The Xbox 360 is one of the most treasured and important games consoles ever manufactured.
Microsoft's industry-shifting system carries a remarkable selection of first and third-party titles, many of which can now be picked up for a song. But which ones are the most essential? Below is CVG's final list of the twenty best Xbox 360 games.
The selection was put together by CVG's editorial team, and each game mentioned here tends to reflect their review score, but not as a rule. Also, some entrants are not exclusive to the platform, but that doesn't make them any less essential. Of course, you can also suggest your own vote in the comments section below if you feel strongly about it. Should a particular game garner enough support, we'll update this article to include it.
Gears of War 2
Gears of War 2 is the cover-based shooter at its finest. The sequel to Epic's Xbox 360 exclusive blockbuster took the core mechanic of moving between cover points and refined it to be smoother and more intuitive experience. The feeling of pumping bullets into monster flesh has never been more satisfying than it is here.
This chart-topping sequel also featured some of the best multiplayer in the series to date, most notably with the introduction of the brilliant Horde mode. While the game's campaign made players live the adventures of Marcus Fenix and Delta Squad, Horde let them create their own blood-pumping tales of teamwork and camaraderie to recount around the watercooler.
Watching your friend fearlessly gun down a wave of Locusts as they valiantly fight over your downed body; nailing a cluster of Butchers chasing a teammate with a hammer of dawn strike; setting up an impenetrable fortress of shields and obliterating Locust scum - few games since have managed to replicate the exhilaration of these moments since.
Try it if:
- You're running low on machismo
- Like the feeling of poking raw steaks with a needle
- Have ever pretended your sofa is cover and lobbed a grenade (read: apple) over it
Halo 3: ODST
Likely to be the most divisive entry in Microsoft and Bungie's sci-fi first-person shooter franchise, Halo: ODST broke away from the series' longstanding conventions to present an experience that tried to differentiate itself in almost every way.
Adopting an open-world structure, players were cast as an Orbital Drop Shock Trooper and must explore the ruins of New Mombasa to find their squadmate. Guided by the Superintendent, a voiceless artificial intelligence that maintains the city, players must navigate the dark, hauntingly somber city, choosing either to engage enemies or evade around them, following clues to find out what happened to the rest of the squad.
In addition to its narrative and atmospheric differentiations, Bungie mixed up Halo: ODST's gameplay by taking away the crutches Master Chief offered by being a super soldier. As normal humans, players were more fragile and much less agile, thus taking the strategic wrinkle of combat that many could overlook in previous games and making it essential to success in battle.
Another of ODST's strengths is its cast of characters, which are brimming with personality. Some might argue that they're quite archetypal, but their interactions and stories are nevertheless more engaging than silently gunning and punching aliens as Chief.
Halo: ODST felt like a game Bungie really wanted to get off its chest; a collection of themes and ideas perhaps deemed too different to introduce to a series with an audience as large as Halo's. The fact that it's so different also arguably makes it the most interesting entry in the series. Well worth picking up.
Try it if:
- You like your space marines with a soul
- Charming AIs are your thing
- Soaking up atmosphere sounds swell
Grand Theft Auto 5
GTAV is the greatest Grand Theft Auto game of all time. It sounds like hyperbole of the highest order, and puts this humongous title in a most elite bracket, but this spectacle of flawlessly delivered entertainment across 100 hours finally settles a decade-old debate.
For everything GTA5 delivers - from its staggering sun-kissed beauty that somehow stretches across the entirety of Los Santos, to its new standards of cinematic set-pieces - perhaps what is most crucial is that GTAV understands the flaws of its predecessors. The experience has been streamlined to ensure there is no wait for the campaign and side-missions to start shining.
Even for a game so impossibly vast and detailed, Rockstar's latest crime opus always (always) feels immediate and hassle-free. Not only is that a first, but it was hitherto implausible.
