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The 12 Best Games on Xbox 360

You have an Xbox 360 controller waiting for you in your living room and a console hungry to entertain you. It’s an older console, sure. But it still has a ton of great games.

As of April 2016, Microsoft has ceased production of the Xbox 360 console. It had a great run—red rings and Kinect 1.0 notwithstanding—and it got a ton of great games. These dozen games have occupied our Bests list for a long while, and at this point there’ll probably never be another update. (Never say never, though!)

Here are our recommendations for the 12 best games on Xbox 360. Enjoy.

After years of changes both minor and major, the Assassin’s Creed series had begun to feel in a rut. (For example: We’d had Assassin’s Creed II on this list since its inception.) Finally this year, with the pirate-themed Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, the series has taken a major and unequivocal step forward. It doesn’t lose all of the series’ bad habits—hello follow missions—but it improves many longstanding problems with better stealth, easier-to-navigate cities, and sidequests that actually feel like they help make your character more powerful. Best of all, it adds naval combat and a vast Caribbean overworld that make the game feel like, in the words of Luke Plunkett, “Wind Waker for grown-ups.”

A Good Match For: Pirate fans, history buffs, anyone who’s ever wanted to pull up alongside a British frigate, grab a rope and swing from one deck to the other before fighting your way up the deck to take on the captain. So basically, anyone who’s ever wanted to be a pirate.

Not a Good Match For: Those who demand precision controls. The on-foot controls in Black Flag are probably the best of the series, but they’re still a far cry from where a third-person stealth/platformer should be. It’s time for a crouch button, Ubisoft.

With an even bigger, wackier, lootier Borderlands, Gearbox has proved that their hybrid RPG/shooter franchise isn’t just a one-hit wonder. Three years after the first release, Gearbox put out a Borderlands 2 that doesn’t just have thousands more guns. It’s more complex. It’s even got heart. And yet Borderlands 2 still manages to strike a balance between being more soulful while retaining the slapstick, make-no-excuses-for-itself humor for which the series is known. The characters you meet are often borderline (if not full-blown) psychotic, but in the most endearing of ways. Enemies are just as raunchy as they are diverse. It’s colorful, it’s tough, it’s meaty, and it’s a joy to play with up to 3 friends in co-op. It’s also got TONS of extra, downloadable content to keep you busy once you finish the main game.

A Good Match For: Gamers who want a fun co-op experience to play through with friends. There are plenty of quests, plenty of guns, and plenty of laughs to be had.

Not A Good Match For: People who want to burn through a game easily. Borderlands 2 can be pretty tough, especially without backup. And if you aren’t willing to spend some time churning out sidequests, you just might catch yourself at the tail-end of the game without the chops or stats to finish without getting burnt out.

Study our tips for the game.

Automotive destruction’s never looked as sexy as it does in Criterion’s hi-speed racing game Burnout: Paradise. You’re tasked with driving against traffic, scraping against civilian cars and shoving competitors into signature crashes called Takedowns. But, Paradise also deserves praise for a seamless integration of multiplayer where dropping into a showdown can be quick as tapping a button.

A Good Match For: Street racing fans. If you’ve ever pulled up to a stoplight and imagined what it’d be like to burn rubber on a wide-open stretch of asphalt—and survive any ensuing mishaps—this is your game.

Not a Good Match For: To tune the specs of their rides. It may be Paradise but these aren’t real-world cars. You can’t do much more than swap out paint jobs, so those wanting to make changes to brakes, shock or engines will need to get their grease-monkey fix elsewhere.

Grand Theft Auto V is an impressive crime game. Not perfect, but impressive. The game gives players one of the richest, most beautiful open worlds we’ve ever been able to play in. In this case, the landscape is a fictionalized version of Los Angeles and the California desert. Go anywhere in this vast game. Grab a car, plane, truck, bicycle, boat or tank. Head off in any direction. You’re bound to see extraordinary sights and stumble into some sort of good and probably violent time. The game looks amazing even on the old Xbox 360 hardware. It also plays better than any GTA before it. GTA V’s innovative, swappable three-protagonist system creates the feel of a true ensemble adventure, though crazy man Trevor steals the show.

