able to tackle it again with the mistake you made still in your head, fresh as a sentient steak, pushed onward by the virtuoso synth-metal soundtrack of Danny Baranowsky. Super Meat Boy helped solidify the reputation of Xbox Live Arcade for affordable, credible indie games, an idea first put forward by...
Jonathan Blow’s predecessor to The Witness, Braid looks like a platformer but isn’t, really. It uses the friendly and familiar grammar of Mario to suck you into a series of puzzle rooms that play with space and time.
The primary tool for doing that is a rewind button. Things going backwards were really impressive in the 360 era, alright? We were primitive people. But unlike Forza’s, Braid’s rewind function changes over the course of the game - at first undoing your actions, then tying the flow of time to the direction you’re running in, and eventually giving you a ring that alters time in the fashion of a gravitational field, slowing monsters and objects in its orbit. The painterly aesthetic, violins, and overwrought narrative might appear pretentious now, but they all helped sell Xbox gamers on the merits of indie games for the first time.
You can see a theme developing over this period, can’t you? Of experiments in game difficulty and the consequences of failure. Fable 2 fit that trend, finding Lionhead ditching the RPG genre’s usual punishments for mucking up combat by eliminating player death altogether.
It’s an approach to accessibility that ran through the entire game, literally, in the form of a glowing breadcrumb trail that took you to your next quest objective. While some felt they were treated like children - the ability to literally lead people by the hand arrived in the next sequel - Fable 2 brought the RPG to a new generation and didn’t compromise on the sense of adventure. A 15 minute delve into Hobbe territory tickled the same glands as an hours-long trek in Baldur’s Gate, and Fable was funny with it, too - something the genre is only now remembering how to be with The Outer Worlds.
BioShock had its own breadcrumb trail - a great big art deco arrow, presumably designed by the architects of Rapture alongside all the rest of the city’s 1920s subterranean grandeur. But this one was best turned off, so you could truly get lost in Irrational’s update of the immersive sim formula, as well as the reassuring voice on your service radio.
Atlas led you through the breakdown of a society one layer at a time, from the unregulated cosmetic surgery that led to murder, to the celebration of artists as auteurs that led to murder, and the free market economy that led to ethical prosperity for everyone. Oh no, sorry: that one led to murder too. A message that could have sunk another shooter only enhanced the sense of place Rapture was already dripping in. Or was it just the leaky ceilings that were dripping?
There’s nothing more quintessentially Xbox than Halo. The series proved that an FPS could be just as good on console as on PC. It persuaded the world to sign up to Xbox Live. By the time the 360 had matured, it was a major cultural force, spawning books and RTS spin-offs. Halo 3 was the culmination of everything Bungie had built, concluding the story that had begun in 2001. The campaign matched an oo-rah macho spirit with eerie, alien beauty, while competitive multiplayer was the best on the platform. In short, the game’s demographic was literally everyone.
It’s telling that, at its most spectacular moments, Destiny is suddenly reminiscent of Halo 3. Bungie has achieved different highs since, but nothing as sustained and masterful as this series.
Grand Theft Auto 5
GTA 5 stands as one of the most ambitious uses of the 360 hardware ever. You can tell because it takes 360 years to boot up. But it’s worth that wait, and the lengthy install time that precedes it, because it represents half a decade’s work from over 1,000 talented developers at Rockstar studios around the world.
What’s most impressive is that Rockstar hasn’t lost its taste for the mundane, even as the series gains heists and terrifying unpredictability in the form of sometimes-protagonist Trevor. For every ultralight flight set against a stunning sunset, there’s a lull on an empty pier in the rain. It’s the space that GTA V makes for downtime that allows Los Santos to feel like a city, rather than a manic ball pit built solely for your entertainment.
The fact that Fallout fatigue is finally beginning to set in might be the fault of this standout entry. Yes, Fallout 4 made the world malleable with building, and 76 introduced multiplayer. But Bethesda got so much right on the first try that Fallout’s barely had room to grow since.
The smart move was to give custody of the game to Emil Pagliarulo, a veteran of Thief 2 and Oblivion’s Dark Brotherhood missions. Under his stewardship, Fallout 3 took on the vibe of an immersive sim, becoming the studio’s first fully-fledged stealth game. What’s more, a new focus on environmental storytelling infused the Capital wasteland with more tales than any Bethesda game before it, making the prospect of punching the crab out of another Mirelurk endlessly enticing.
Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag
By the time Black Flag rolled around, it felt as if even Ubisoft was tired of iterating on the same set of mechanics. Assassin’s Creed 4 stepped off the rooftops, applying the series’ freedom of movement and social stealth to pirate ships out on a bright blue sea.
The secret is that practically all of Black Flag’s best elements - the ships, the ocean, the hunting and parkour in the wild - had appeared in the previous game, Assassin’s Creed 3. Really, this game is testament to the power of packaging ideas in the right way, in a structure that offers a powerful fantasy and delivers on it - to the point where you can close your eyes, listen to the creak of the rigging, and almost feel the Caribbean sun on your face. That, or the heat from a console notorious for overheating.
Left 4 Dead
Valve has long had a reputation for both storytelling and multiplayer shooting, but that DNA never really crossed over until Left 4 Dead, a Black Mesa-like experiment in co-op with characters. No-one else has matched the pacing of the game’s AI director, which knew that the sweet spot of a zombie horde was almost-but-not-quite overwhelming, and that a long silence could be just as unsettling as a mass of distant moans. And no-one has sold personalities like Zoey, Francis, Bill, and Louis in quite the same way, over many attempts at the same maps.
The sequel is just as good, but muddied its swampy southern waters by overcomplicating the weapon pool - so the original gets our backing.
Although it launched to a reception as cold as its stark white palette, Mirror’s Edge has only grown in reputation since - simply because it plays like nothing else. Every stick and button on your controller takes charge of some part of the human body, pumping you across the skylights, cranes, and scaffolding that form the exoskeleton of a metropolis.
The campaign takes some wrong turns - the frequent escapes from shooty men suggest DICE was insecure about its parkour-only premise - but the game is perfect in Time Trial. Here, picking your fastest route across the roofs is a unique act of composition, in which you define the shape of your journey like a melody, before practicing over and over to hit every note. Sublime.
Like Mirror’s Edge, the modern Rayman games are about momentum. But only Ubisoft Montpellier could make a platformer about slapstick, too, filling this French marvel with slaps, splats, and every other kind of physical comedy you can think of. Co-op, especially, has a tendency to devolve into childish PvP that benefits no-one - the prescribed goals of the game melting away because everyone’s having such a good time.
When played alone, though, Rayman Legends is still best in class - learning from Super Meat Boy by only ever setting you back a screen, encouraging you to take risks and glue your finger to the sprint trigger. Rayman Origins is the neater package, but Legends offers colour, character and volume, throwing levels and ideas at you until you’re full.
You won’t go wrong with the sequel, but the original Dishonored earns its spot because it takes place entirely in Dunwall - one of the strongest settings ever committed to code. Based on the Victorian high rises and chimney stacks of Edinburgh, the city has a chunky yet intricate quality you never quite forget. It helps that it was designed in part by Viktor Antonov, who brings a distinctly European sensibility for layered history to every project he works on - see Half-Life 2’s City 17 for more of that.
On top of Dunwall, Arkane layers a vertiginous stealth game that’s unparalleled for letting you make meaningful choices through actions, and not just the words in a dialogue box. Your methods are your own, but so are the outcomes you have to live with in later levels.
Dragon Age: Origins
It’s a miracle that Dragon Age: Origins worked at all on Xbox 360, let alone that it felt like it belonged there. This was a game rooted in the dense conversation and tactical, pause-heavy combat of Baldur’s Gate and Planescape: Torment - PC games with no clear equivalent on consoles at the time.
Bioware didn’t even develop the port itself, outsourcing it to another studio. Yet Origins translated wonderfully, keeping the third-person language of Knights of the Old Republic and Mass Effect, but refusing to simplify anything else. That commitment to hardcore RPG values has been rewarded with a loyal fanbase, even as the series has taken an uneven road since.
Gears of War
It’s easy to make fun of Gears of War’s big-shouldered heroes, but they’re the perfect visualisation of what the series brings: honed, reliably meaty action that never falls apart in the pressure of battle. By Gears 3, those muscles were as strong as they would ever be. The series was so influential that its signifiers - especially its dark palette and low walls for cover - became ubiquitous, and then toxic for any developer who wanted to forge an identity of its own. It’s perhaps for that reason that Gears doesn’t hold a similar place in the pantheon of the Xbox One, and will forever be associated with the 360.