Try it if:
- You have multi-personality disorder
- You loved Heat
- You were frustrated by checkpoints and waiting times in previous GTAs
At the time it was considered a small miracle; a first person game without a single fatality or bullet to its name. And although games that followed Portal 2 had further opened the possibilities of first-person games (The Stanley Parable, Dear Esther, Proteus, et al) there's still nothing quite like Valve's perspective-shifting perplexity.
Aside from carrying the production qualities that wouldn't be out of place in a Pixar movie, not to mention exquisite writing, the main achievement of Portal 2 was its room-to-room emotional journey from dumbfounded stoner to Escher-esque mastermind. There's nothing in the world that makes you feel so smart.
It's also, you know, hilarious.
Try it if:
- You like to stretch your brain
- Adorable robots make you swoon
- You enjoy laughing
Mass Effect Trilogy
For the modern generation of video game players, BioWare's Mass Effect series might just have the same lasting impact that Star Trek and Star Wars had on sci-fi fans before it. That's not as big a stretch as you might think - people continually discuss the brilliance of this BioWare trilogy to this day.
Held together in three games (and a few spin-off novels) BioWare crafted a unique and intricate universe full of interesting planets, fascinating alien races and cultures, machiavellian political machinations and an epic good versus evil struggle. Best of all, it's all backed by an engrossing lore bible that makes an already colourful world even more vibrant. It's one of the few titles where reading information packets is as rewarding as playing the game itself.
As Commander Shepard, players travel to all corners of the galaxy, playing the part of an intergalactic detective/police man/agony aunt; resolving feuds, solving mysteries and recruiting able bodies to his campaign to resist the imminent Reapers invasion.
Critically, the three-game epic lets players reshape the story and craft their own hero. With an array of dialogue options to sift through, each adhering to the consistently high writing standard, and actions that define the moral virtues of protagonist Shepard, as well as how he or she is treated by the world around him, Mass Effect becomes an extraordinarily involving, consuming experience. With the trilogy now complete, it's the perfect game to marathon through TV-series style.
Try it if:
- You're in the market for a sci-fi universe to get obsessed with
- You think alien politics > actual politics
- You'd like to punch a really annoying reporter in the gob
Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved 2
Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved 2 is one of those games that takes up permanent residents in your thoughts. In almost every facet, it's designed to keep you yearning to play more and thinking about beating scores.
Though its gameplay is simple, involving moving a small ship with one thumbstick and shooting enemies with the other, it's a game that demands the highest level of skill. To rack up high-scores you'll have to consistently thread your ship through huge swarms of enemies, employ your more powerful weaponry at the most strategically opportune moments, and have the stamina operate at the peak of your game-playing abilities for lengthy periods.
It's as much a stressful playing experience as it is enjoyable. But in those moments when you think you've given all you have to offer, the lingering high-score of a friend will ignite the competitive flame within again.
Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved 2 is a game about fighting maintain order in complete chaos, and it'll have your heart racing and blood pumping while you do it.
Try it if:
- You loved Smash TV
- You don't think one million bullets is very many
- You wish to experience a state of shooter zen
When people discuss Dark Souls, almost always it's to explain in some way how perversely difficult it is. From Software's perfected torture sim will push patience and stress levels to their genuine limits.
But that's an unfairly narrow view of the game; yes it's difficult, but it's also an expertly crafted, fascinating and mysterious game. Though it may not seem like it initially, its mechanics are as unimpeachable as rock, paper scissors. It's rules are written in stone and, once you've read them and committed them to memory, Dark Souls becomes a satisfying ballet of execution, strategy and, above all else, self-control.
Around every corner awaits a new obstacle that will challenge your understanding of the core rules and, perhaps after a few deaths, teach you a new way to interpret and adapt your skills to satisfy them.
At the same time there are vital elements of the larger RPG experience obfuscated by cryptic explanations and baffling requirements. Though much of it isn't essential to the experience, taking the time to crack their codes (whether through experimentation or a quick Google search) can make for a much richer experience.
The cycle of encountering a new challenge, being defeated by it, learning how to overcome and then conquering it that Dark Souls provides is intoxicating, as is evident by the hundreds of hours we've spent playing the first game.