A Good Match For: Players who like to go into a game to break the rules. GTA is still at its best when it’s a playground for virtual misbehavior.

Not a Good Match For: Anyone who can’t stomach the game’s mockery of, well, pretty much everyone.

Study our tips for the game.

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons came out of nowhere this year, surprising everyone with its strange control scheme, smart (if simple) puzzles and devastating ending. Can game mechanics be emotionally affecting? Turns out yup, they can be. It’s a nice, short game with almost no fat—and despite the fact that the two main characters don’t communicate in a language anyone could understand, they still manage to communicate a great deal of context and backstory. You’ll never think of your thumbs and your controller triggers the same way.

A Good Match For: People looking for something different, those who like weird controls schemes, fans of old-school fairy tales.

Not a Good Match For: Those hoping for a long game—it’s a few hours long and offers no real replayability—people who like their characters to speak actual languages.

Read our thoughts and watch it in action.

Bethesda Softworks’ hit role-playing game does nothing so much as deliver a giant, Tolkien-styled possibility space to its players. The high-altitude climes of Tamriel feel alive with wonder and threat. The ability to customize your warrior outcast with a singular mix of mystical skills and melee mastery feels as broad as Skyrim’s horizon.

A Good Match For: Dungeon & Dragon players. Adventuring in Skyrim feels like spinning your own epic yarn, as songs of your feats spread digitally from town to town in a gameworld that reacts to your actions. You can spend weeks meandering in its fascinating sidequests, leaving the main story.

Not a Good Match For: Those who play with urgency. The drive to wander and discover overpowers the drive to complete in Skyrim. If you’re the kind of player who wants those two vectors to meet in a meaningful way, you’ll find The Elder Scrolls V a bit frustrating.

Gears 3 fills the marquee spot held by Bungie’s Halo games and with good reason. Epic Games’ scifi shooter threequel represents hardcore shooter nirvana: a tightly-polished campaign that plays great solo or coop and some of the best multiplayer found anywhere. Moreover, the game’s been robustly supported with both campaign and multiplayer DLC designed to deepen an already hearty release, particularly with the addition of many of the best maps from Gears of War 2.

A Good Match For: Dedicated online shooter fanatics who play every day. The more you play, the more Gears 3 rewards you.

Not a Good Match For: Those who want deep character development or intriguing story structure. Gears games have always been meat-and-potatoes in terms of plot

Bungie created the best goodbye possible with a “final” Halo title that both looks forward and backward in the blockbuster FPS franchise’s history. Pairing up a health system similar to that of the first Halo game with all-new abilities like jetpacks and holographic decoys makes the decade-old series feel simultaneously familiar and fresh.

A Good Match For: Sci-fi fans. To play a Halo game is to be introduced to an expansive fictional universe. Reach places you inside one of the Halo-verse’s pivotal battles and imbues its lead characters and environments with more personality than in previous games.

Not a Good Match For: Anyone who wants Master Chief. The Spartan you control in Halo: Reach isn’t as invulnerable or powerful as the Xbox mascot and the feel of certain weapons gets tweaked when compared to previous games.

Mass Effect 2 was the one that made you believe. Its predecessor drew players in with expansive world-building and a tense storyline, but it was also a clunky, rough-hewn slab of a game. BioWare’s 2010 follow-up polished the combat, introduced characters who’d become fan favorites and streamlined the overall experience to a fine focus. The first game made you want to experience all the sci-fi action and drama, but the second game made it a lot easier to do so. Pack in a huge number of varied and often terrific downloadable content packs and you’ve got one beefy, galaxy-spanning chunk of video game to play.

A Good Match For: Fans of the Star Wars Expanded Universe. Like George Lucas’ signature creation, Mass Effect’s fictional cosmos has multitudes of tales to tell. The extremely good post-campaign DLC chapters expose players to side stories centered on both new and familiar characters, just like Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn Trilogy and the other Star Wars extensions. Overlord, Lair of the Shadow Broker and the other add-ons really made it feel like millions of little lives were at stake in Shepard’s fight against the Reapers.

