It’s technically still 2021 for a little while, which means that we’ve come in under the wire on this one. The Xbox turned 20 years old this year. It’s nearly old enough to find out exactly how much of a difference its vote makes. Before that harsh reality sets in, though, we figured we’d take a look back at ten of the very best video games on the Xbox.
And, by extension, the Xbox 360, the Xbox One, and even the Xbox Series X. There’s not much use in a list where you can’t play any of the games anymore. Microsoft’s backwards compatibility is good but it’s not that good. So, for this list, we’ve confined ourselves to games you can still play — even on Microsoft’s most modern console.
This means we won’t be including any Kinect games. Microsoft’s motion control system was awfully innovative, but we still haven’t forgiven it for Kinect Star Wars‘ Galactic Dance-Off mode. And then the company shot itself in the foot with the launch of the Xbox One and Kinect 2. It was just a couple of years too soon. If only they’d waited, they could have joined Facebook in launching a device that monitors homes with absolutely zero complaints.
Still, Microsoft has persevered. 2001’s Xbox had its hits, and the console series has managed high notes ever since. Here’s a selection of ten extant titles you should have played by now. If you’ve missed anything, well…? What are you waiting for?
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (Xbox, 2003)
Wait, can you still play Knights of the Old Republic? Yes, of course you bloody well can. This huge RPG epic, and its sequel, are still available from the Xbox store as part of Microsoft’s backwards compatibility program. Formed from a partnership between Lucasarts and BioWare at the very top of their respective games, players could approach this title from any side of the Force. Wanna be Light or Dark? That’s entirely up to you. KotOR responded by changing progression accordingly, in one of the best stories ever set in the Star Wars universe.
Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (Xbox 360, 2007)
The game that changed shooters into the things they are today was Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. Introducing explosive set-pieces in a more modern setting than any of the games previously, the game’s story was, for the time, revolutionary. Modern Warfare ushered in a revolution in online gaming. It also ushered in many, many 12-year-old kids claiming to have had carnal knowledge with their opponent’s mothers, which is something we don’t talk about. Modern Warfare popularised XP-based progression, something it did so well that we can still hear the blaring sound of another level being added after our carefully-tossed grenade wiped an enemy team on Backlot.
Mass Effect 2 (Xbox 360, 2010)
All of BioWare’s original Mass Effect games launched on the Xbox 360 but the first had the Mako and the third had that technicolour ending. Mass Effect 2 was the most balanced of the trilogy, offering a sprawling story and a final mission that took into account all of your decisions up till that point. It introduced Tali, Garrus, Grunt, Mordin, Samara, and a whole memorable case on board the Normandy SR-2. It also featured some of the very best DLC in the series, though ME 3‘s Citadel proved to be the very apex of what BioWare could do.
Gears 5 (Xbox One, 2019)
The trailer might not give it away but the Gears of War franchise has, since its inception, featured a surprisingly deep story. It goes even deeper in Gears 5, following Kait Diaz as she searches for the origin of the Locust (and makes a few stops along the way. But, yes, the series is also about blowing enemies into a red mist using a gun that’s also a chainsaw. Gibs and emotions, all in the same place? Who would have seen that coming? Oh, right, Gears of War fans who know what happens to Dom.
Microsoft Flight Simulator (Xbox Series X|S, 2021)
Microsoft might as well call Flight Simulator, previously exclusive to the PC, a travel simulator. The company has somehow leveraged its Azure cloud tech to recreate the whole planet in real-time. And then, it’s used that recreation for entertainment. Players are given a plane, a controller, and then sent out to zoom over sights they may never see in their lifetimes (that are definitely there). It might be the only way you’ll ever properly be allowed to say, “Hey, I can see my house from up here”, but it’s also a gorgeous flying sim that has to be experienced. On Microsoft’s newest Xbox, of course.
Red Dead Redemption (Xbox 360, 2010)
There’s not much we can say about Red Dead Redemption that hasn’t already been said. If you somehow missed it, then take immediate advantage of Microsoft’s backwards compatibility to play it now, on the Xbox One X or newer. It shows the conclusion of the events initiated in Red Dead 2, with former criminal John Marston being forced to hunt down the remaining members of his old gang. The original is still a gaming masterpiece, introducing all manner of strange events and missions that unravel over hours of play. It’s a tragic tale, but there’s one serious highlight — perhaps the best surprise DLC to ever launch. Undead Nightmare is a complete game in its own right, making perfect use to Red Dead‘s systems to tell the Greatest Halloween Story Ever™.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (Xbox One, 2015)
Yes, Witcher 3 launched on other platforms as well but it was Microsoft who first took a chance on CD Projekt’s Geralt of Rivia on the Xbox 360 with The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings. This brought the previously PC-exclusive series to the masses, which eventually spawned Witcher Geralt’s search for Cirilla Fiona Elen Riannon, better known as Ciri. This sprawling RPG adventure was Stuff’s Game of the Year for 2015 and almost took the title a second time in 2016. Because by then the DLC had come out and that was just as good, if not better, than the original tale.
Minecraft (Xbox 360, 2012)
Minecraft will either have you cowering in fear in a hole you dug to escape the nighttime creepers, or you’ll find yourself undertaking wide-scale engineering projects. Probably both. Minecraft wasn’t born from the sweat of Microsoft’s brow but they did hand over $2 billion to Mojang Studios for the rights to the game itself. It’s since gone on to be a cornerstone of the Xbox 360, the Xbox One, and even various educational Microsoft programs that use the game to teach all sorts of subjects, from STEM to coding.
Forza Horizon 5 (Xbox One/X|S, 2021)
Forza has been around for a long time. It dates back to 2005, back when the PlayStation 2 ruled the Earth. But it was with the launch of Forza Horizon in 2012 that the simulation series gave way to something a little more… bonkers. We could have chosen any of the five Horizon games for this position but have opted for the latest and greatest, set in Mexico. It’s the prettiest, after all, but it’ll be replaced in our hearts just as soon as the madcap driving series makes its way on over to Africa.
Halo: The Master Chief Collection (Xbox One, 2014)
If you own an Xbox (any Xbox) and haven’t played a Halo game, we can confidently say that you’re doing it wrong. But you can correct that horrendous fault by buying and playing Halo: The Master Chief Collection. It collects the whole original trilogy, as well as Reach, ODST, and Halo 4. If there’s anything you missed in the past two decades, this single set will see you catch up on most of it. And, while you’re playing, it might be fun to reflect that Master Chief is to Microsoft what Sonic the Hedgehog is to Sega. Just a thought.