But beyond that, Dark Souls features one of the most complex and memorable stories in games, made even more engrossing by asking players to piece it together for themselves. For a game so famously abusive, few know of the relaxing delights of thinking about the meaning behind character dialogue, considering what might be motivating the different figures and forces in the world.
Try it if:
- You love a real challenge
- You're up for a bit of otherworldly anthropology
- You'd happily praise the sun
Call of Duty: Black Ops
Call of Duty: Black Ops signified the point when the studio long considered as the B-team usurped Infinity Ward to deliver the best Call of Duty yet.
Black Ops' most memorable achievement is presenting a campaign that wasn't just typically thrilling, but also featured a story worth caring about.
The narrative focused on the player character, Alex Mason, being tortured by government agencies in order to relive black ops missions he participated in during the Cold War. The information he provides could be critical to defending against a modern threat, but as the campaign progresses Mason's psychological instability threatens to implicate him.
In addition to being well-acted, the story in Black Ops managed to be entertaining and accommodate all the bombast the series has become synonymous for without being a shallow echo of Hollywood action flicks. Ironically, Infinity Ward's games - once praised for delivering intelligent narrative - would progress to become such things.
Black Ops also managed to provide a fresh take on multiplayer, with a variety of new perks and special weapons, as well as a new progression system that let players unlock what they wanted using currency earned in-game. These days, however, the multiplayer mode is harder to recommend, given the proliferation of exploits. However, it's campaign alone makes it worth picking up and playing.
Try it if:
- You shoot first and ask questions later
- You enjoy customisation and progression systems
- You don't mind being a few years LTTP
BioShock: Ultimate Rapture Edition
The virtues of the first BioShock have been extolled countless times since its release, and its impact on narrative and world design is still evident in games which ape it today. If somehow you haven't already played BioShock, it's probably due to wilful stubbornness or doubts of its quality. This is your last chance: Play it.
BioShock 2, on the other hand, is unfortunately a much harder sell, which is a shame because actually it's a surprisingly excellent follow-up to a game that, in a perfect world where publishers choose not to cash-in on success, didn't need a sequel.
In BioShock 2, players returned to Rapture many years after the events of original and take control of Subject Delta, formerly one of the Big Daddy's in charge of a Adam-gathering Little Sister. Separated from his ward, he embarked on a journey to find the Little Sister he was originally paired with, but encounters resistance from Sophia Lamb, a psychiatrist using her own philosophies and ideologies - which carry their own dangers - to unite and revive Rapture.
Like the first game, BioShock 2 is about exploring the collapsed utopia of Rapture, observing how the grandest plans capitulate, how ideals can become corrupted and how one vision for society will never be perfect. BioShock 2's biggest challenge was, certainly at the time, it felt like an opportune way to cash-in on the first game's success. In many ways the long shadow cast by the original was the biggest contributor to it being overlooked. Many dismissed the game, but those that gave it a chance would find something every bit as narratively praiseworthy as the original, with better combat and pacing too.
Purchase the Ultimate Rapture Edition and you'll have both titles, along with the excellent Minerva's Den DLC for BioShock 2.
Try it if:
- You love atmosphere with a story
- You can splice shooting segments into a smart narrative
- You're willing to risk having an existential crisis
It may have seemed that Trials came out of nowhere, but in reality developer RedLynx had released the first entry in the series, a small Java-based browser game, all the way back in 2000. It wasn't until nearly a decade later that the side-scrolling motorcycle platformer finally took off, with the 2009 Xbox Live Arcade release of Trials HD.
As impressive as it was, it wasn't until its successor Evolution was released that the series reached a summit that few games can touch. While this was mainly down to the principles that had been with the series since the beginning - its fiendishly addictive 'one more go' gameplay, its simple yet deep physics-based control method, its stomach-churning jumps - it was the addition of a level editor mode and, crucially, the ability to upload tracks for strangers to play that made Evolution such a profound success.