Not a Good Match For: People who need closure. Mass Effect 2 tells plenty of small stories, but the main narrative arc is still essentially a set-up for the 2012 follow-up.

Red Dead Redemption, the most assured work by the makers of the Grand Theft Auto games finds its success by shedding the trappings of the modern-day world and giving players a vast virtual Southwest to roam in search of revenge. When your lonely ambles suddenly get shattered by an ambush or the plea to stop an unjust hanging, it’s a bittersweet adrenaline rush unlike anything else in modern video games. Silence, then gunfire, then more fleeting silence again.

A Good Match For: Admirers of killer endings. The denouement for the turn-of-the-century saga stands as an emotionally powerful finish that can stand amongst the cowboy cinema that inspired it.

Not a Good Match For: Fans of brevity. Redemption’s plot takes a long amount of playtime to resolve and you’ll often feel like you’re doing busy work in the nooks and crannies of its spaghetti Western gameworld.

Call it the Superman 2 or Empire Strikes Back of video games. Valve’s follow-up to a classic improves on the humor, characterization and puzzle-solving of its predecessor to deliver a tight, focused experience full of poignancy and humor.

A Good Match for: Comedy lovers. The voicework alone—performed in stellar fashion by Stephen Merchant and Ellen McLain—will make you laugh out loud but the brain-teasing puzzles and embedded gags keep the chuckles coming even when everything else in the game goes quiet.

Not a Good Match For: Mediocrity fans. People who argue with Portal 2's greatness are like folks complaining that diamonds came from dirt. Their argument is invalid.

There it is: proof that a multiplatform game released in 2012 can recapture the glories of a 1994 PC classic. The re-imagined XCOM delivers graphical upgrades and interface refinements like you might expect but what really makes it sing is the added attachment that you feel to the battles and the soldiers who fight them. If you’re considering picking up the game now, get Enemy Within instead, as it contains the original game as well as the terrific 2013 expansion. It’s sold as a standalone for consoles, so be sure to buy the new version.

A Good Match For: Efficiency lovers. This version of human-vs-aliens warfare streamlines gameplay when compared to its predecessor. And the importance of cover in combat and clever deployment of perks makes you consider every decision intensely.

Not a Good Match For: Those who want skirmishes. The combat in 2012 XCOM can stretch on way longer than is necessary. Because the battles require active engagement, you can feel chained to a session.

Read our review and our review of the latest expansion.

Study our tips for the game.

How has this list changed? Read back through our update history:

Update 12-9-13: With a new year comes an updated bests design and with it, the chance to go back and do a one-time overhaul of each list. After much arguing and debating, many changes have been made. Gone are Batman: Arkham City, BioShock, Dishonored, Super Street Fighter IV, NBA 2K12 and Assassin’s Creed II. Taking their place are: Borderlands 2, Portal 2, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, Mass Effect 2 and Grand Theft Auto V.

Update 11/13/12: As promised, we’re swapping out older good games from new good games. Goodbye, Lego Star Wars III and Toy Soldiers: Cold War; hello, XCOM and Dishonored.

Note: 12/28/12: We’re bumping up this list of Xbox 360 Bests for those folks who may have just gotten an Xbox 360 during this holiday season. Some great games have come out for the system since the last update—like Far Cry 3, Halo 4 and Call of Duty: Black Ops II. Kotaku’s editorial team considered these games but couldn’t reach a consensus as to whether they deserve a spot just yet. We’re keeping our eyes and minds open as new releases keep hitting Microsoft’s platform.

Want more of the best games on each system? Check out our complete directory:

The Best PC Games • The Best PS4 Games • The Best Xbox One Games • The Best Wii U Games • The Best 3DS Games • The Best PS Vita Games • The Best Xbox 360 Games • The Best PS3 Games • The Best Wii Games • The Best iPhone Games • The Best iPad Games • The Best Android Games • The Best PSP Games • The Best Facebook Games • The Best DS Games • The Best Mac Games • The Best Browser Games • The Best PC Mods

Note: If you buy any of these games through the retail links in this post, our parent company may get a small share of the sale through the retailers’ affiliates program.

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