The life of a games console is brutish and short, but some live longer and brighter than others. Launched in 2005, the Xbox 360, which has recently been discontinued by Microsoft, will be remembered as a classic games machine. Powerful and well-supported by publishers, the console was also perfectly set up for the coming era of online multiplayer gaming — via the robust XBox Live infrastructure.
Xbox 360 introduced the concept of Achievement Points to encourage greater player exploration of game worlds, and — through the Gamerscore — invented a way to rate every individual user, effectively turning the whole ecosystem into a giant high-score table. Sure, the Red Ring of Death fiasco will cast a long shadow over the machine’s history and reputation, but this remains one of the most important and influential launches in the console timeline.
It also had some pretty great games. Here are a favourites.
Bioshock (2K Games, Irrational) Merging a doomed art deco utopia with objectivist politics, detailed environmental storytelling and a truly dizzying plot twist, Bioshock is one of the most interesting and influential action adventure games ever devised. To harvest or not to harvest: that was the question.
Portal 2 (Valve) A wonderfully challenging physics puzzler, an exciting narrative adventure and home to one of the truly great video game antagonists, Portal 2 took the formula of the first game and stretched it into an epic, thrilling, mindbending often hilarious escape drama. A work of art. Gears of War (Epic Games) It’s not about the muscles. Epic’s science fiction testosterone-fest refined the concept of the third-person shooter with its innovative cover mechanic, but also created an apocalyptic universe loaded with gorgeous visual style and meticulous detail — a look that the studio termed “destroyed beauty”. Also, the guns are massive and have frickin’ chainsaws.
Braid (Jonathan Blow) Jonathan Blow’s strange, thoughtful time-travelling platformer, which is really a sort of comment on the whole idea of game mechanics, is a compelling challenge in its own right. But released digitally on Xbox Live Arcade in 2008, the game heralded the indie revolution, in which small teams and lone coders would be able to create idiosyncratic titles and present them to a vast global audience. Call of Duty IV: Modern Warfare (Infinity Ward) Call of Duty started out as a moderately entertaining series of cinematic second world war shooters ... and then Infinity Ward flipped the setting to the modern day, built customisation and progression mechanics into its multiplayer mode and then threw everything from nuclear bombs to outlandish moustaches at the single-player campaign. The result: massive success, a whole new era of twitchcore multiplayer gaming and getting called “lame ass” by countless American teenagers. Mass Effect (Bioware) Commander Shepard’s quest to save the galaxy brought the dynamics and scale of the space opera genre into a vast interactive adventure. What we loved was that the decisions we made, and the relationships we forged, always felt that they had huge ramifications for the universe. Rock Band (Harmonix) Guitar Hero (and many other music games) got there first, but by combining multiple instruments with a microphone, this series allowed whole roomfuls of friends to form chaotic covers bands, drunkenly belting out AC/DC tunes until the neighbours came round with the police and a noise abatement order.
Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood (Ubisoft) In which handsome master assassin Ezio hits Rome, meets Machiavelli and fights the Borgias, all within a beautifully constructed rendition of Renaissance Italy. Brotherhood may well be the perfect representation of Ubisoft’s time-spanning concept, combining thrilling action with a dense, intriguing plot, and adding an innovative multiplayer component.
Red Dead Redemption (Rockstar) There were two Grand Theft Auto titles in the lifespan of the Xbox 360, but we’ve sidestepped which one to include by ignoring them both and going for Rockstar’s open-world western adventure instead.
This game is just dripping in atmosphere, its endless, craggy landscapes, battered characters and violent double crosses intermittently bringing to mind the great works of John Ford and Sergio Leone. Best of all, you felt like you were there, on the horse, six gun at your side, clip-clopping through the desert, a looming orange sun turning the world to silhouette. Fallout: New Vegas (Bethesda) How could you make Las Vegas better? Transport it into a post-apocalyptic wasteland full of radiation-mutated people and monsters, that’s how.
New Vegas thrusts you into this twisted universe as a courier for the Mojave Express who becomes embroiled in a battle for the Hoover Dam. You’re then torn between three factional love interests: a group of new Roman legionaries, a military governing power and the secretive Mr House.
Bulletstorm (EA, People Can Fly) OK so this ridiculous sci-fi shooter sank like a mini-cannon when it was released in 2011, but that is one of the great crimes of the Xbox 360 era.
Bulletstorm is a joyous exploration of shooting mechanics, adding art and ballet to combat via its skillshot feature, which rewarded players for defeating enemies in ludicrously graphic and violent ways. It is also filled with great visual gags that poke endless fun at action game conventions. Brilliant and overlooked.
Spelunky (Derek Yu) It was either this or Shadow Complex, but in the end we went for Derek Yu’s often infuriating roguelike platformer, which used procedurally generated levels and a limited but brilliantly designed selection of weapons, items and enemies to construct an endlessly challenging experience. Project Gotham 3 (Bizarre Creations) A launch title with the Xbox 360 and a strong continuation of the hit Xbox street racing series, Project Gotham 3 brought graceful car models, detailed city circuits and some groundbreaking online features to the console from the outset. Viva Pinata (Rare/Microsoft) As vibrant and colourful as Rare’s classic SNES titles, Viva Pinata brought family gaming to the Xbox 360 in the form of a life simulator. Part Pokemon part Harvest Moon, Viva Pinata was a critical hit, its gentle, open-ended structure and asynchronous online features creating an enjoyable, relaxing and deceptively deep experience.
Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (Bethesda) A vast world, a hugely customisable character and a wealth of tasks, sub-quests and campaign adventures, made Skyrim one of the most ambitious action adventure games of this, or perhaps any, console generation.