With a near-endless supply of user-made levels to download at any point, Evolution is the definitive racing game for obsessive types.
Try it if:
- Crashing is okay
- Shaving milliseconds off a time makes your heart flutter
- You find face-plants funny
Fallout 3: Game of the Year Edition
Much like a classic play, Fallout 3 lacks the modern touches but is timelessly engrossing at its heart.
That's not to say the narrative was anything special (it was elementally a list of post-apocalyptic chores through seas of garbage and rubble). But what made Fallout 3 atone for all its sins, and stand as one of the greatest games of its age, was its impossibly vast world that players could fall further and further and further into.
From the moment you venture out from the survival shelter Vault 101, the world is yours to save and savour. A lifetime of options, from nuking a town all the way to eating a dog, ensures that the story feels undeniably yours.
Those who have played it may remark on Fallout 3's famous ugliness, or its sea of bugs and odd moments, but each will have their own unique stories to tell.
Try it if:
- You love stories that intertwine with your decisions
- You thrive in depressing environments
- You like canned goods
Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition
Though some technical-minded fighting game purists may turn up their nose at Street Fighter IV, the more reasonable agree that Capcom's latest entry into the beloved fighting game series strikes a masterful balance between depth and accessibility.
Choosing to maintain the classic one-on-one side-on brawl format was no doubt crucial to achieving that old-school feel, but Capcom has brought the series into the modern age with a gorgeous art style that renders old favourites such as Ryu, Ken, Dudley and M. Bison in chunky 3D.
Street Fighter IV is easily one of this generation's most visually stimulating games; along with the highly expressive character models, it also boasts backgrounds ranging from animal infested Jungles to Vegas casinos, as well as lively set-pieces for the explosive action. New systems such as Focus create a unique new spin on the tried-and-true gameplay and give mechanics such as EX a unique new use. Of course, Capcom has spent numerous iterations tweak and re-balancing the game, as well as introducing new characters to the roster and features.
Ultra Street Fighter IV (which, at the time of writing, is unreleased) stands to be the definitive version of the game, completely rebalancing the cast, adding four new characters and features such as YouTube uploads. Whether its Ultra Street Fighter, or the cheaper Super Street Fighter IV Arcade Edition, this game is a must-have for even the most casual fighting game player.
Try it if:
- You can chain hadokens
- You loved arcades
- You like masterfully calibrated fighting games with endless depth
As far as character action games go, Bayonetta is the gift the keeps on giving. Its core mechanics are deeply satisfying and, for those willing to really sink there teeth in, it offers incredible depth. The game's combo system is so open-ended that it feels like it's on the precipice of broken.
Using the sword-swinging, gun-firing witch's various weapons and powers to create ridiculous combos in training mode alone can occupy someone for dozens of hours, but there's also a solid campaign mode too.
It's campaign doesn't make a lick of sense, of course, but it strings together so many jaw-dropping cut-scenes that the questionable quality of the whole good-versus-evil story and awkward characterisations are given a pass.
Bayonetta's Witch Time, which slows the action to a crawl when you successfully dodge an attack, thus leaving your enemy open to feel the full wrath of your button-pressing frenzy, is still one of the most satisfying mechanics we've experienced. If you like hitting buttons and seeing cool, absurd and over-the-top things happen, this is the game for you.
Try it if:
- You like to press a lot of buttons and watch cool things happen
- You're up for cheesy story, characters and acting that's fun
- If you'd describe yourself as a combat connoisseur
Over the years, Xbox Live Arcade has become something of a haven for fans of side-scrolling beat 'em ups. A genre previously thought dead after enjoying a successful heyday in the 16-bit days, it now enjoys a second life on the digital marketplace thanks to a mix of old titles (Streets Of Rage, X-Men, Final Fight) and new offerings such as Scott Pilgrim Vs The World, Double Dragon Neon and this brilliant offering from indie studio The Behemoth.
By introducing RPG elements to the traditional beat 'em up gameplay, Castle Crashers allows players to improve their characters over time, not only improving their stats but also teaching new attack moves and combinations. This may not seem like a revolutionary concept - far from it - but it was relatively uncommon for this genre and helped prevent the onset of repetitive gameplay that plagues many other side-scrolling fighters.
Try it if:
- You wish side-scrolling beat 'em ups would make a comeback
- You curse Sega for not doing another Streets of Rage
- You have friends
XCOM Enemy Within
Few expected it to work, and considering the lineage of flawed console strategy games, it had no right to. But XCOM Enemy Within handled so exceptionally well that, should you play it on PC, it's recommended you use a game pad.
That may be one of the most interesting aspects of XCOM to outsiders, but its commitment to perfection doesn't stop here. Somehow, this flagship Firaxis title extracts the strategic overview of games like Rome Total War, and the base-building hook of Civilization, and still delivers its bombastic moments through the cinematic lens of a third-person action game. It's quite a revelation.
The list of things to adore here barely has an end to it. Yet perhaps what makes XCOM such a remarkable achievement beyond anything else is how the player falls in love with their army, right down to the individual soldier.
Such passion for your squad becomes inevitable from the moment you give one their own name. The love blossoms gradually; when you take a risk and hinge so much responsibility on each one, when you grow and learn with them, when you build them new weapons, when you send them out into the endlessly fascinating and threatening unknown.
There is a beautiful irony here. XCOM borders on flawless because it integrates so much of what people love about PC strategy games. Yet it stands out because you love its individual characters - a feat that the likes of Total War and Civilization have not yet managed. Advantage, consoles.
Try it if:
- You fall in love easily
- You want an excuse to read Sun Tzu's The Art of War
- You like to think before you act
Batman: Arkham City
Both Batman: Arkham Asylum and Batman: Arkham City are games which any self-respecting Bat-fan (and gamer) should have in their collection. In our review we said put it best by saying the second game was "very much Rocksteady's Dark Knight to its Batman Begins".
Despite being a significantly bigger, more ambitious game, the level of detail in the construction of Arkham City, the quality of writing and the performances were every bit as good - if not better - than the more focused Arkham Asylum.
With the freedom to patrol the streets and skies, players could feel even more like the Dark Knight by swooping down on unsuspecting thugs to lay a beatdown. Or toy with enemies using various Wayntech gadgets to strike fear into the heart of nogoodniks from the shadows.
Arkham City is bursting with excellence, and moments like the Mister Freeze boss battle, or the various callbacks to Batman lore are too good to miss.
Again, our review put it best: "It's a belief in the character and, most importantly, a belief in itself that has seen the [Rocksteady] deliver one of the greatest Batman interpretations of all time. And you know what? Maybe even one of the best games ever."
Try it if:
- You are vengeance
- You are the night
- You are The Batman.
Red Dead Redemption: Game of the Year Edition
It may be Grand Theft Auto that immediately springs to mind whenever Rockstar Games is mentioned, but for some the wild west adventure of John Marston is the publisher's greatest accomplishment. By taking the free-roaming gameplay of GTA and transferring it to the America and Mexico of the 1910s, Red Dead is at once both familiar and unique.
Its stunning visuals, outstanding voice acting and twist-filled plot made it a game that stuck in players' minds long after the final credits rolled. The Game Of The Year edition added all the multiplayer DLC packs released following the game's launch, but more importantly it also includes Undead Nightmare.
This brilliant expansion pack features a brand new single-player adventure complete with ghost towns and cemeteries to explore and zombies to kill. Indeed, the fact it managed to make zombies feel fresh and relevant may have been Red Dead Redemption's greatest achievement of all.
Try it if:
- You like Clint Eastwood movies
- You've ever wanted to hog-tie outlaws
- You're quick on the draw
What was born as a Dreamcast game in 2001 is cited here, some thirteen years later, as one of the greatest to grace the Xbox 360. Perhaps that's the most extraordinary accolade Rez deserves; to stand as a timeless masterpiece that can survive generations the way, say, Tetris has.
United Game Artists' pioneering project defied categorisation upon release and the same is true today. No developer has captured the synaesthetic majesty of a trippy rhythm-action game colliding against an on-rails shooter. Rez makes such a feat seem easy, natural even, as though the outstanding focus and craftsmanship required to pull this off was merely a session jamming experiment.
It's a triumph in a more traditional sense too. Behind the euphoric audiovisual extravagance lies an unforgiving high-score challenge that tests reflexes and strategic thinking. That is, if you want to look beyond the visual splendour, the glorious evolving music and those unforgettable sights.
The Xbox 360 version, by the way, is the only one that offers HD visuals. How important is that? Put it this way: How important is it to listen to music loudly?
Try it if:
- You love dancing
- You love shooting
- You love flying
For all its comforting modern furnishings (in particular a HUD and mapping system wired into your protagonist's suit), it is the timeless survival-horror gameplay at the heart of Dead Space that makes it essential to this day.
A creeping sensation of dread, punctuated by bursts of panic, ensures the USG Ishimura and its undead patrons leave an unwashable mark on the player. Some scenes, particularly those in that godforsaken medic bay, are horrifying to the point of being impossible to wipe from memory.
Among its long list of accomplishments, the audio design stands above all. Its collection of foley and audio motifs help construct an immaculate sense of location - a vast hollowed ship floating through space, at times with the oxygen sucked out of its corridors - which managed to sound both convincing and otherworldly.
Considering its history of James Bond titles and other artless tie-ins, no one expected EA's Redwood Shores team (now Visceral) would rise to the occasion so wondrously when given their own IP. It shows what a little faith can do.
Try it if:
- You think Event Horizon would make a good game
- You like games to keep you on edge
- Floating around in zero gravity sounds cool to you
Assassin's Creed Heritage Collection
For the price of one game, the Assassin's Creed Heritage Collection will get you Assassin's Creed, Assassin's Creed 2, Assassin's Creed Brotherhood, Assassin's Creed Revelations and Assassin's Creed 3. In terms of a value proposition, that's hard to turn down.
Of course, we're not saying every game in that bundle is a winner, but each has its merits and is worth experiencing.
Although the first Assassin's Creed is a game with clear flaws, it is thematically interesting and takes place in an setting very few games explore. The repetitive gameplay can grate, but it weaves an intriguing story that blends factual history with fantasy science fiction.
Assassin's Creed 2 and Assassin's Creed Brotherhood, meanwhile, are arguably the strongest entries in the series. Although they will be remembered for giving us the charming and incredibly likeable Ezio Auditore, the games also established and refined the template that all following Assassin's Creeds have adhered to - for better or worse.
Revelations, an enjoyable game in its own right, fails to stack up to the two games before it, but it is nevertheless an essential chapter in the series. It wraps up a three game story arc and provides closure on Ezio's tale.
Much like the first game in the series, Assassin's Creed 3 is mired by flaws, but starts off strong with a unexpected twist that is worth seeing. It's also worth playing for its hooks into the excellent follow-up, Assassin's Creed: Black Flag, though you'll have to pick that one up separately.
Try it if:
- You think stabbing bad guys in the neck while wearing a hoodie is cool (it's not, fyi)
- You want to learn about history
- You like conspiracies
Skyrim, Blur, Shadow Complex, Uno, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, Minecraft, The Orange Box, Mark of the Ninja, Binary Domain, Tomb Raider, Mafia II, Forza Horizon, Forza 4, Braid, Project Gotham 4, Spelunky, WWE 2K14, Puzzle Fighter, 1 vs 100, LIMBO, State of Decay, Driver San Francisco, Outland, Fez, Far Cry 3, Far Cry: Blood Dragon, Rock Band series, Mortal Kombat, Super Meat Boy, N+, Puzzle Quest, Dark Souls 2, Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light, Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix, The Walking Dead, Viva Piņata, Deadly Premonition
Words: Tamoor Hussain; Chris Scullion; Rob Crossley